Web Exclusives: Rally 'Round the Cannon -- Princeton history
by Gregg Lange '70

September 26, 2007:
2-2-3? Sensational!
Coach Fritz Crisler’s arrival in 1932 turned around a dismal football program
By Gregg Lange ’70

To our readers: PAW’s online column on Princeton history, called Under the Ivy since 2002, begins the fall 2007 term with a new name: Rally ’Round the Cannon.

All right, I’ll ‘fess up. I was the one who doubted last year’s football team, who doubted that a string of 11 bonfire-less years would end, who doubted Princeton would ever put up a perfect home season in its great new stadium, who just couldn’t stand discussing it anymore. I was the only one. The three people (in all of the Northeast) who quietly objected when the Tigers were ranked sixth in the Ivies before the season were actually vox populi, and the 8,291 folks who showed up for the first home game would have been 28,291 except for bad traffic. Simply everybody except me knew we were going 9-1 and winning the league. Oh, sure.

Mea maxima culpa, liars.

Anyhow, it’s time to make up for last year’s lack of a football column with a look back at the greatest 2-2-3 team in any sport in Princeton’s history (there’s a safe bet for you). Oh, I know it’s the 85th anniversary of the breathtaking 1922 Team of Destiny, coached by the legendary Bill Roper 1902, featuring the legendary Charlie Caldwell ’25, and its mythic 21-18 win at a packed Stagg Field over Amos Alonzo Stagg and the University of Chicago. I refer you to Richard Rein ’69’s wonderful Oct. 24, 1972, article in PAW detailing that great adventure. We, however, will examine the dark aftermath of that pinnacle, which only nine years later was more a cruel joke than a fond memory.

The football season of 1931 was simply a fiasco, in front of a national public. Princeton scored 27 points in its annual Amherst tune-up, then seven more the entire remainder of the season until garbage time at Yale. Bill Roper had resigned after going 3-9-2 in 1929 and 1930, and the athletic board’s choice of not-too-admired basketball coach Al Wittmer ’22 to replace him seems, in retrospect, mystifying. With Princeton at 1-6 already, not one but two special trains full of spectators went from Philadelphia to New Haven to watch the Tigers’ final game, which stood 32-0 Yale after three quarters; the final was an unthinkable 51-14. Letters to PAW demanded the abolition of football. (Really.) Wittmer disappeared in a puff of smoke after a single season. Not satisfied with just the resignation of the chair of the athletic board, the University dumped the complete structure and took over athletics directly.

So the outlook 75 years ago for the 1932 football season was, uh, unfavorable. Like Haile Selassie versus Mussolini.

Enter the athletic director and football coach from Minnesota, the first truly professional coach ever hired into Princeton. His name was Fritz Crisler, and he was a product of the Stagg factory at Chicago. He brought the single wing and a stunningly professional attitude; the first PAW of September 1932 contained his essay on “Athletics in Education: A Function of Sports in Training for Citizenship” that addressed head-on the rampant confusion over the role of intercollegiate athletics that had been seething across Princeton for years. Among other clear beliefs was the clarion cry, “No one should be cut. If any man wants coaching in football, he’s entitled to it and can have it.” The line was drawn. Led by their captain, Josh Billings ’33, who in his spare time was the president of the student body and eventual Pyne Prize winner and Rhodes Scholar, the formerly ramshackle Tigers responded.

Then as now the schedule, especially for national independents like Princeton, Penn State, and Notre Dame (OK, please stop giggling, will you?), was arranged long in advance, and Crisler and his thin squad – forbidden by agreement with Yale from practicing prior to Sept. 15 – faced four killer games in a row beginning in early October. After their 22-0 win against Amherst, the Tigers played at Columbia, home against Cornell and Navy, and at Michigan. Serious alums suggested that Princeton renege on some of the games. Crisler firmly went about his business, aided by the three assistants he had brought with him, another unheard-of move.

Princeton scored at Columbia, but lost 20-7. Then it happened. After feeling Crisler’s displeasure with that defensive effort, the Tigers took a huge Cornell squad that had beaten them up 33-0 in 1931, and held the Big Red to a 0-0 standstill. There were a total of 13 first downs in the entire game. Under the circumstances, it was regarded as a huge upset, with cheering throughout Palmer Stadium. That intensified in a repeat effort the next Saturday; a 0-0 surprise tie with Navy. Then on to Ann Arbor, with 80,000 fans ready for blood. The Wolverines had shut the Tigers out the previous year in Princeton, and were in the middle of a four-year run of consecutive Big Ten championships and an overall 31-1-3 record. The previous week they had decimated a very good Illinois team 32-0.

Princeton led at the half, 7-2. The Tigers outgained Michigan and had more first downs, but finally fell prey to field position 14-7 as Crisler’s yearlong search for a decent punter came to nothing. The football team was now officially a sensation, albeit 1-2-2. After pasting Lehigh 53-0 – the Engineers had beaten the Tigers in disastrous ’31 – the 1932 season came down to a guaranteed slugfest with Yale at Palmer Stadium, with the prior year’s debacle fresh and painful. It was 0-0 after three quarters; Ken Fairman ’34 (later the athletic director who would oversee the design and construction of Jadwin Gym) scored last to tie the game 7-7, with the Tigers’ yardage advantage again falling prey to the punting. Princeton had, unbelievably, gone undefeated at home with two wins and three brutal ties. Crisler was typically succinct in his explanation: “As a coach and a player, I have never seen a finer player than Captain Josh Billings.” [Editor’s note: Billings died Sept. 16, 2007, at the age of 95.]

In one stunning season, the Tigers had come from the ashes to the threshold of national prominence. Crisler’s undefeated, unscored-on Class of 1936 freshman team keyed a 9-0 varsity season the next year, outscoring their opposition 217-8 and featuring a 27-2 romp in New Haven and a 20-0 revenge pounding of Columbia at Palmer Stadium. After the Tigers then turned down the Rose Bowl, the Lions went … and won. Modern athletics had arrived at Princeton. 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.