Roping in Some Titles

  • August 31, 2019

BY JAY GREENBERG

We continue our celebration of Princeton’s – and college football’s –150th anniversary with this remembrance of Tiger seasons 1906 through 1930.

Included are fun facts, firsts, and tales about an era that produced four national championships, taken from multiple sources, but primarily “The Tigers of Princeton”, by Jay Dunn, published in 1977 and “Football, The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession”, authored by Mark F. Bernstein, 2001.

Also being posted today is a presentation of the never-should-be forgotten best players of the era; selected by Eric Dreiband ’86 and All-America Staś Maliszewski ’66 and presented by Dreiband.

The third and final installment, to cover the time between 1931 and the creation of the formal Ivy League in 1956, will be posted late in the first week of September.  

Having already selected the best players of the Ivy era – posted in three parts during the second week of July and archived on this site – we will continue our anniversary celebration by selecting the greatest victories, comebacks, heartbreaks, and plays from 1956 to 2018. In 11 parts, the first of these will be posted on September 11 and continue weekly through the season.

BY JAY GREENBERG

1906 Princeton Tigers

One Rule Didn’t Change – Must Beat Yale:  Significant 1906 alterations designed to moderate the sport’s brutality – including the creation of the neutral zone and the legalization of the forward pass – were immediately taken seriously by the officials.  In Princeton’s opener that season, Villanova suffered so many banishments it was down to 10 men and asked Tiger captain Herb Dillon ’07 for permission to return a player. When debuting, Princeton head coach Bill Roper ’02 told Dillon to acquiesce. Roper was banished for breaking the prohibition against talking to players during the game.

According to press reports, Roper incorporated some use of the forward pass in a week two 22-0 win over Stevens Institute. The spectators generally endorsed this cleaner and more open game. But in the end of what is considered that first season of modern football, undefeated Princeton and Yale played to a familiar result from the previous era – the seventh scoreless tie in the 30-year-old series. A 33-yard touchdown run by Princeton’s Casper (Cap) Wister ’08 had been called back for holding.

Yale, making more liberal use of the punt – it could be recovered downfield without the receiving team having touched it – than the forward pass, came from behind to beat Princeton in both 1907 and 1908 and closed the decade with a 17-0 drubbing of the Tigers. Princeton was now 1-8-1 in the last ten meetings against its archrival and alums were grousing.  Roper, 21-4-4 in his first run at Princeton, left to coach the University of Missouri.

Generally, They Took a Pass on the Pass: Despite the rules changes, the number of gridiron deaths actually rose slightly through the rest of the decade. Cries to abolish the sport diminished regardless. To further reduce the carnage from mass blocking plays, a rules change for 1911 required seven men to be on the line of scrimmage. Strategy changed considerably when another new rule required a punt to go 20 yards before the punting team could fall on it and keep possession.  There also was a reduction in the value of the field goal from four points to three and a game became four quarters of 15 minutes.   

Despite attempts by Yale’s Walter Camp, the author of most of football’s rules, to ban or restrict the forward pass, it was here to stay. With the rules making an incompletion an automatic turnover and allowing pass interference, the ball barely went into the air. That is until Notre Dame – Knute Rockne throwing to Gus Dorais –used the pass to upset Army in 1913.   Nevertheless, the rounder shape of the rugby ball made difficult grips that could produce spirals.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that the ball became the oblate spheroid used today.

University Field – The Tigers First Home

They Wanted to Stretch His Neck: In 1910 Roper, in his first year back from Mizzou had the Tigers 7-0 when Yale came into the season finale off a shocking loss to Brown.  Thus, hopes were high at Princeton that this was the year at last. But the Elis pulled off a fake punt for touchdown and Princeton went down again, 5-3.

The administration held firm in supporting Roper regardless. He scheduled Harvard for the first time in 15 years – to enable one rivalry game a year at home – and moved the Dartmouth contest out of New York’s Polo Grounds to University Field on campus.  Many of the seats at that facility–a wooden structure that had originally been put together for baseball at the Northwest Corner of Prospect and Olden Streets – offered poor sightlines. The Princeton Alumni Weekly began a campaign for a new football and track stadium.

1911 Harvard Game

In a Rush to Beat Those Bulldogs: In those days of punt after punt on any down, Roper proved innovative by using his ends to rush the kicker rather than drop in coverage of what was after 20 yards a free ball.  The strategy paid off against Harvard in 1911 when Charles Dunlap and Sanford (Sammy) White ’12 – the latter filling in as captain for the academically-ineligible Eddie Hart ’12 – took a blocked kick 90 yards for a touchdown. White also forced a safety off a botched snap in the 8-6 victory, a performance so inspirational that a prospective student from St. Paul’s School named F. Scott Fitzgerald decided on Princeton, although he quit the football team with an ankle injury after just a few practice days.

