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A look at heated rivalries and the football history of the Big Three

Billowing flames engulf a wooden structure as crowds gather in the background.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have often been described as the Ivy League’s “Big Three,” a term coined in the mid-1880s to refer to the three of the country’s best football teams. Today, the “Big Three” label has evolved to signify academic prestige, rather than athletic prowess. Currently, they place third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in total Ivy League football championships.

If Princeton defeats both Harvard and Yale in the same season, the University lights a large bonfire, to symbolize the capture of the Big Three Title. The Princeton Tigers’ recent homecoming game win against Harvard on Oct. 21 brings them halfway towards a bonfire. The Undergraduate Student Government (USG) has earmarked $10,000 under its bonfire reserve. 


Traditionally, this event was held on the Friday evening before the final game of the season, serving as both a pep rally and celebration. The most recent bonfire occurred in 2021 on Cannon Green after the final game of the season, marking the second bonfire during the four years at Princeton for many members of the Class of 2022.

Since 2009, Princeton has held four bonfires: in 2012, 2013, 2018, and 2021. Princeton has beaten Harvard eight times and has beaten Yale six times. Within these 15 seasons, a split — where Princeton beats one team and loses to the other — occurs in fewer than half.

The bonfire was historically built to celebrate wins in baseball but quickly changed to include football as the sport increased in popularity. In the early 20th century, two bonfires were held each year, one for baseball and one for football. According to University Archives, a bonfire was built in 1914, but Princeton football lost to both Harvard and Yale, while Princeton baseball beat Yale in two of three games that season, but lost to Harvard in the one game played that season.

The Daily Princetonian analyzed all football games Princeton has played against Harvard and Yale since its first football game in 1869. After analyzing archival footage, it appears several bonfires in the early 1900s may have been set after winning against one team and tying with the other.

In some earlier seasons, Princeton did not always play both Harvard and Yale, unable to secure bonfires these seasons. Between 1889 and 1908, Princeton only played Harvard thrice, winning each time. During this time, Princeton lost to Yale 13 times, beat them six times, and tied once.


The past two bonfires, in 2021 and 2018, were set ablaze with wood panels reflecting the scores of the games. Other pallets in the fire contain jabs at Harvard and Yale, calling them “Safety Schools” and writing “Yale is number 5 in the ranking but last in our hearts”.

Princeton first won against both Harvard and Yale in the same season in 1878. During this period of college football’s development, tie games were still allowed and occurred often. Between 1889 and 1908, Princeton lost to Yale all but six times, winning against both Harvard and Yale twice in this period. Between 1969 and 1988, Princeton lost 25 games to Harvard and Yale, winning only 13.

The longest period of no bonfires occurred between 1967 and 1981, where Princeton won no games against Yale. Despite this losing streak against Yale, wins against Harvard were on the same trend as they had been in prior years, winning approximately every other year.  

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Princeton has played both Harvard and Yale in football every season beginning in 1946, aside from the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of these 76 seasons, Princeton has secured bonfires 20 times. Since 1946, of the seasons when Princeton beats Harvard, Princeton also beats Yale 51 percent of the time. Starting in 1946, Princeton has consistently played Harvard first each season, before playing against Yale, often as the final or penultimate game.

Some wins against Harvard and Yale were tight victories secured in the final moments of the game. For example, last weekend, the Tigers scored a touchdown with 1:28 to go in the game to secure a win over Harvard. 

When Princeton’s football team is successful one year, they have a good chance of success the following year. Princeton’s longest back-to-back streak of bonfires occurred between 1947 and 1952, beating both Harvard and Yale in six consecutive years. 

“With four championships in a row, we want this bonfire to be the biggest that Princeton has ever seen,” head cheerleader of Princeton’s 1950 cheer team, Richard Buck ’51, told the ‘Prince’ in 1950

The bonfire-deciding game will take place on Nov. 11 at Princeton Stadium when the Princeton Tigers face off against the Yale Bulldogs as the final game of the season.  

Andrew Bosworth is an assistant Data editor for the ‘Prince.’

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