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.”
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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.
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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. 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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.