Everyone knows Michigan football is famous for its winged helmet design. Many of you smartypants types also know that credit for originating the winged concept is usually given to Princeton coach Fritz Crisler, who came up with the design in 1935 and then took it with him to Michigan in 1938.
That version of the story is all over the web — on the Michigan web site, on the Princeton web site, at the Helmet Project (scroll down to the Princeton section), in this Daily Princetonian article, and so on. It’s the story I’ve always heard, and I’ve repeated it myself many times.
But now a counter-narrative has emerged. I first became aware of it a few weeks ago, when reader Chad Todd pointed me toward this Wikipedia entry. It states, “Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) debuted the winged helmet on September 30, 1933. The wings were a Michigan State College symbol two years before Herbert O. ‘Fritz’ Crisler ordered the helmets out of the Spalding catalog for Princeton University, and five years before they were introduced at University of Michigan.”
That was news to me, so I started doing a little digging. The Wikipedia claim appeared to be based on this Michigan State fan page. As you can see if you click on the photos on the right-hand side of the page, the Michigan State helmets aren’t exactly the same winged design we’re used to seeing — they have fewer stripes (sometimes none at all). But the winged crown is recognizable enough. Pretty convincing stuff.
So why has the Princeton/Crisler narrative become the party line over the years, and why has Michigan State been omitted from that narrative? To help answer those questions, I got in touch with Eric Greenwald, who runs that fan page. He and I ended up having several back-and-forths via e-mail. Here are edited versions of some of the questions I asked him and the answers he provided:
Uni Watch: How long has your page about the winged helmet been up on the web?
Eric Greenwald: I launched it back in April.
UW: Has it attracted any attention or sparked any controversy?
EG: Not yet — I haven’t had the budget to broadcast it as loudly as it deserves. My intention is to set the record straight. We constantly see the winged helmets on the field in Ann Arbor. Being a diehard MSU fan, I wanted to create a page explaining the facts and the history behind the winged helmet, proving that MSU was wearing that style before our friends in Ann Arbor.
UW: What’s your background? Like, are you an MSU student, or alum? Just a passionate fan? An amateur football historian? Do you live in Michigan?
EG: I did not attend MSU. My dad did for both of his degrees, and together we were season ticket-holders for basketball and football before I moved to North Carolina for a better job. I guess you could say I’m an amateur football historian and MSU memorabilia collector. I am very passionate about both.
UW: It’s great that you wanted to “set the record straight,” but how did you know that it needed to be set straight to begin with? The standard story for years has been that the winged design originated with Princeton — when and how did you determine that that wasn’t the case?
EG: If you look at this Michigan web page, which is linked from almost every web page that talks about winged helmets, you’ll see that it includes this line: “Michigan State had adopted its version of a ‘winged helmet’ several years earlier.” So it’s always been part of the story — that page is from Michigan’s own library! — but most people either overlook it or choose to ignore it, for whatever reasons.
UW: Wow — I’ve looked at that page many times, and linked to it probably dozens of times, but I’d never noticed that line.
EG: And there’s more. In the book The Tradition Continues — Spartan Football, page 515 has this: “In 1933, new Head Coach Charlie Bachman introduced the Spartans in gold and black. He brought gold to MSC [Michigan State College, the school's original name] from his days at Notre Dame. The team wore gold pants and gold helmets with a black wing design. Jerseys were black with gold numbers. The helmets were eventually emblazoned with a black wing with a gold ‘S’ in the middle.”
And in the book Michigan State Football: They Are Spartans, page 32 shows a picture of a Michigan State College football game vs. Michigan from 10/6/34. Michigan State College is wearing winged helmets, Michigan is not. This would be one year before Princeton started wearing them. I have additional examples from reliable sources that make it clear that Michigan State College wore the winged helmets first.
UW: Anything else you want to add?
EG: Yes, there are a few items I would like to make clear:
• While Crisler didn’t invent the winged helmet, Michigan State coach Charles Bachman didn’t invent it either. My research indicates that Spalding came up with the design and Bachman was the first coach to use it.
• It is unknown whether MSU started to wear the winged helmets in 1933 or 1934. Bachman became coach in 1933, so it makes sense that the Spartans started wearing them that season. But the earliest photograph I’ve found of any team wearing the winged helmets is from 1934. Also, the team’s 1933 team portrait (which doesn’t show the helmets) indicates that they had a different uniform in ’33 than in ’34, so they may have had a different helmet as well.
• Many people have said, “MSU was one of many schools wearing winged helmets at that time, but they weren’t the first.” My response has always been this: “There’s pictorial proof that MSU wore the winged helmets in 1934 and I have yet to see proof from another college that predates that.”
