Using their heads: Story of the Tiger helmet
This is the second in a series of articles on the history of Princeton football in commemoration of its 135th anniversary.
Great athletes always have to be careful not to let success go to their heads, but in the case of the Princeton football program, being the winner of 28 national championships has done exactly that, quite literally, for almost 70 years. This is the story of the Princeton football helmet, a legacy of victory that ties today's stars to those of Old Nassau's glory days.
The historic and distinctive headgear is designed to appear like a sleek tiger on the hunt for its elusive prey, with ears pressed low to the side of its head. The "ears" are orange colored, as are three additional stripes that run vertically along the helmet, all on a black field. The pattern of orange stripes on a black background was made to correspond to the similar stripes that have historically appeared on the uniform since 1880.
The legendary Herbert O. "Fritz" Crisler was the head coach of Princeton in 1935, when the idea of the Tiger Helmet first occurred to him. The design served the dual purposes of both being aesthetically pleasing and practical, as it both looked good and was a way to make the receivers downfield more easily identifiable to the quarterback. This was revolutionary because at the time almost all helmets were a plain brown or black, virtually indistinguishable from one another, and teams were just experimenting with colors.
"There was a tendency to use different colored helmets just for receivers in those days, but I always thought that would be as helpful for the defense as for the offense," Crisler said.
That original 1935 team, the first to wear the celebrated helmet, went undefeated on its way to winning Princeton's 27th national championship. Led by captain Pepper Constable '36, four of the team's nine victories were shutouts, and the last game of the season was a 38-7 thrashing of arch nemesis Yale, who had handed the Tigers their sole defeat in 1934.
Hired in 1932 as the first non-alumnus to hold the position of head coach, Crisler was a Hall of Famer who led Princeton to two national championships during his six-year tenure. Losing only nine games in his six seasons as head coach, his .765 winning percentage remains the record for a Tigers' coach with more than five seasons under his belt.
After leaving Princeton behind following the 1937 season, Crisler took his helmet design with him as he moved north to take over the head coaching duties of the Michigan football program. Apparently, the cunning wolverine has very similarly shaped ears to our beloved Tiger, as Crisler imposed his innovative design on the Michigan helmets immediately upon his arrival for the 1938 season. Crisler gave a nod to the slightly differing genuses of the mascots by designing the Michigan helmet with maize stripes on a blue background.
The helmet led to similar success for Crisler there, as he went 71-16-3 in his 10 seasons as head coach of the Wolverines. Michigan has kept the Crisler helmet through the years, even using the design for headwear in different sports. Recently the helmet has treated the Wolverines slightly better (if we can attribute athletic success to headgear design), as their football team is currently ranked No. 18 in the nation.
Princeton, on the other hand, made the regrettable decision in the wake of Crisler's departure to get rid of his design, reverting to a less inspired helmet for the 1938 season. It was only six years ago — for the 1998 season — that the original design was reinstated, though the helmets on which the design is painted are slightly more advanced. In the intervening years, the Tigers experimented with a variety of designs, mostly basic orange with the player's number, or orange with a stylized tiger. And perhaps there is something to Crisler's theory on the utility of the design, as Princeton has won only one national championship in the 66 seasons since losing the helmet, as opposed to 27 before it.
These days, despite a new "graphic identity system" for the athletics department revealed earlier this week, the Tiger helmet shows no signs of going anywhere. With the kind of history it has behind it, this distinctive piece of equipment should continue to grace the head of Princeton athletes for generations to come.