The following week, the Dartmouth game was won, 3-0, on a disputed field goal by Wallace (Butch) DeWitt ’15 – the ball bounced over the goalpost when there was no rule saying it had to clear on the fly. And so an undefeated Princeton season came down to Yale again and White once more.  On a slippery field, he scooped up a bad snap on the dead run and ran 68 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers survived seven field goal misses by Yale to win 6-3 and set off a week’s celebration on campus. This marked Princeton’s first national championship in five years.

Hobey Baker ’14

Hobey: More rules changes in 1912 reduced the field to 100 yards, increased the value of a touchdown from five points to six, and allowed a team four plays, rather than three, to make a first down. Most fortuitously for Princeton, the onsides punt as an offensive strategy was gone, enabling a third generation Princeton student from a prominent Philadelphia Main Line family named Hobart A.H. Baker ’14 to play balls on the bounce with a head of steam. At only 5-9 and 165 pounds, Baker become a return sensation and, also as a rover in hockey–his better sport – one of the most charismatic and legendary athletes in Princeton history.  

“The embodiment of effortless grace,” as described by Mark Bernstein in his book Football, The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession”, Baker once won a bet he could walk to New York from campus in less than 10 hours. He could chin himself with one hand, juggle five balls at once and liked to show off at parties by walking up and down steps on his hands. With Baker’s dynamic returns and Roper sending speedy back Tal Pendleton wide, the Tigers demolished the first six 1912 opponents but were worn down, 16-6 by a heavier Harvard team. They went on to heartbreakingly tie Yale, 6-6, on a last second 49-yard drop kick.

The following year, the last in which Princeton football called University Field home, Yale was an uncharacteristic underdog going into the finale. Still, the Tigers settled for a 3-3 tie, saved by a rundown by Baker of Bulldog Forester Ainsworth at the six-yard line.

Construction of Palmer Stadium – 1914

New Digs: Harvard had opened the word’s first football stadium built out of reinforced concrete in 1903. A magnificent Yale Bowl that would double the capacity of the Harvard facility to 70,000 was in the works. At Princeton, the demand for tickets had outgrown University Field. A modern home to Nassau football was needed.    

Financed by Edgar Palmer ’03, named in memory of his father Stephen, Palmer Stadium was built in 1914 for $300,000 over just four months, thanks to a friendly rivalry between George A. Fuller Company’s construction crews assigned to work separately on either the East or West stands.  It is assumed the crews combined on the closed west end of the horseshoe-shaped structure, which on the east side provided an unobstructed view of Lake Carnegie until Jadwin Gymnasium opened in 1969.

First Game at Palmer Stadium – October 24, 1914

Only about 7,000 fans were in the seats of Palmer Stadium for a hurried October 24, 1914 opener against Dartmouth, when the son of Tiger legend Snake Ames ’90 scored the first touchdown. Absurdly, the overly-enthusiastic groundskeeper had laid turf he had used on golf greens, the result being a cleat-produced mess in the middle of a pristine new structure. It worked out for the Tigers though. Dartmouth suffered its only loss of the season, 16-12.

On November 12, virtually the entire Princeton student body marched from the Cannon to the stadium for its formal presentation to the University by Palmer. The following day, 36,500 turned out in the modern marvel for its ceremonial opener against Yale. The Bulldogs jumped to an 18-0 lead and held on for an 18-14 victory. Afterward, their fans burned seat cushions – it was bring your own – in celebration.

Eventually the stadium would seat 45,750 persons, many arriving on special Pennsylvania Railroad trains from New York and Philadelphia. The Ford Model T that had made automobiles affordable was six years old and exploding in popularity. Palmer Stadium had parking for 3,200 cars.

The edifice would survive eight decades, the last few not well as the stands crumbled. This required netting in places to save fans from concrete showers. It even forced condemnation of some seating sections in the final seasons. But in its heyday, the consistently-packed Palmer was a Mecca of college football.

Damn Elis: Princeton football was being run by a three-man committee headed by Donald Grant Herring ’07, a former Tiger player who blasted the way the program had been run and installed Wilder Penfield as coach with marching orders to open up. A gifted thrower named Mike Boland ’16 had passed the 1914 team to five straight victories during the first season at Palmer, but a Yale defeat followed one to Harvard so Herring put another ex-Tiger, John Rush, in charge. Over two seasons, Rush couldn’t beat Yale or Harvard either. The 13-7 loss to the Elis in 1915 – when the Bulldogs had their first losing season in history – being particularly galling.

