Does Princeton throw penalty flags against itself?

ILLUSTRATION: RON BARRETT

What is ailing Princeton football?

The program’s last winning season came in 2006, when Princeton shared the Ivy League championship with Yale. In the five seasons since, the Tigers have gone 10–25 in Ivy League play and won just one of 10 games against Harvard and Yale. Through Oct. 8, they were 1–0 in the league.

That record of futility gnaws at alumni, and it prompted former tackle Eric Dreiband ’86 to write a letter to President Tilghman — which was signed by 200 other alums — arguing that the football team’s chances of winning have been hurt by policies unique to Princeton.

The policy cited in the letter that damages Princeton football the most is probably the University’s decision not to accept transfer students. Every other Ivy League school accepts transfers, and some of those students have made a big difference on the playing field.

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Three Yale teams received a major boost last year from transfer students. Patrick Witt, who arrived at Yale after playing for a year at big-time Nebraska, was the star quarterback for three seasons, though the team managed only an 11–10 record for the Elis. Transfer students also helped Yale’s men’s swimming and women’s tennis teams achieve winning seasons. 

Harvard’s football team has a 57–13 Ivy record — and four championships — in the last decade, thanks at least in part to a string of transfers such as running back Clifton Dawson, who came from Northwestern and still holds the league record for career rushing yards.

There was a time when Princeton did admit transfers, but they weren’t necessarily magic bullets. Among the most celebrated was quarterback Jason Garrett ’89, now the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, who transferred from Columbia. Garrett was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 1988 and set a still-standing league record for career completion percentage, but Princeton went just 8–6 in league games during his two years at quarterback. 

A few years later, Princeton adopted its no-transfer policy. This was done to save as many openings as possible for the talented applicants the University was seeing each year and, according to provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, to make sure that all students had a “cohesive, four-year experience.” 

“There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the transfer question,” allows Eisgruber, adding that the University has no plans to reconsider it anytime soon. “Arguments based on the athletic program, however, strike me as singularly unimpressive. We already win more Ivy League titles than any other university.”

All true, but it’s hard to imagine why Princeton wants to be the only school in the league playing by tougher rules. It’s not just Princeton football that would benefit from accepting the occasional, well-chosen transfer. He or she could just as easily be a super-talented sophomore biologist, actor, or musician. Sure, he or she would miss things like Cane Spree and freshman seminars, but the extraordinary candidates Princeton would pick could find a way to fit in while adding to the University’s luster. 

Merrell Noden ’78
Merrell Noden ’78
PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI

Merrell Noden ’78 is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated and a frequent PAW ­contributor.