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'Team of Destiny': the history of Princeton football

Maybe you think of the renowned collegiate Gothic architecture when you think of Princeton, or maybe you think of Einstein or Jack Donaghy. Maybe you think of elitism or meningitis. I don’t know what you think of, but I bet it’s not football.

Why would it be? The University’s good at a lot of things, and we have a fine athletic program, but these days it’s not at the top of that list. In keeping with the hallowed nerd/jock dichotomy, we have multiple Nobel Prize winners among our faculty, and our football team would get steamrolled by any big-name program. What you might not know, however, is that we used to be a very big name in college football. In fact, there was a time when the University was one of just two names in the game.

Princeton took part in the first-ever college football game. It was Nov. 6, 1869, when the 25 men — back then, they got 14 more players on the field, but they all played both offense and defense — from the College of New Jersey took the field against Rutgers University. Aside from the larger team size, there were a few other differences between football back then and the way it is today. For starters, the name made more sense: Players could not run with the ball but instead had to get it past the opponent’s goal line by kicking it or batting it with their hands, heads or really just anything. Oh, and the ball was a sphere. Presumably, end zone celebrations were also less sophisticated. At any rate, one thing hasn’t changed: Just as one would expect from a 2014 Princeton-Rutgers game, Rutgers won. Princeton did get them back, though, winning eight goals to zero the following week.

The next season, the College of New Jersey went undefeated, taking down Rutgers 6-2 in its only game.

OK, so there may not have been a lot of competition, but Princeton was one of the early powerhouses of college football. By 1878, there were enough other teams for the College of New Jersey to play six games, defeating Yale 1-0 to cap an undefeated season and mark the fourth installment in college football’s second-oldest rivalry. By that time, the team was wearing its now-ubiquitous Orange and Black, which most Princeton historians think came from the colors of the House of Nassau. They were not yet the Tigers, however — that nickname was first applied sometime in the mid-1880s, when sports writers used it to describe both the Princeton men’s ferocity and the fact that they had orange and black stripes on their uniforms.

The newly-christened Tigers were a force to be reckoned with. Knowlton “Snake” Ames, Class of 1890, set a school record that is unlikely to be broken when he scored 243 points over the course of the 1888 season. Princeton went 10-0 in 1889 and 11-1-1 in 1890 under the leadership of captain Edgar Allan Poe, Class of 1891 (not to be confused with Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem inspired the name of an NFL team but who largely failed to leave his mark on the college football world).

Speaking of leaving your mark, Princeton was one of the major players in shaping football as we know it. Carrying the ball forward rather than kicking it, something which continues to set Americans apart from the rest of the world, came into style as Princeton, Harvard and Yale tinkered with the rules of the young game. The four-down system was invented at this time, as was the strategy of having giant, tough guys run in front of the ball carrier to plow over defenders. In hindsight, it seems like they would have been doing that from the start.

Princeton was named national champion by someone — keep in mind, this was back when all you had to do to name a national champion was declare yourself an authority and put out a poll — almost every year from the game’s inception until the second decade of the 20th century. Princeton football claims 28 national championships, including 22 of the first 40. Take that with a grain of salt, however, because that number includes the 1869 championship, when Princeton and Rutgers split a two-game season.

Dubiousness of some claims aside, some of the most celebrated teams in college football history have worn orange and black, and I’m not talking about the Iowa State Bengals. In 1922, Princeton’s “Team of Destiny” — not to be confused with Wilson College, the College of Destiny — scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to rally past Chicago, the best team in the country, in the first football game ever to be broadcast on radio. The team may have earned its nickname from the devil-may-care strategy of head coach Bill Roper, Class of 1902, who reportedly had no playbook or strategy, encouraging his players to wing it. The nickname may also have come from how well this lack of strategy worked: The Tigers went undefeated, defeating Yale 3-0 to win a national championship.

The next title Princeton claimed is that of 1933, and it, too, is beyond reproach. The Tigers went undefeated, which it turns out isn’t all that hard when your defense allows just eight points all season. All eight of those points came in the last two games: Princeton won its first eight games by a combined 176-0 before beating Rutgers 26-6 and Yale 27-2. I bet coach Herbert “Fritz” Crisler really let the defense have it after that Rutgers game.

Another national title came in 1935, the year Crisler debuted the helmet design the Tigers still use. Don’t let anybody from Ann Arbor tell you differently: Crisler designed the Princeton helmet and then took the design with him when he went to coach at Michigan, which has used the design since and has totally been copying us the whole time.

