‘The Great Class’: Royce Flippin and Class of 1956’s Lasting Legacy
BY REBECCAH BARGER
For ten weekends in the fall over the last 25 years, Royce Flippin can be found in the backyard of Cap and Gown Club for a Princeton football pre-game tailgate, surrounded by his teammates from the class of 1956 – known as “The Great Class.”
For the men who composed the class of 1956 football starting team, selected from the 130 people who went out for the sport their freshman year, “great” only encompasses a small part of their achievements as Tigers. Undefeated. Champions. Historic. These words all fit the bill of what was accomplished by their four years on the field. And Flippin, as their Head Coach Charlie Caldwell noted after the last game the seniors ever played for Princeton, “made the difference.”
As New Jersey Athlete of the Year for High School, Flippin was recruited actively by other universities such as Yale, Colgate, and Penn State. Yet, Flippin had known for the last three years he wanted to play for Princeton.
“I had wanted to go [to Princeton] from the start,” Flippin said. “Our high school team, every year since my sophomore year, we went to a Princeton game.”
Flippin entered in Caldwell’s seventh season of coaching at Princeton. He was welcomed at a recruit dinner with Caldwell and current captains. It was later a tradition Flippin would take part in as 1955 season captain, in which he would host 1959 Poe award winners (now Poe-Kazmaier), Edward Kostelnik ’60, Daniel Sachs ’60, and Frank Szvetecs ’60.
It was clear Flippin chose the right place. He entered his freshman season clad in Kazmaier’s immortal numeral, 42. Flippin was the last to wear the digit before it was officially retired.
“I wore it the whole season; they didn’t retire it until after the season,” Flippin said. “It was certainly an inspiration.”
The luck must have stayed with Flippin. Starting at tailback, Flippin and the Princeton freshman faced off against the University of Pennsylvania. The Quakers snagged the lead early. Flippin, determined to stage a comeback, found his fire when he received a kickoff on the Princeton thirty. He carried the ball in a seventy-yard sprint to the end zone to tie the game 7-7. Penn and Princeton ended the game in the deadlock, neither one able to gain the upper hand after Flippin’s touchdown.
The tie was enough to jump start the young Tigers on a steamroll through the Ivy League. Rutgers fell 41-7 and topped Columbia 31-13.
Their next matchup against Lehigh went with similar ease, with Flippin as the star. Flippin racked up four touchdowns as tailback and passed for two more as the freshman Tigers crushed the Mountain Hawks. Flippin also racked up his scoring record against Harvard the next week, which struggled to compete and eventually lost 48-7.
“Number one, we had a lot of good players,” Flippin said. “Number two, we learned the single wing. Some of our freshman players had played single wing in high school. And the single wing was unique; it was tough for teams to adjust to us. I think it established us, gave our class tremendous spirit.”
To end their season, Princeton would face Yale, the ultimate rivals that would haunt the team’s path through college. The Elis were looking to avenge a defeat from last year’s freshman Tigers, and their defense was likely to force a passing game. Yet, Yale had failed to successfully win a game in their freshman season, a fact that held true at the end of their battle against the Tigers.
Flippin rushed for three touchdowns, and passed for a fourth, to lead the freshman to an undefeated season topped by a victory of Yale rivals at 39-6.
“Our freshman [year, we] were undefeated. It was wonderful,” Flippin said. “It really bonded our class. We had a very close class.”
With a successful season under their belts, the freshman Tigers were expected to return with high marks their sophomore year. Yet, a change in the National Collegiate Athletic Association rules would shake up the league and the previously perfect Princeton team.
The NCAA no longer allowed substitutions: any player that left the field during the game was unable to return. All sixty minutes would be played without break. Each man on the starting lineup for Princeton would have to learn how to play both offense and defense.
“It changed our team because many people that had played one position – defense or offense – the previous year really weren’t prepared to play both,” Flippin said. “It was quite a different situation, and we gradually adapted to it. A single wing required certain special skills on offense, particularly, so our coach of the year, Charlie Caldwell, had to make a number of decisions on personnel. So, our three years were obviously exciting, but quite a change.”
Flippin was ushered onto the Varsity team with a new responsibility as safety on defense, in addition to his role of tailback.
Flippin went on to have fairly successful seasons his next two years, not slowed down by the changes of NCAA rules. He earned a Varsity letter as a sophomore. As a junior, he was ranked 11th in the nation in total offense and 16th in rushing yardage. His absence in three games from his junior year season due to a broken wrist also failed to blow out the fire in Flippin. He ended his third season with All-Ivy honors on the Associated Press list.
“The single wing specialized my position, so the two platoon change to one platoon affected more people used to one position in the single wing,” Flippin said. “In my case, I accepted it. But it was a long. I played most of the 60 minutes, particularly as a sophomore.”
Flippin and the Tigers maintained a winning record for both their sophomore and junior years, but the team would not relive the success of their freshman year until their Varsity senior year. Flippin was to lead as captain in their 1955 season after a team vote.
