It all began with several dozen Rutgers and Princeton students mustering on a Saturday afternoon in November 1869 to play a game won by kicking a ball past a phalanx of defenders and through the opponent’s goal. The game, in New Brunswick, marked the birth of intercollegiate football — and the start of Princeton’s rich history in the sport. In less than a quarter-century, by 1893, Princeton football was no longer a small affair played in New Brunswick, N.J., but a Thanksgiving phenomenon played against Yale, drawing 40,000 spectators to New York’s Manhattan Field.
Above, Dick Kazmaier ’52 carries the ball in a 1949 win over Yale. Two years later, he won the Heisman Trophy.
The Tigers return to New York — to Yankee Stadium — Nov. 9, to celebrate the sesquicentennial, though this time the spotlight will be shared with neither the Elis nor the Scarlet Knights, who compete in the Big Ten these days. In their place will be Dartmouth, a rival “only” since 1897. Dartmouth has figured in some of the most memorable contests in Princeton’s team annals, including the “12th Man” game in 1935, in which a fan rushed onto the field in a blinding snowstorm and tried to join Dartmouth’s line; and a come-from-behind win in 1950 that cemented a perfect season. Less happily there was the battle of unbeatens on the final day of the 1965 season from which Dartmouth alone emerged with a perfect season intact. (Princeton evened that score last November by inflicting upon Dartmouth its sole loss as the Tigers found a path to 10–0 and the first perfect season since 1964.)
The mere mention of Princeton football evokes images of raccoon coats and roadsters, the Princeton band in boater hats and black-and-orange plaid blazers leading a march down Ivy Lane, sunlight dappling gold and orange leaves, and the Tiger mascot frolicking as alumni with silver hipflasks and excited kids in tow streamed through the vaulted archways of a packed Palmer Stadium. Perhaps no alum was a greater football fanatic than F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, albeit usually from afar. As related later by Fritz Crisler, who coached the Tigers to perfect seasons in 1933 and 1935 and introduced the classic, three-striped winged helmets before taking that design with him to his next coaching job in Ann Arbor, Mich., he’d regularly get calls from Fitzgerald after midnight on the eve of games offering strategy tips. The Great Gatsby author was reading a PAW article recapping the season when a heart attack felled him at 44 in 1940.
Much of Princeton’s football history was made in horseshoe-shaped, 40,000-seat Palmer Stadium. When the death knell sounded for the venerable stadium in 1996, serious consideration was given to erecting a much smaller replacement on the other side of Lake Carnegie, far from the heart of campus, like some “glorified high school stadium,” grumped Athletic Director Gary Walters ’67, now retired. Wiser heads prevailed, and a $45 million, 27,000-seat successor, Princeton Stadium, rose in the precise footprint of Palmer, near the eating-club tailgaters and a mere stroll from the spires and gargoyles that fired Fitzgerald’s imagination.
The approaching game will be the 99th between Princeton and Dartmouth, which holds the edge at 49–45–4. Yale is the only other regular opponent with more wins against Princeton than defeats: 77–55–10. That includes the infamous, 14-game losing streak to the Elis that Bob Holly ’82 snapped by throwing for 501 yards and scoring his fourth touchdown with four seconds on the clock in a 34–31 win over undefeated Yale in 1981 — Sports Illustrated called it “perhaps the most thrilling game ever played at Palmer.” Against all comers, Princeton has 827 wins, 406 losses, and 50 ties over the years, including a 56–48 advantage over Harvard.
Dartmouth, like Princeton, was undefeated when they met in the famous “12th Man” or “Snow Game” at Palmer in near-blizzard conditions in November 1935, but the inclement day belonged to the home team. As the Tigers marched yet again downfield, an inebriated spectator bolted from the stands and joined a Dartmouth goal-line stand with a shout of “Kill them Princeton bastards.” It was of no use. The Tigers toppled the then-Indians 26–6 and finished off Yale the following Saturday for Crisler’s second perfect season.
The weather also played a factor in the momentous 1950 game with a perfect season on the line for both teams. Two days after Thanksgiving, 80 mph winds and torrential rain lashed Palmer Stadium as the Tigers fell behind before rallying to defeat Dartmouth 13–7. With fellow All-Americans tackle Hollie Donan ’51 and center Red Finney ’51 paving the way, Dick Kazmaier ’52 ran through the slop for one touchdown and set up the other. The graceful tailback, after Princeton’s second perfect season the following fall, landed on the cover of Time magazine and ran away with the 1951 Heisman Trophy, the last Ivy player so honored. The Chicago Bears drafted Kazmaier, but he turned them down, saying, “I don’t see anything I could gain by it.” He chose Harvard Business School instead. In 2008, Princeton retired the number 42, worn by both Kazmaier and, not by happenstance, basketball’s Bill Bradley ’65.