– – – – –
For all I know, maybe most of you folks already knew all of this. But for me, it totally rewrites the book. Just another reminder that history isn’t always as neat and tidy as we think it is.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Today is the 55th anniversary of the first zebra stripes worn by NHL officials, and Jeff Barak has marked the occasion by producing an excellent piece about the history of NHL refs’ jerseys. … Small item at the bottom of this page indicates that Wisconsin football will have “new uniforms for next season … similar to the ones worn by the New York Giants.” What exactly does that mean? Eric Yarolimek says it means “a lot of gray in the pants.” … Doug Keklak notes that Pitt wore their gold hoops uniforms for the first time this season on Monday night. … We all know that MLB teams wore a 100th-anniversary patch in 1969. But you might not know that Jim Beam whiskey also used the MLB centennial as an occasion to issue this commemorative bottle. Bill Scrowther found that in his parents’ basement. Love the stirrups, natch. … Now that FIU baseball player Garrett Wittels is facing a rape charge, lots of photos of him are circulating, which has led to the surprising revelation that FIU’s BP jersey insignia is a total Padres rip-off (as noted by Brady Phelps). … Tim Tebow isn’t allowed to cite Bible verses on his eye black now that he’s in the NFL. So he’s citing them on his play-calling wristband instead. Not sure if he’s being fined, but I’ve asked the league about it — will advise (with thanks to Aaron Scher). … Jake Keys scanned some old photos from his early-1980s youth in Barboursville, West Virginia. “This one is a basketball all-star uniform for Barboursville Midget League Basketball,” he says. “I loved the side panel of stars (it was a mesh panel). We also had matching whites for home games. And this one is a basketball uniform for Tower Grocery. As you see, this team of six players had three different uniforms, along with socks that varied in length, color, stripes, etc. Just a great mismatch photo.” … Here are the cleats Florida will be wearing in the Outback Bowl (with thanks to Dan Wunderlich). … You’ll probably be staying up late on New Year’s Eve anyway, so you may as well stay up until 2:30am Eastern, when the MLB Network’s “Prime 9″ series will feature “the all-time top 9 unique uniforms.” They’ve already aired this at least once, and Dan Cichalski caught part of it: “I saw Nos. 5 through 1: mustard-and-brown Padres, A’s, Pirates, tequila sunrise Astros, and White Sox shorts and collars. Jerry Reuss comments on several (even if he didn’t wear them).” … MLB’s shortest NOB is Shea-bound. … Color-vs.-color alert. Okay, those are actually screen shots from a Three Stooges movie. You can see the corresponding video here (great job by Larry Bodnovich). … Who’s that guy in the pullover and slacks? None other than our own Terry Proctor, who was student manager for the 1964-65 Livingston Conference Champion Livonia Bulldogs. “The stirrups and shorts were both royal blue with orange stripes/trim, and the jerseys were orange with royal blue and white numbers and trim,” says Terry. “The jerseys were all made by King-O’Shea but were ordered in different years — that’s why the number fonts are different. Even pro teams ordered piece-meal in those days.” … Soccer note from Cort McMurray, who writes: “It’s been a cold winter in England, and since many Premier League players come from sunnier climes, a new accoutrement has shown up on the EPL pitches. They’re calling it a snood, but it’s really a neck-warmer with drawstrings, so you can make it as snug as you want. And it pulls high, Bazooka Joe-like, so you can cover your mouth, nose, and ears, if you’d like. Carlos Tevez of Manchester City is widely credited as the first player to wear one, but there are a bunch of guys sporting them. The Man City online store was selling them under the name ‘neck gaiter,’ but they sold out the day they went on sale.” … While looking for something else, I came across some shots of former NHLer Pierre Turgeon as a Little Leaguer (he’s the big kid standing next to the coach in the back row of the team photo). His team represented Canada in the Little League World Series. … Rafael Pereira da Silva of Manchester United had one of his uni numerals peeling off yesterday (screen shot by Leondrus Thornton). … The new Big 10 logo is already showing up in game broadcasts. Kyle Campbell took that screen shot from last night’s Champs Sports Bowl. … Mississippi State QB Chris Relf will memorialize former teammate Nick Bell by wearing Bell’s No. 36 in the Gator Bowl. Full details about halfway down this page (with thanks to Dan Cichalski). … Two notable things about this photo: First, Antoine Winfield, who was fined last week for wearing solid-white socks, has rediscovered the Vikings’ team colors. And second, it’s good to see Michael Vick wearing sewn-in pockets instead of a strap-on muff. … West Virginia wore their Amateur Armistice uniforms last night, and I can’t stop laughing long enough to give a shit. … Did you know players in bowl games get all kinds of swag? The funniest part is that participants in the Outback Bowl get a $150 Best Buy gift card but only a $25 Outback gift card. Genius! Further details here. … This is so freaking great: Remember Dave Robertson’s jersey with the wrong uni number font during the ALCS? That jersey is now owned by Uni Watch reader Carl Hacker, who recently bought himself a game-used Robertson jersey in an online auction and didn’t realize what he was getting until he opened the package. “I unwrapped the jersey, turned it over, and took one look at the number,” he says. “It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning — the wrong font. I almost fainted. I then remembered your article about this during the playoffs.” … Hey, remember when Chris Cooley walked around Redskins camp in his underwear? Now it turns out he’s a potter. All we need now is to find out that Cooley is also into Broadway musicals and I figure a few million macho NFL fans’ heads will spontaneously explode. … Check this out: a huge stash of NBA Hardwood Classics tube sox. … Big day here at Uni Watch HQ, as the cats and I will be getting a visit from longtime reader Michael Princip. He’s the man behind so many uni-related projects, including the Oregon “Duck Tracker” page, the Seahawks site Greenxoblue, the Illustrated NFL artwork site, and the Bulwark anti-concussion helmet. Looking forward to meeting you, Mike — don’t forget to bring your pick-axe, since some of the snow drifts are now turning to ice.