Get Outta Town:  In 1916, an outbreak of polio on campus forced the move of preseason workouts to the Catskills and the Holy Cross game to Worcester for the first-ever Princeton opener on the road.  The Tigers won that one 21-0, but were shutout that year by both Harvard and Yale.

The Pasadena Tournament of Roses, which first staged a New Year’s Day football game in 1902, revived the concept in 1916 and ached for participation of a blueblood team of Eastern football. So after turndowns by Harvard and Dartmouth,  the Tigers received an invitation.  After Princeton declined, so did Columbia, which had just returned to the game that season after a 10-year moratorium. Brown, a team with three losses, accepted and lost to Washington State, 14-0.

There Were Really Only Three Ivy Schools: Amidst ongoing concerns for the quality of “students” representing the universities on the gridiron, Harvard, Yale and Princeton agreed to discontinue offering monetary inducements to enroll. This exclusion being a good thing competitively for the five other wannabees who eventually would join a formal Ivy League four decades later. William McLellan of the University of Pennsylvania suggested a football league of the seven leading Eastern universities minus Brown, but the Big Three had no interest.

William Winston (Bill) Roper ’02

Roper Part III:  While The Great War raged in Europe during 1917-18, Yale, Harvard and Princeton informally played only thrown-together teams at Army and Naval bases. Penn, Columbia and Brown, needing income for more than just running athletic programs, played more full schedules. After the Armistice, Roper, a Philadelphia insurance broker, lawyer, and later a city councilman, was brought back to Princeton after an eight-year absence, suffering a 25-0 rout by West Virginia.

Ahead into the fourth quarter, Princeton even more disappointingly had to settle for a 10-10 tie against Harvard.  But Roper produced the Tigers first win in five tries against Yale, 13-6, in New Haven, when Joe Scheerer ran 22 yards with a bad lateral for a touchdown. 

Again, the following year – 1920 – Harvard came back for a fourth quarter deficit to tie Princeton, this time 14-14, but the Tigers bounced back to shutout out Yale, 20-0- their first consecutive victories over the Bulldogs since 1888-89–to finish 6-1 and held a bonfire for a three-way Big Three tie.

The following year, another tie with Harvard prevented a 7-0 Princeton season.

Silver Throated: Following that 1919 humiliation at the hands of West Virginia’s spread offense, Roper talked Mountaineers star running back, Ira “Rat” Rodgers into staying behind to teach it to him. Roper then used the strategy the next week against Harvard.  The coach was just as known to quickly discard an attempted wrinkle as add one, however. And he was much more orator than strategist.

As Jay Dunn wrote in The Tigers of Princeton, Penn Coach Bill Hollenbach described Roper as more a “damned evangelist” than coach, but Princeton’s first head coach of any lengthy term surrounded himself with good teaching assistants, enabling him to deliver the big picture in fiery and even mesmerizing rhetoric. Football, insisted Roper, “was 90 percent fight.”

In season, he commuted from Philadelphia, somehow never being late for the 7:30 a.m. team breakfast. Even in a day when coaches could be unquestioned dictators, Roper was considered eccentric, railing against the dress styles of the day, insisting that players wear their varsity sweaters, and even demanding they don faded, even stained, jerseys for practice and games. Princeton wore deliberately smaller and harder-to-read numbers, ordered by Roper in an attempt to confuse enemy scouts.

He banned tobacco, snacks in between training table meals except for an apple before bed, and interestingly, prohibited the drinking of milk. As one would expect, he strictly forbid alcohol, although as a tee-totaling member of Philadelphia City Council, he led efforts to repeal prohibition.

You Couldn’t Tell All the Players Until: In 1921, after three years of experimentation and debate, numbers appeared universally on uniforms at Princeton, Harvard and Yale for the first time. This was an opportune time for Tiger supporters. It grew hard to recognize the players as a 4-3 season was wrecked by injuries.  Still, Princeton won its first game in seven years over Harvard, which had begun to dominate even Yale, 10-3, on a trick touchdown pass from end Abraham Barr (Whoops) Snively ’24 to blocking back Ralph Gilroy ’23, as star Donold Lourie ’22 was used as a decoy. Nevertheless Yale broke open a 7-7 halftime tie and defeated the Tigers, 13-7, to throw the Big Three championship into a third consecutive three-way tie.

