Dearest fans of the Maize & Blue:
The post about the helmet stickers reminded me that I needed to post something about the history of the winged football helmet, because the Michigan AD has done such a poor job explaining this in its football guide and on its webpage. Prior to moving in teaching and coaching I worked in sports at ESPN and in the Princeton AD, and I grew up as a Princeton fan in the Lansing area. Here is the true history of the helmet, which I wrote while at ESPN, and which was on Gameday prior to the 1999 Michigan-Ohio State game.
Fritz Crisler, who coached at Princeton from 1932-7 (after he coached at Minnesota for a couple of years), designed the helmet to use during the 1935 season. The reason that he designed the helmet was that in the 1930s all college football teams wore bland, monocromatic helmets, and he figured that a unique design would give his quarterback a better chance to spot receivers downfield. If you look at the passing statistics at Princeton there is an amazing jump in QB performace after the introduction of the helmet, and some quarterbacks during that area still are high on various passing lists at Old Nassau. The same statistical jump can be seen in the Michigan books when Crisler introduced them upon starting his coaching career there after leaving Princeton in 1937.
You might wonder why he used the winged design, but it makes a great deal of sense if you understand the context in which came up with his idea. The wings on the helmet are meant to be tigers ears flared back (Princeton's mascot is the tiger), and the tree vertical stripes running from the front of the helmet to back match the three stripes that were on on the sleeves on the 1934 Princeton football jersey.
As someone who earned a graduate degree from Michigan and as a Princetonian with many family family members who are alums, I have no problem with Michigan gaining attribution for popularizing the helmet (Princeton ditched the helmet shorttly after Crisler left, and they only reintroduced it when they opened the new Princeton Stadium in 1998. I talked to many teary-eyed football alumns who wept for joy when this happened there), but they should give Princeton more attribution on their web page and in their media guide. If the US can acknowledge that we trace our legal heritage back to the introudction of democracy in ancient Greece, the Roman Republic and British common law, can we not simply admit that we took a design from another football team who used to be a national power in its own right (28 national titles). It is this kind of institutional arrogance that turns people off to us.
Interestingly, when I researched this story with the Princeton historian, I found out some interesting side stories about Crisler.
1. Crisler was not the first choice to coach at Princeton. Knute Rockne was offered the job, but the very Protestant Princeton Football Association, did not like the thought of a Catholic taking the job. (The irony here is that Rockne would not have been on the plane that crashed when he was with Notre Dame)
2. When Crisler arrived on campus at Princeton he was taken into the Princeton Police Station as a possible witness in the Lindbergh Baby case. (The kidnapping happened in nearby Hopewell, NJ)