Were you at the Princeton-Dartmouth game? You may have heard about it: Two undefeated teams facing off in a game that would determine the Ivy League championship. It was a bitter ending to an otherwise great season: Before a capacity crowd of around 45,000 at Palmer Stadium, Princeton’s vaunted offense took a first quarter lead, but then was stifled by the Indians of Dartmouth and lost, 28-14.
The Princeton-Dartmouth game I am referring to, of course, is not last month’s game between the Princeton Tigers and the Big Green of Dartmouth. Princeton won that one, 14-9, clinched a tie for the Ivy League title with a convincing win at Yale last week, and can win the title outright and preserve a perfect 10-0 season by defeating Penn Saturday, November 17, at 1 p.m. at Princeton Stadium.
I’m referring to another Princeton-Dartmouth game, on November 20, 1965. It was the waning days of a different era in college football, when a team like Princeton still cradled memories of not-so-distant glory days. There was the undefeated “Team of Destiny” in the fall of 1922, when Princeton defeated the University of Chicago in the first college football game broadcast on national radio. A generation later, in 1951, Dick Kazmaier led Princeton to an undefeated season and earned the Heisman Trophy in the process.
By the 1960s Dartmouth had become an arch rival. Two years before the big game of 1965, Princeton and Dartmouth postponed the game for a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Only (!) 35,000 fans showed up on the cold and windy game day. With a win Princeton would be the Ivy champion. But Dartmouth scored in the waning minutes when Princeton’s Cosmo Iacavazzi fumbled deep in Princeton territory and Dartmouth recovered on the 2 yard line.
Two years later, in 1965, Princeton and Dartmouth both cruised to successive victories. Early in the season Princeton defeated Rutgers, 32-6. George Paul Savidge was Princeton’s captain. His fraternal twin, George Peter Savidge, was captain of Rutgers (the brothers had the same first name). The game was decided by Charlie Gogolak, who kicked six field goals for Princeton, including one from 52 yards. Later in the season opposing teams had players stand on other players’ shoulders in attempts to deter Gogolak. The rules were later changed to ban such maneuvers.
By the 1965 Dartmouth game Princeton had a 17-game winning streak, including all nine games in Iacavazzi’s senior year of 1964. Even though he had graduated (and been drafted by the New York Jets), the Princeton team and its idiosyncratic single-wing offense was still highly regarded. There was a feature-length article in Sports Illustrated and talk that Princeton could win the then-prestigious Lambert Trophy as top team in the east. By game time Palmer Stadium was filled to capacity.
I was a freshman that year. More than 50 years later many memories have faded, but the image of 45,000 fans, with some standing in the parapet that lined the horseshoe-shaped stadium, remains. So does the feeling of the bubble bursting, as Dartmouth rolled to a 28-14 victory. Late in the third quarter Paul Savidge sustained an injury as he tackled a Dartmouth runner. He stayed in the game for two more plays, and then limped to the sideline. It was later determined that his neck was broken. He spent four months in the hospital and decided to pursue a medical degree.
Lots has changed in Ivy League football. The Dartmouth Indians became the Big Green. Princeton’s single wing was discarded in favor of the T-formation.
As a young freelance writer a few years out of college I covered Princeton games for two seasons for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. In 1972 Princeton’s record was 3-5-1. The tie was a scoreless game with Columbia, as good as kissing your sister, I reported.
That turned out to be Jake McCandless’s last year of coaching. The results-oriented Princeton athletic department brought in a younger coach, Bob Casciola, like McCandless a former Princeton football player. The team finished the season 1-8. In the first game, a harbinger, Rutgers defeated Princeton, 39-14. In those days Rutgers wasn’t used to beating Princeton so handily — its fans tore down both goal posts before the game was over.
It was even worse the next year, when Rutgers broke a scoreless tie late in the game. Rowdy Rutgers fans tore down both sets of goal posts. But Princeton rallied, scored a touchdown, and then had no opportunity to win the game with an extra point kick. Instead a two-point passing play failed, resulting in a 6-6 tie. Years later I was reporting on nightlife in New Brunswick and ended up at a Rutgers fraternity party. Above the bar was a chunk of wood, with a statement on it, saying something like “Rutgers beats Princeton, 6-6.”
While probably no living Princeton alumnus would believe there is a correlation, it is nonetheless true that Princeton’s football fortunes generally went downward since the switch from the single wing. Coeducation, women’s sports, and the increased diversity of the student body contributed to the decline. In 1997 the colossal Palmer Stadium, built in 1914, was torn down and replaced by the smaller but more elegant Princeton Stadium, designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly.
More changes were made. Concerned about concussions, the Ivy League changed the kickoff line and reduced the number of run backs — plays with opposing players racing at each other at full speed and in which a disproportionate number of concussions occurred. The Ivy League schools also eliminated full contact during mid-week practices.
Football is a seductive sport for institutions trying to stand out from their peers. Princeton overreached when it planned its replacement for Palmer Stadium, commissioning a building that was about 10,000 seats larger (27,773 the official capacity), and $15 million more expensive ($45 million was the cost) than the typical stadium used by Princeton’s peers. Today the university is considering the possibility of tearing down the upper level of the “new” stadium to reduce the footprint of campus buildings and presumably make room for more buildings of a different sort.
Something similar, but not so easy to ameliorate, may be happening at Rutgers. In 2014 the Scarlet Knights, an independent school back in the 1960s, petitioned their way into the Big Ten. Since then Rutgers’ record has been 7-34 in the league, 19-40 overall. When I see a more established Big 10 team crush Rutgers I sometimes feel sorry for our neighbors up the road. But then I recall those glory days they still savor. How’s that goal post looking at the frat bar, guys?
Another big change is the attendance at the games. This year’s battle of the unbeatens, Princeton-Dartmouth, was played on a cool but sunny autumn day. The crowd was announced at around 8,000, enough people to create a real sense of excitement but not enough to fill even the lower level of Princeton Stadium. With anything less than perfect weather the crowd at Saturday’s game could be less than that. Of course, the team is also competing against itself — the games are webcast on ESP+.
But make no mistake: This is a big game for Princeton against an opponent that has little to lose except the game, and everything to gain if it pulls off an upset. A Princeton loss would be bitter ending to an otherwise great season. For Penn a win would be another glory day to savor, a chance to bring a memento back to some frat house bar.