The 1922 Princeton Tigers – The Team of Destiny

The Team of Destiny: Gradation losses were huge going into the 1922 season and then hopes were further reduced when, as a result of a 1916-Harvard-Yale-Princeton agreement to bar tramp athletes, Gilroy was one of three Tigers ruled ineligible.  But Roper hung a placard of Johnny Poe’s famed mantra “The team that won’t be beaten, can’t be beaten” in the locker room and with Gilroy, who had been replaced by Mel Dickensen ’23 as captain, continuing to show up at practice to lend coaching and moral support, the Tigers overcame limited offense by posting shutouts in the first four games.

“We made up plays on the field,” Charlie Caldwell ’25, a sophomore wingback, would later remember. ”We used the end around when nobody was looking for it and when other teams fumbled, we invariably recovered.”  Still few gave the Tigers a chance against the University of Chicago, who had dominated Princeton 9-0 at Palmer the previous year.

The situation begged for Roper oratory and on Wednesday the coach delivered passionately. “He had a deep and resonant voice that could send shivers down your spine,” later remembered Tiger end Johnny Gorman ’23. “Talk about Rockne or (George) Gipp, they had nothing on Roper.  He made us feel like it was a crusade for Princeton and Eastern football. It was the best talk he ever gave.”

Chicago vs Princeton – 1922
The First Radio Broadcast of a Football Game

A charter Princeton train, crammed with players, their roommates, supporters and stowaways, carried the Tigers to one of the earliest–and certainly the most anticipated to that point–intersectional game.  A crowd of 32,000, only an estimated one third of the demand, jammed Stagg Field. For the first time, a football game was broadcast on shortwave radio. 

For most of three quarters, the descriptions weren’t heartening. Princeton, who trailed 18-7, had lost Snively to injury, and the Tigers were starting a series at their own one.  Standard for the day in such predicaments was a first-down punt. Practically unheard of from the minus side of the 50 was a pass. But Gorman and Jack Cleaves ’23 privately conspired to a fake kick that was not even in Roper’s playbook.  Cleaves threw to Gorman and the fooled Maroons took 40 yards to run him down.

Gorman was injured on the tackle and Princeton, which stalled at midfield, punted. But Howdy Gray ’23 ran in a touchdown off a bad snap and the Tigers trailed only 18-14. They then got the ball back on a punt at their 43 and drove to the one, where after three failed tries, substitute running back Harry Crum ’24 was found on the bottom of a huge pile with the nose of the ball over the goalline.

Stunningly trailing 21-18, the Maroons drove to the Princeton one, where on fourth down–and after multiple Chicago shifts designed to confuse the Tigers, Harland (Pink) Baker ’22 shot through a gap to take down star running back John Thomas for a two-yard loss. Princeton emerged with perhaps the greatest victory in its history. “Team of Destiny,” wrote Grantland Rice.

But Not Quite Yet: Still an underdog at Harvard two weeks later, Princeton came from behind again when a reverse to Gray set up a 2-yard smash by Crum in the only touchdown of a 10-3 win. The 1922 Tigers completed their destiny when Bob Beattie ’25 straight-armed his way for 31 yards to set up Ken Smith’s 18-yard field, the only score in a 3-0 victory over Yale at Palmer Stadium.   

Two thousand persons showed up for the bonfire on Cannon Green, highlighted when the martyred Gilroy, spotted in the crowd, was carried to the stand and then drowned out by the roar. Alhough Brown, Penn and Harvard had already participated in Rose Bowls, Princeton declined a bid.

Cleaning Up: In 1923 a committee of alums and faculty from the Big Three upgraded the Triple Agreement of 1916, curbing under-the-table payments by alums, requiring full financial disclosure statements by the players and an accounting to the universities of all loans and scholarships. Transfer students who ever had played intercollegiate athletics were barred from performing for their new college.

It Was Great While it Lasted:  Probably more loaded than the 1922 team, the one in 1923 was abruptly cut down at Palmer in week three by Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame team, 25-2, and thereafter crumbled, losing in shutouts to both Harvard and Yale and finishing only 3-3-1. It was the first non-winning season in Princeton history.

With Notre Dame coming back to Palmer in 1923, Donold Lourie, by then an assistant coach, went to the Polo Grounds to scout the Irish against Army but came back to campus confessing he had missed the winning play, which Rockne had drawn up in the dirt.  Sure enough, the most famous coach in college football history sprung it again and the fabled Four Horsemen flattened Princeton, 12-0, with both touchdowns by Jim Crowley. Caldwell later mused it could have been 28-0; one more rude awakening for Eastern football.  The Tigers subsequently routed favored Harvard, 34-0, but killed themselves with interceptions in 10-0 loss to Yale.

