Richard K. Rein’s November 13 column on Princeton University’s football program and the reference to the glory days of the 1950s and ’60s, when Princeton utilized the single wing offense, led to the following letter from a longtime Princeton football fan.
The recent death of Princeton’s all-time great football player Dick Kazmaier has brought forth many stories of how good he was, and how successful the Princeton team was during his time playing there. It has also brought forth its share of mythology and misinformation. A recent story in the Trenton Times claims he was, “a Heisman Trophy winner on Princeton’s 1950 National Championship team.”
That’s really distorting the truth. Kazmaier was a member of the Class of 1952, and thus played his final season in the fall of 1951, which is when he won the Heisman, not 1950. The team was undefeated in both 1950 and 1951, but there was no such thing in those days as a national college football championship. Colleges were ranked in several press polls as the season progressed, and the best Princeton ever ranked was sixth at the end of the 1951 season.
Here are some additional facts to set the record straight. As an undergraduate and Princeton resident at the same time as he played, I attended every home game he ever played, and can speak with authority. Although I did not play football and did not know him personally, I was a big fan — as were most undergraduates — and a friend of many of his teammates.
At the end of his final season in 1951, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy, symbolic of the outstanding player in college football. There’s no question that it was well deserved. During both his junior and senior years he was chosen All-American along with several other members of the Princeton team. One of the defensive tackles, Hollie Donan, was not only All-American, but was also chosen “Lineman of the Year” in 1950.
In the 1951 season, two other teammates joined Kazmaier as All-Americans. (Mentioning a “defensive” tackle reminds me that it was in the late ’40s that football teams began to play what was referred to as “platoon” football, with the squad divided into offensive and defensive platoons, specialists who played on only offense or defense, but rarely both. Up until then football teams were essentially 11 players plus substitutes. Now they use 22 plus substitutes.)
Princeton was undefeated during the 1950 and 1951 seasons, Kazmaier’s junior and senior years. But outside of having the best record of any of the so-called “Ivy League” colleges, that was it as far as national recognition was concerned. In those days, there was no formal “Ivy League” to be “champion” of. Ranked well ahead of it nationally were teams like Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Michigan State. Cornell and Penn were the only other “Ivy” schools to receive any national recognition then.
A factor in Princeton’s success in the Kazmaier era was the fact that they played the “single-wing” formation rather than the “T” formation that was used by just about every other team in the country. The single wing featured a backfield consisting of a quarterback, a fullback, and two half-backs, one of which Kazmaier played.
All of these players had specific assignments for each play, and the ball was snapped by the center directly to one of the four backs to start every play. The back called the quarterback rarely handled the ball and hardly ever threw a pass. His main job was to call the plays in the huddle. (There was no communication with the sidelines then, except for hand signals.)
Passing was usually done by the half-backs, one of whom was designated the “tailback” on specific plays. In the “T” formation, of course, which is universally used these days, the center snaps the ball to the quarterback on just about every play and the quarterback does almost all the passing.
One of Kazmaier’s greatest strengths was his ability with plays that featured a pass-run option. He was very adept at deciding after a play had started whether or not to run or pass if he found an open receiver. Princeton’s opponents had difficulty defending against the single-wing because none of their other opponents used it. Princeton coach Charlie Caldwell perfected it to a degree no one else had ever done. He even wrote a book about it.
— Dick Snedeker
Snedeker, who retired in 1997 from the Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, earned an aeronautical engineering degree in 1951 from Princeton University, where he was also a four-year participant (and school record holder) in track and cross country. He was a classmate of the late Jake McCandless, who for two years played back-up to Kazmaier and later was the football coach who oversaw the conversion of Princeton’s offense from the single wing to the T-formation. Snedeker now writes a biweekly column, “Looking Back,” for the West Windsor-Plainsboro News.
In the Yale-Princeton game that Rein referenced in his column, Princeton clinched a tie for the Ivy League title with a 59-23 victory.