Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70

November 22, 2006:
'We’ll fight with a vim'
Over the generations, sports have made their mark on Princeton

By Gregg Lange '70

It would be intriguing to know how many of the Poe brothers would have matriculated at Princeton if it meant passing muster with Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye. John Prentiss Poe Jr. 1895, after whom Poe Field is named, got bounced out twice academically, but conveniently fit a full football season in between. Athletic talent long predates the Admission Office as a valuable commodity at Princeton, and as muscular legacies (their dad was Class of 1854), the six Poe brothers swarmed the football fields of the East in orange and black from 1882 to 1901, an era when the Tigers’ record was 191-19-7. Really, that’s not a typo: They won 89.6 percent of the time.

When in 1896 the College of New Jersey went big time and upped the ante to “Princeton in the nation’s service” and “Dei Sub Numine Viget” and “University” and Grover Cleveland, there was a momentous choice to be made. What “official” colors of the new University would adorn the newly streamlined shield (suitable for framing and cocktail glasses)? Professor Alan Marquand 1874, the great art collector and expert on all things visual, noted that the colors of the house of Orange-Nassau were most proper: orange and blue. Meanwhile, the Poes were running over Harvard on the gridiron attired in Orange and Black, the black being a completely accidental embellishment that had become traditional among the athletic teams.

So? Orange and black it was.

We successfully begin the 2006-07 academic year with football tied with Yale atop the Ivy standings and with Ivy championships from the field hockey and both cross country teams. There are now 38 varsity sports at Princeton, one for every 130 students, and it remains endlessly fascinating how many highly capable and wildly diverse people have spent quality time on the organizational aspects of athletics in what is, after all, supposedly an educational enterprise. President emeritus Bill Bowen *58 (Denison tennis ’55) has published significant statistical information to point up the impact, unhealthy in his mind, of this big-time sports influence on elite institutions. President emeritus Bob Goheen ’40 *48 (Princeton soccer ’40 and subsequent freshman coach) says that his close friend Bowen is overstating things.

The funniest story I ever heard from President emeritus Harold Shapiro *64 deals with entering Nassau Hall on his first day. In eight prior years as president of the University of Michigan he had never heard from an alumnus about the football team (unkind observers might suggest that this indicates the Michigan president’s potential influence on the program). But when he arrived in his new Princeton office, there was a waiting pile of notes from alums about football, basketball – you name the sport. Shapiro also has said publicly that the 1990s wrestling fiasco was one of his biggest mistakes as president.

Today every one of the 38 teams has a formal “academic-athletic fellow” (note the sequence) from the faculty who hangs with the coaches and athletes on behalf of the greater community. And these aren’t your grad student gym rats: They include Jim Doig, Maitland Jones, Sean Wilentz, Vice Provost Katherine Rohrer: mature people who presumably have real lives.

So imagine what happens when the only gym burns down? University Gymnasium, which sat where Dillon is now and looked almost the same – but clearly included more combustible stuff – burnt to the ground in 1944. Aside from the trauma to the fitness and competitive folks (extra points if you knew the basketball team played three seasons in Baker Rink; talk about your home-court advantage …) hundreds of trophies, memorabilia and records from the first 80 years of Princeton sports were incinerated.

In the ultimate need to draw inspiration from melted memories, the University turned to the marvelous Joe Brown, its boxing coach/sculpture professor – think about that one for a minute. The resulting sculpture not only does that, it cements the community and intellectual nature of the athletic enterprise all at once. Made of the melted trophies and medals of the past, it comprises two relay runners just beginning the baton pass, a symbolic handoff from one era to another. There are two details that raise it from symbolism to art. The first is that the receiving runner is (accurately) looking forward, not back at his teammate; he trusts that the pass will be true. The second, against all temptation, is that the figures are completely separate, with no common base; indeed they are mounted at Dillon in separate cases. They could be separated by miles or decades, and they would still be united. Is that art, sports, or philosophy? Yep, sure is. Perhaps we should go easy on the Poes.


In its annual glossy review of the Princeton varsity sports year, the Department of Athletics this fall has included some great photos (check out Bill Bradley ’65’s Mary Janes) and recollections of many highlights from long ago, some of which even predate the University Gym fire. There’s everything from the 1864 baseball team to Princeton’s first NCAA champs – the 1964 fencing team – to the legendary Betty Constable. Plus, you get a good look at last year’s 13 Ivy champion teams. If you don’t have a copy, you can get one gratis from Athletic Communications until they run out. That’s 609-258-3658 or yamir@princeton.edu.

Enjoy! P

Lange '70Gregg Lange ’'70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.