The 1925 Princeton Tigers

They Took Their Ball and Went Home One More Time: The 1925 Princeton team suffered only a midseason tie with Navy and rolled over Harvard, 36-0 and Yale 25-12, at the Yale Bowl, where the highlight as an 82-yard touchdown run by Jake Slagle ’27 out of punt formation.

Princeton, two-time consecutive Big Three titlist, dominated Harvard again 12-0, in 1926. Relations between the two schools were inflamed by complaints about Princeton’s dirty play, real or imagined, and Harvard Lampoon insults of Princeton students, who tore down the goalposts at Harvard Stadium following the victory.

Not long after, a letter from the Harvard Athletic Department informed the Princeton Board of Athletics Council that Harvard had decided Yale henceforth would be the only permanent opponent on Crimson’s schedule.  Harvard hoped to continue to play Princeton, just not every year.   The Princeton board, further irritated that it had been kept in the dark about a decision had been made three weeks prior, chose to break relations completely with Harvard.

Princeton, noting a decline in its number of All-America honorees as the Midwest and South brands of the game gained recognition, quickly seized the opportunity to substitute Ohio State for Harvard on the following season’s schedule.  But first Princeton won another Big Three title, 10-7 over Yale, on a pass by substitute starter Earl Baruch ’29 – he was standing in for an injured and tearful Slagle–to Dan Caulkins ’26.  Baruch also kicked a field goal.

 In 1927 Cornell came on the schedule for the first time since before the war. The Tigers came from behind at Ithaca to win 21-10, then blasted Ohio State, 20-0 and went to the Yale game undefeated.  Princeton led in New Haven 6-0 in the fourth quarter only to give a up a 50-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-12 and fade into a 14-6 loss.

Such Were the Times: In 1927, every member of the Princeton team came from a prep school. There was one Jewish player. Catholics were accepted to the University only if they were of Irish descent.

It Was Yale or Nothing: In the rematch the following year – 1928 – at Columbus, Ohio State rallied for 6-6 tie on a rainy, windy day; both PAT attempts blowing wide. But another twist in a schedule bereft of Harvard was a season-ending game against Navy, which had severed ties with Army. Excepting the war years, this was the first time Princeton did not close with Yale since 1876. After avenging its painful previous-year loss to the Bulldogs with a 12-2 victory at Palmer Stadium, Princeton went into an anti-climatic coma, stinking out a packed Franklin Field in a 9-0 loss to the Midshipmen.

A Short Rope: That year, 1928, was Roper’s last winning season. In 1929 he avenged the Navy loss, sort-of, as the Tigers miraculously converted a 29-yard touchdown pass from Dave Lowry to an all-alone Charlie Muldaur on a fourth-and-12, pulling out a 13-13 tie.   But a 7-0 lead over Chicago at Palmer faded to a 15-7 defeat. And a hardly classic Yale team scored twice in the second half for a 13-0 victory.   

Black Thursday for the stock market, when $4 billion was lost by U.S. investors, coincided with a black day on campus. On that October 24, 1929 a final report issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advance of Teaching found widespread abuse in athletics at all the eventual Ivy schools with the exception of Cornell and Yale. The collapse of the stock market and its effect on revenues coincided with a decline in Princeton football’s fortunes for the next few years. In 1929, the Tigers faded to a 2-4-1 record, their first losing one ever.

Bill Roper’s Final Game

Out on His Shield: The next season, the final for Roper, was even worse. A win over Amherst and a tie with faded Chicago were all the Tigers had to show for their love of the ailing coach by the time Yale came to Palmer to close the season.  Nevertheless, one of the worst Princeton teams ever managed a 7-3 lead at the half and, even when a pass from punt formation bamboozled the Tigers and put Bulldogs ahead, 10-7, undermanned Nassau summoned a last push, moving from its own 20 to just outside the Yale 10. 

On third down H.T. Bennett ’31 reached within two feet of the goalline. On fourth down he smashed again into what seemed like a 22-player pileup. The officials found him short of the end zone but still close enough to a first down to warrant a measurement.  The ball was just two inches short. Against great odds, Roper had summoned one more valiant effort but Yale escaped with a 10-7 victory.

“Princeton was greater in defeat than the Elis were in victory,” wrote renowned college football writer George Trevor. “As Roper left the filed for the final time, he must have heard the muted chime of victory bells atop Nassau Hall.

“They never rang so loudly as the night they never rang at all.”

Roper died three years later. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

[email protected]