On Oct. 24 last year, Princeton Stadium saw an epic battle between two traditional rivals, Harvard and Princeton, each undefeated through their first five games. After four hours and five overtime periods, Princeton emerged with the win, 18-16. Though it was an exciting contest with stellar play by both teams, the game will likely be remembered principally for a controversial officials’ call that caused some to question the game’s result. When the two teams meet again this fall, there may well be antagonism, but if there is, it won’t be for the first time. The storied Harvard-Princeton rivalry has seen acrimony before.
Let’s review what happened last year. Under the new method by which lengthy overtime games are decided, in the third overtime period Harvard scored what appeared to be a winning two-point conversion. Princeton’s coach Bob Surace ’90, however, contended that Princeton should have been awarded a timeout that he had been vociferously requesting prior to Harvard’s scoring play. The referees huddled, checked with the replay booth, and concluded that Surace was correct — a timeout should have been granted prior to the play. Harvard again attempted a conversion, but this time it failed. The game went on, with Princeton winning when quarterback Cole Smith ’22 completed a pass to Jacob Bermilen ’22 in the back of the end zone in the fifth overtime.
The following day, the Ivy League issued the following statement: “In the third overtime, Harvard threw a pass for a successful two-point conversion. After the play, the replay booth stopped the game for an official review. While the review did determine that the Princeton head coach called for timeout before the ball was snapped, the officiating crew made a procedural error as a timeout can only be recognized and granted prior to the snap by an on-field official and is not reviewable. Therefore, the timeout should not have been granted and the play should have resulted in a successful two-point conversion. According to NCAA Rule 5-2-9, the outcome of the game will stand as a win for Princeton. The league office will address the error with the officials.”
Neither school officially responded to the Ivy League statement, but it should be noted that there are other interpretations of the NCAA rule book more favorable to Princeton. For example, NCAA Rule 12-3-7 states that “the replay official may correct obvious errors that may have a significant impact on the outcome of the game, including those involving the game clock, whether or not a play is reviewable.”
It also should be noted that had Harvard won and had the season played out as it did — not a certainty given the enhanced competitive pressure — Harvard, not Princeton, would have tied Dartmouth for the Ivy League championship. Thus, there may well be some residual bitterness on Harvard’s part. Whatever ill will there may be, however, will pale in comparison to the historically fraught Harvard-Princeton football relationship.
The two teams have met 113 times, the first contest held in 1877. (The current rivalry stands at 58 Princeton wins, 48 Harvard wins, 7 ties.) By contrast, Yale and Princeton, which first played in 1873, have faced one another 143 times. Why the large discrepancy in games played? Much of the difference can be explained by three gaps in the Harvard-Princeton rivalry. No games were played from 1890 to 1894, from 1897 to 1910, and from 1927 to 1933, in some cases a result of bad blood, often played out in the national press.
- 1890-1894 — Following the game played on Nov. 16, 1889, which Princeton won 41-15, Harvard withdrew from the Intercollegiate Football Association, at that time intercollegiate football’s governing body, stating that itwished to limit its athletic contests to those “within the bounds of New England” — in effect, a means of terminating its athletic relationship with Princeton. Harvard’s principal stated concern was that some schools had recruited students simply to play football, and had also enrolled “good players who are not in reality amateurs, but have received compensation for the practice of their sport.” Harvard had previously accused Princeton of using professional players, thus Princeton, which vehemently denied the allegation, took this to be Harvard’s rationale for terminating the rivalry.
- 1897-1910 — In 1895, the two schools resumed their rivalry, but it appeared as if issues remained. In early 1897, Harvard made five-year commitments to play football with both Yale and Penn and felt that, according to The Boston Globe in 1897, scheduling “three big games such as those with Yale, Pennsylvania, and Princeton would very probably be considered too much of a strain for the Harvard eleven.” Though Princeton was publicly gracious about the matter, the result was another lengthy hiatus in the Harvard-Princeton rivalry.
- 1927-1933 — On Nov. 6, 1926, Harvard and Princeton faced off against one another at Soldiers Field in Cambridge, Princeton coming away with a 12-0 victory. The game may have been unnecessarily rough, “dirty football” as a former Harvard player averred. Adding further insult, Harvard officially rejected Princeton’s prior request for an exchange of alternating home-and-away football games, dismissively saying that future contests would be scheduled at “suitable intervals.” Only Yale would be scheduled every year. More unpleasantness was fueled by the Nov. 6 issue of Harvard’s humor magazine, the Lampoon, which was filled with anti-Princeton rhetoric, including an editorial which stated that there was no reason to “disguise the fact that the brotherly love and friendly rivalry existing between Harvard and Princeton are purely imaginary.” On top of which was the publication of a parody of the Harvard Crimson written by Lampoon staffers containing a supposedly amusing story headlined, “Bill Roper, Princeton Coach, Dies on Field.” Despite apologies from various Harvard notables, including President A. Lawrence Lowell, on Nov. 11 the headline of a front-page New York Times article stated, “Princeton Severs Ties with Harvard After Long Discord.” This extended to all sports, not just football. The announcement was made via press release rather than personal communication, which infuriated Harvard.
As a result of undergraduate pressure at both schools, the Harvard-Princeton football rivalry resumed in 1934, a game which Princeton won 19-0. (In 1931, the schools had agreed to resume competition in other sports.) Though no promises were made by Harvard to continue the football rivalry beyond 1935 (i.e., Princeton caved), apart from a three-year break during World War II and the pandemic-eradicated 2020 season, the two schools have played every year since.
As improbable as it may seem, had last year’s five-overtime game been contested in an environment such as existed 100 years ago when Big Three football was among the best in the land, the controversy over the officials’ decision would in all likelihood have played out on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, and the two schools may well have parted football company once again. Thankfully, this hasn’t happened, and we can look forward to the 114th iteration of the Harvard-Princeton rivalry, to be played in Cambridge on Friday, Oct. 21.
Henry Von Kohorn ’66 saw his first Princeton-Harvard football game at Palmer Stadium as a freshman in 1962, regrettably a 20-0 loss to the Crimson.