Of the 28 national championships claimed by Princeton, the NCAA recognizes 15 — all 1922 and earlier — tying Princeton and Alabama for second, behind Yale’s 18 (the last in 1927). The sport caught on quickly after that first Rutgers game, with Eastern schools dominating it for half a century until Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, and others began their ascendancy. The unbeaten 1922 Tigers were the “Team of Destiny,” a sobriquet bestowed by sportswriter Grantland Rice after Princeton turned back then-Big Ten powerhouse University of Chicago at Stagg Field in the first college game broadcast nationally on radio. The heroes for the visitors, who had trailed 18–7, were Harland “Pink” Baker 1922, Oliver Alford 1922, and sophomore Charlie Caldwell ’25, who stopped the Maroons’ fullback on the one-foot line to secure the 21–18 win.
Caldwell, a three-sport athlete, returned to his alma mater to coach the Tigers in the post-World War II years. His teams reeled off 24 straight wins and 33 of 34 from the close of the 1949 season to the opening of the 1953 campaign. Caldwell compiled a sterling 70–30–3 record before Dick Colman, another maestro of the single-wing offense, took the helm in 1957, the year the Tigers won their first Ivy championship. They finished their perfect 1964 season ranked 13th nationally with All-Americans fullback Cosmo Iacavazzi ’65 *68 punishing defenders, linebacker Staś Maliszewski ’66 creating havoc, and soccer-style kicker Charlie Gogolak ’66 flummoxing opponents. Gogolak and big brother Pete, at Cornell, revolutionized the game by kicking with the instep instead of the toe, a skill they mastered as youths in Hungary before the family fled after the 1956 uprising. Charlie Gogolak kicked six field goals in a 1965 game against Rutgers and two weeks later a record 54-yarder against Cornell, which tried to stymie him with a human pyramid — two players stood on their teammates’ shoulders. The tactic was soon outlawed.
While Dartmouth’s victory at the close of the 1965 campaign snapped the Tigers’ 17-game win streak, Colman finished his tenure in 1968 with 75 wins and 33 losses. The best coaching record still belongs to Bill Roper 1902, with 89 wins, 28 losses, and 16 ties in three stints between 1906 and 1930. Roper’s squad played Knute Rockne’s Irish twice at Palmer Stadium in 1923–24, losing both. The lane between Cap and Gown Club and Cottage Club from Prospect Avenue to the main entrance of Princeton Stadium still bears his name.
So how to compare the best teams of this era to those of the past? Attendance is no contest. Last year’s undefeated team averaged 6,600 fans, with fewer than 7,800 souls at the Penn game capping the perfect season. It usually takes Yale or Harvard or a non-Ivy visitor with a local following to crest above 11,000 or 12,000 nowadays in Princeton Stadium. Some games are played under lights on Friday nights.
“You’ve got to put it in perspective and context,” says Iacavazzi, who returned to Princeton for a master’s degree in aerospace engineering after a short spell with the New York Jets in the American Football League. In the 1920s, with no television and the NFL in its infancy, “there was nothing else to do on a Saturday afternoon. You were it. You were the show. Today the NFL dominates spectator sports and I can watch pretty much any game in the country on my phone. The sport has grown in spectatorship, but it’s been cut into a million pieces.”
“The fact that there is X number of people in the stands instead of Y number is almost immaterial,” he says. “You still have great wins, terrible losses, great bonding, great teamwork. You still learn the great values.”
What’s the Princeton football game you’ll never forget?
“We had sellouts in 1964. Guys actually scalped tickets,” says Maliszewski, but he concedes the attention his undefeated team attracted was nothing like the stir created by the 11–0 team in 1903, which shut out its first 10 opponents before Yale managed six points in the final game, making the season points margin 249–6. “When you compare us, the impact we had on American football, to the oughty-three team, those guys were on the front page of every newspaper. We weren’t,” he says.