Fifteen years later, we find perhaps the greatest athlete in Princeton history, Dick Kazmaier ’52. Kazmaier, who died last year, started off as a 155 lb., third-string tailback on the freshman football squad and ended up setting a number of Princeton records that stand to this day, including career touchdown percentage, most career passing yards per attempt and most career yards per play. I think he also had the records for most career records and most records per play. More importantly, he is the only Princetonian ever to hoist the hallowed Heisman Trophy, and — much more importantly to him — he led the Tigers to consecutive undefeated seasons. His leadership helped the University to its most recent national championship in 1950.

Yes, our most recent national championship was in 1950. So you can probably already tell where this is going.

Although the national championships dried up, Princeton football was still shaking things up. In 1957, the second season of official Ivy League football, the Tigers won their first Ivy League title. Charlie Gogolak ’66 had some firsts as well, as he and his brother were some of the first to kick “soccer-style,” or approaching the ball from the side to kick it (i.e., the way everyone does it now). Gogolak was also the first kicker to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

Speaking of which, Princeton has had 33 players go on to the NFL, and that’s not counting Kazmaier, who could have been an NFL star but turned pro football down in favor of a Harvard MBA. One such player was Jason Garrett ’89, current head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

Two of those guys are in the league right now: Mike Catapano ’13 — now of the Kansas City Chiefs — and Caraun Reid ’14 — now of the Detroit Lions. They were a formidable defensive duo who helped the team pull itself out of the period I’m about to tell you about.

From 1970 to 2005, the Tigers won just three Ivy League titles. There were bright spots during that time, like Garrett and his brother, Judd Garrett ’90, winning the Bushnell Cup in back-to-back seasons, or running back Keith Elias ’94’s two All-America seasons, but it’s not a period Princeton fans think about the way they do the 1950s. After the Ivy title in 2006, it looked like Princeton might never win one again.

Princeton ditched its head coach after going 1-9 in 2010. Bob Surace ’90, an All-Ivy center during his time at Princeton, arrived on campus shortly after with a simple mission — rescue the once-proud Tiger football program from its spot at the bottom of the Ivy League. It was no easy task, as evidenced by the fact that Surace went 7-23 over his first three seasons as head coach.

But, as a beautiful romance can blossom from the filth of the Tiger Inn dance floor or as New Butler can sprout up from the unholy mess that was Old Butler, so, too, would all this losing bring about winning. Surace’s first few teams weren’t anything to write home about, but the coach and his staff were — inexplicably — recruiting like crazy. Everyone who will take the field for the Orange and Black this year will have been brought here by Surace, which is pretty incredible when you consider that the best weapon in his recruiting arsenal in the early days was assuring recruits that this was not, in fact, Columbia.

Catapano and Reid played admirably on some teams that couldn’t break out of the rut, but they never stopped telling their teammates they could do better. In 2012, that attitude started to pay off, as the Tigers unexpectedly went 5-5, making a run at the Ivy championship and defeating league-favorite Harvard with a 29-point fourth-quarter comeback that will go down in Princeton history.

The defining moment of that game came on a miracle pass from backup quarterback Quinn Epperly, then a sophomore, to Roman Wilson ’14, who came down with the ball in tight coverage in the corner of the end zone to cement the victory.

It seemed like a fluke then, given that Epperly was primarily used in running plays, and the Tigers finished the season with losses to Penn and Dartmouth that took them out of championship contention. But last season, Epperly and co. set out to prove it was no fluke.

They succeeded. After a one-point loss to Lehigh in the season opener, the Tigers went on to become co-champions of the league, defeating co-champion Harvard 51-48 in Boston along the way. Over the course of the season, Epperly emerged not only as the starting QB but also as one of the most exciting players in the country, leading the Ivy League in scoring. Epperly combined his running ability with exponentially-improved accuracy, even setting an NCAA record for most consecutive completions during a throttling of Cornell.

I’m excited about the future. As fun as it’s been to watch Princeton football pull itself out of the cellar, the stage couldn’t be set any better than it is for Epperly’s senior year. The Tigers are back, looking as unstoppable as the Team of Destiny, but they have unfinished business. Surace made it clear he was not happy with having to split the title with Harvard, and who would be? Epperly may not have a shot at joining the hallowed Heisman fraternity like Kazmaier, but he’s on the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton award. With him and Surace at the helm, this year could be a memorable chapter in Princeton football’s old-as-the-game-itself history.

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