The Tigers lacked depth behind the starting eleven, but Caldwell didn’t seem worried as the seniors started their season. He knew Flippin would be their key weapon. He stated to the Daily Princeton in September 1955 Flippin’s importance, noting “He’ll do all the punting, all the passing and most of the running.”
However, it was Flippin’s off-field presence that would prove to be more important in his last season. After a knee injury in a preseason scrimmage against Syracuse, Flippin would take the sidelines against their first competitor, Rutgers.
“It was a supportive role,” Flippin said. “I was obviously out at every game, every practice. I wasn’t able to play until the last two games.”
Princeton routed Rutgers 41-7. Columbia was next in the line-up, but the Tigers would go on to win 20-7. With encouragement from their captain on the sidelines, Princeton would also pull out a 7-0 victory against third-round opponent Penn. However, Colgate, the following week, would mark their first loss, 15-6. Still missing Flippin, they would barely squeak by Brown 14-7 in what Caldwell addressed as a “blessing.”
“One thrill for me was beating Penn 7-nothing with Tommy Morris, our sophomore, who I took under my wing,” Flippin said. “He scored the winning touchdown at Penn.”
Their senior season and what stood between them and their road Ivy League Championship would hinge on Yale. Unlike their freshman year, Yale was seeded to take the victory that year. They were ranked tenth in the country and entered the game against Princeton with a win over Army the previous weekend. The Tigers were predicted to finish their season 7-2, behind Yale and Cornell. Flippin would return to play against their top rival after a season sidelined by injury.
Only one more game stood in between the Tigers and their championship.
Dartmouth would prove to be a tough opponent that season, despite their current 5-3 record. And both teams had to face each other in four inches of snow. At the half, the Tigers were down 3-0.
“We were down 3 nothing at the half, and the snow was coming down pretty heavily, and we had to win this game,” Flippin said. “Our head trainer Eddie Zanfrini was supposed to go in for an appendix operation, but he heard we were down and had an ambulance take him to the game. His presence inspired us. I think we said in the huddle, ‘let’s score, this is for EZ.’”
As the fourth quarter began, Flippin and fellow senior tailback Bill Agnew executed a play that turned the tide. Flippin handed off to Agnew, who rushed to get the touchdown. Princeton led the game 6-3. The Big Green was unable to make the comeback. The Tigers had won their first Ivy Title since 1951.
“It was amazing to see our team function so well in the snow. Offense was quite difficult. You’re hands felt numb,” Flippin said. “It was great beating Dartmouth in the snow and being able to participate in the final drive where Bill Agnew scored the winning touchdown 6-3 with just a few minutes in the game.”
Princeton had won the Ivy League Championship, the last unofficial victory before the ultimate victory would be recorded in future seasons.
The Tigers celebrated with a bonfire, which traditionally marked the Championship triumph as opposed to victories over Harvard and Yale, which it currently represents.
Flippin also announced his engagement to Louise Ferdon. He had proposed the night before his team took on Dartmouth, yet the two had decided to not mention it until after the game. The two mark their 60th anniversary this June.
“I’m not sure we were necessarily a lot better,” Flippin said. “We had a lot of talented players and a lot of skilled players that were part of an undefeated classman team. We had a lot of great junior and sophomore support. So, our senior year we really had a melding of a lot of talent, and we adapted to the single platoon arrangement.”
Flippin ended his season with more than a Championship and an engagement. He received the Poe Cup award (now known as the Poe-Kazmaier award), presented to the player who demonstrates great moral character in addition to talent on the field. He would also lead the Princeton baseball team as captain to capture third in the Ivy League in the spring of 1956.
After graduation, Flippin continued to want to serve and help meet the needs of others. He entered the Marine Corps. He served for two years before returning to the states, where he took a job with Exxon. After four years, Flippin matriculated to Harvard Business School to earn his MBA in 1964.
Yet, he couldn’t stay at the Crimson long. Flippin returned to Princeton as Director of Athletics in the 1970s. As Princeton was first admitting women, Flippin became a champion of women’s athletics and helped establish programs for women student-athletes. He also engaged Friends of Athletics, alumni groups for Princeton sports team, to expand the money being raised for athletics. Flippin’s impact at Princeton is still apparent today.
He now heads Flippin Associates, a broad-based consulting firm, in New Jersey. Yet, he has never left Princeton. He serves on the board of Princeton Club in New York, as vice president of University Relations and Alumni Association around New York, and as Executive Committee of the Class of 1956 and ’56 Reach Out Committee.
“[Through time on the Princeton football team], you learned discipline, cooperation, and teamwork. You learned the value of collaboration. You learned how to take orders from your coaches – all the disciplinary issues that football installs,” Flippin said. “There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of people watching, so be able to function under that kind of pressure is a real positive thing for the future.”
This article marks the first of a three-part “Class of ‘6’” series. Check back for upcoming features on the class of 1986 and the class of 2006.