Maliszewski, born in Poland during World War II and raised in Iowa, where his family settled as refugees, was 6-foot-2 and played at 235 pounds. Most of the program’s greats were more down to earth. Kazmaier stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 171 pounds. Iacavazzi was a battering ram, but was always under 200 pounds. There were no giants among such early legends as Knowlton “Snake” Ames 1890, golden-tressed Phil King 1893, the six Poe brothers, John DeWitt 1904, and Hobey Baker 1914.
Ames scored 62 touchdowns in 1886–89. “I don’t know how you equate the ancient records with the modern records,” says Keith Elias ’94, who rushed for a record 4,208 yards and played five years in the NFL. He tallied 49 touchdowns at Princeton but used to kid teammates, “I’m not good until I reach Snake.”
Princeton still sends players to the NFL. Linemen Carl Barisich ’73 and Dennis Norman ’01 both played nearly a decade; Dallas Cowboys quarterback and head coach Jason Garrett ’89, for seven. A steady stream is making or trying to make the jump these days, including All-American wide receiver Jesper Horsted ’19, who collared 196 passes at Princeton.
Kyle Brandt ’01, co-host of the NFL Network’s Good Morning Football TV show, after watching Horsted make an acrobatic catch in a Chicago Bears’ preseason game, declared the 6-foot-4, 225-pound rookie the greatest player in his alma mater’s history. “They’ve been playing football at Princeton for 150 years. I don’t know if they’ve ever seen somebody like this,” he said, adding later, “We’re not arriving at games on special trains anymore, but this is the glory age of the program.”
Head coach Bob Surace ’90, an All-Ivy center and a former Cincinnati Bengals assistant, might not stake such a claim. But since he started with twin 1–9 seasons, his teams have won 46 games and lost 24 and continue to attract blue-chip players, including a string of versatile quarterbacks. The crack coaching staff has groomed six Ivy players of the year since 2012, including defensive lineman Mike Catapano ’13, linebacker Mike Zeuli ’15, and quarterbacks Quinn Epperly ’15, Chad Kanoff ’18, and John Lovett ’19 (twice).
Epperly will always be remembered for two stunning wins against Harvard, spelling an injured teammate in the last minute and heaving a Hail Mary to Roman Wilson ’14 to pull out a 39–34 win in 2012, then tossing six touchdowns in a wild, 51–48, triple-overtime win against the Crimson the next year. “It was an awesome bus ride back,” says Epperly, who also set an NCAA record with 29 straight completions against Cornell in 2013. “Princeton has turned into the top school in the Ivy League if you want to play quarterback.”
As a freshman, Kanoff, who completed a record 29 touchdowns in 2017, found the football regimen “super difficult. It was way more football than I was expecting. ... The amount of mental energy you put into it, the practice hours, the meetings, expectations — you’re doing something for football more or less seven days a week for three months. It’s hard.” But the Wilson School major made the adjustment.
Lovett, signed by the Kansas City Chiefs but sitting this season out after shoulder surgery, once dreamed of playing at a big-time football school. But he now counts himself blessed for choosing Princeton and getting “an unbelievable education.”
“You’re part of a storied tradition, but a small fraternity. We carry a lot of pride wearing the uniform,” says Lovett, who is unstinting in praise of Surace for the program’s surge. “He’s such a genuine person. Obviously, he works so hard on the football aspects, but it doesn’t matter if you’re an Ivy player of the year or a scout-team player, he treats you the same. You’re his players,” Lovett says.
Elias, director of player engagement for the NFL, addressed this year’s team at summer camp. He, too, emphasized to the players they were “part of a brotherhood.” “We are going to see each other for the rest of our lives,” he said. “We’ll see each other at Reunions, at games. It’s something that will never leave us.”
It can look like a very large brotherhood on game days in Princeton Stadium, with 100 or more players dressed to play. Princeton would recruit 100 players yearly in the 1960s, and 60 when Surace played, but most quit or were cut. Now Surace and his coaches recruit a select 30. “The difference today is these kids aren’t leaving,” he says. The program invests in their success. “We didn’t have a full-time strength coach when I was at Princeton. Now we have a performance team, nutritionists, sports scientists, psychologists — people who work with our athletes as needed so they can be successful.”
Fittingly, Surace in his second season created a new tradition for Princeton football. At game’s end, the entire team runs to the corner of the end zone and, with the band playing, joins alumni in a heart-stirring rendition of “Old Nassau.” He did so not only to cement ties with the alumni, but also to improve relations with the often irreverent scramble band, and notes: “It was one of the better decisions I’ve made.”
Christopher Connell ’71 is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.