Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
a column by Jane Martin paw@princeton.edu

March 23, 2005:

Heading west, on a single wing
Fritz Crisler had success at Princeton, and more at Michigan

A curious sports item appeared in PAW’s Feb. 18, 1938, issue. Under the headline, “Crisler,” editor Datus C. Smith, Jr. ’29 wrote that “Certain journalists – including, we are sorry to say, the athletic editor of the Princetonian – declare that last fall there were ominous grumbles from alumni who wanted the football coaches fired. It is suggested that Fritz Crisler, fearing another bad season and alumni cries for his scalp in 1938, grabbed at the offer from Michigan; he took care, so the story runs, to resign before he was forced out.

“That is ridiculous,” asserted Smith. He noted the attractiveness of Michigan’s offer to head coach Crisler, Crisler’s long-term contract with Princeton, and added, “more to the point, the general and widespread appreciation of his ability as a coach continued through 1937.” PAW, he reported, had received no letters demanding Crisler’s resignation, while it had heard from an unspecified number of alumni in his support.

It’s a curious item because by raising the question of alumni discontent at all, Smith gave it credence. He could have run only the news item that appeared in the athletics column, which read, “So passes from the Princeton scene one of the most successful, colorful, and popular personalities to be connected with Nassau athletics within recent memory. … In six seasons his teams were undefeated twice, won 35, lost 9 and tied 5. In his last two seasons his teams had indifferent success and not a word was said on the campus against his coaching.” That assessment seems cool enough for a coach who led a 1933 team that gave up only eight points all season and a 1935 team that PAW’s reporter called the best college football team he had ever seen.

If alumni were indeed calling for Crisler’s head, it was a grave miscalculation. Crisler (who graduated from the University of Chicago, not Princeton, in 1918) took the single-wing formation to Michigan and promptly won 19 games in his first three seasons with the Wolverines while losing only four. In 1943 he led the team to its first Big Ten title in 10 years. In 1947, Crisler coached Michigan to an undefeated season, capped by a 49-0 thrashing of the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl. The Associated Press named the Wolverines national champions and voted Crisler coach of the year.

Crisler also would go down in football lore as the man who invented the two-platoon system, in which some players were dedicated to defense and others to offense. According to HickokSports.com, Crisler came up with the idea in 1945 while preparing to face a powerful Army team. To stop Army’s offense, Crisler prepped eight men to play only defense, taking them out of the game when Michigan had the ball. Though Michigan lost 28-7, the teams were tied 7-7 after three quarters, and before the season ended, Crisler was swapping out all 11 of his players in every game. Most colleges followed suit the next year.

Crisler’s legacy included two other notable accomplishments. In his first year, he brought the striped helmet he had designed for Princeton’s 1935 national championship team – as a way for his passers to distinguish their receivers from their opponents – and reworked it in maize and blue. Wolverines have been wearing it proudly ever since. (Princeton itself brought back the look a few years ago.) The other was his long service as athletic director at the university, beginning after the Rose Bowl victory in 1948 and ending with his retirement 20 years later. A former linebacker on Crisler’s 1947 team, Dan Dworsky, who became an architect, designed Crisler Arena, which opened in 1968 and remains the home of Michigan basketball.

In 1938 Datus Smith wrote that he was “prepared to believe that in the face of two bad football seasons the graduate body displayed good sportsmanship and a maturity that was as striking as it was commendable” in its forbearance to criticize Crisler. Perhaps patience should have been added to the mix.


Jane Martin ’89 is PAW's former editor-in-chief. You can reach her at paw@princeton.edu