Tigers’ history: In the service of all sports
Dear Class of 2016: Welcome to your second week at Princeton, when things become a lot more normal. As you may or may not have figured out yet, your classwork won’t really matter until about midterms, so put your books down for a quick seminar in a more important subject, TGR 042: History of Princeton Sports. Princetonians have been in sports’ service and in the service of all sports since the 19th century, so today’s lecture focuses on some of the barriers broken and precedents set by Tigers through the years.
1869: The first college football game. Pep rallies, Saturday tailgates and the Bowl Championship Series can all be traced all the way back to Nov. 6, 1869, when Rutgers played Princeton in the first college football game ever. Now, it didn’t look anything like the game the Tigers played at Lehigh last weekend — each team had 25 players on the field, the rules were more similar to today’s rugby or soccer, and the score was counted in “goals” (the modern scoring system wasn’t installed until 1883, and even then, field goals were worth five points and touchdowns only two) — but it set the foundation for what would become America’s most popular college sport.
Princeton would continue to be at the forefront of college football into the early 20th century. In 1905, after the sport had become so violent that many schools were trying to abolish it altogether, President Theodore Roosevelt met with the leaders of college football — representatives from Princeton, Harvard and Yale — to get them to clean up the game. The Tigers claim 28 national championships (with the last coming in 1950), more than any other school, though most of those titles were split or disputed. And in 1951, Dick Kazmaier ’52 won Princeton’s first and only Heisman Trophy.
1896: The first two-time Olympic champion. The inaugural modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in April of 1896, featured four Princeton competitors in track and field. Their leader was Robert Garrett, Class of 1897, who was the captain of Princeton’s track team as a junior and senior and subsidized the other three athletes’ trip overseas.
Garrett’s specialty was the shot put, though he also competed in jumping events. He had briefly considered also training for the discus throw, which was not well-known in America, but he gave it up quickly, believing the discus to be too heavy. When he arrived in Athens, however, he found that it only weighed 4.5 pounds — about one-fifth as heavy as his practice model — so he decided to enter the event and won with his final throw. (Yes, the Olympics were a bit different back then — nowadays, it’s impossible to imagine someone being allowed to enter the main competition on a whim, never mind winning it.)
On the second day of competition, Garrett won the shot put, becoming the world’s first athlete ever to win multiple Olympic events. He would also take second place in the high jump and long jump that year and won bronze medals in the shot put and triple jump in 1900.
1939: The first live televised sporting event. On May 17, 1939, the Princeton and Columbia baseball teams played a doubleheader at the Lions’ Baker Field. The first game was nothing special, but the nightcap made history as the first live sporting event ever shown on television. Naturally, the production quality wasn’t stellar — the entire game was captured with just one camera, filming from the third-base line — but it paved the way for Monday Night Football, ESPN, MLB.TV and everything else that makes the current era so wonderful for sports fans. (Oh, and Princeton won both games, going to extra innings in the televised contest.)
1979: The first NBA-player-turned-senator. In 1964, Bill Bradley ’65 and the U.S. men’s basketball team traveled to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. With Bradley as the team’s captain, the Americans won gold for the sixth consecutive Olympiad. In 1965, the three-time All-America led Princeton to the Final Four for the first and only time in school history. The Tigers lost in the semifinals, but in the consolation game for third place, Bradley set a Final Four record that still stands today, scoring 58 points in a 118-82 victory over Wichita State. In 1970 and ’73, Bradley won NBA championships with the New York Knicks, averaging 16.1 points per game in the latter season.
And in 1978 — just a year and a half after he retired from the NBA — Bradley was elected as a Democratic senator from New Jersey; he was inaugurated the following January. Bradley, who took two years off between college basketball and the NBA to study as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, would be reelected twice, serving in the Senate until 1997. He also ran against Al Gore in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2000.
1989: The first 16-seed-over-1-seed upset (almost). Okay, this one didn’t actually happen, but many Princeton fans will tell you it should have. In 1989, the men’s basketball team won its first Ivy League championship in five years, earning a trip back to the NCAA tournament; due to some poor Ancient Eight performances in prior years, the Tigers were given a 16-seed and forced to play Georgetown in the first round.
Naturally, under legendary head coach Pete Carril, the Tigers kept the game low-scoring, and with 15 seconds remaining, Princeton had the ball down just 50-49. Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning blocked one shot, but the Tigers inbounded again with one second left; Kit Mueller ’91, Princeton’s third all-time leading scorer, attempted a turnaround jump shot but was blocked by Mourning — though many Princeton fans thought a foul should have been called. In the post-game press conference, Mueller was diplomatic — “I think maybe he hit my hand,” he said — but according to Carril, his words in the locker room immediately after the game were much harsher.
Carril and Princeton fans would have to wait for another chance to pull a major NCAA upset, but it only took eight years, until the Tigers stunned defending champion UCLA 43-41 in 1997. Gabe Lewullis ’99 scored the game-winning basket in the final seconds, using the play that made the Princeton offense famous: a backdoor cut. But that’s a topic for another class.
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