It is a clear, bright, unseasonably warm October day at
Princeton, and the university, 250 years old this very weekend,
is a riot of color and sound. Some 10,000 alumni have descended
on these Gothic premises to toast their alma mater on Charter
Weekend, and they are entertained royally by campus officials
ever grateful for the graduates' emotional and financial fidelity.
In the shadow of old Nassau Hall a jazz band resonates. There
are puppet shows, rock concerts, theatrical presentations,
lectures, tours, fireworks shows and sporting events. Serenity
may be found on this busy Friday only at the southern tip of the
campus, where autumn breezes detach drying leaves from gently
swaying trees, and once proud Palmer Stadium stands cool and
gray, like some ruin from antiquity.
And a ruin, regrettably, it is. Black netting encases Palmer's
decaying columns, the better to protect unwary spectators from
falling concrete. The stadium's Roman facade is now so
pockmarked with dislodged chunks that Princeton athletic
director Gary Walters has described Palmer anthropomorphically
as "suffering from a terminal case of acne." The wooden seats
are rotting and splintered, and a section of stands at the open
end of the horseshoe has been fenced off as unsafe.
Eighty-two-year-old Palmer Stadium, once the regal setting of
Princeton football glory, is doomed to face the wreckers' ball
at the close of this season.
Concrete was first poured for the stadium on June 29, 1914, by
the George A. Fuller Co. With workers on the east and west sides
competing against each other, the 45,725-seat structure was
completed a month ahead of schedule, in time for the fifth game
of that season, against Dartmouth. The stadium cost $300,000,
donated to Princeton by Edgar Palmer, class of '03, who
dedicated the structure to the memory of his father, Stephen S.
Princeton's greatest football hero up to that time, Hobey Baker,
class of '14, missed playing in Palmer, but other famous Tigers,
powerful teams and memorable games would follow in happy
abundance. Princeton, an Eastern Seaboard powerhouse, would have
undefeated teams in 1920, '22, '33, '35, '50, '51 and '64. The
1922 team was christened by sportswriter Grantland Rice as the
Team of Destiny after it defeated Amos Alonzo Stagg's University
of Chicago juggernaut 21-18. The 1933 team outscored opponents
217-8, chalking up seven consecutive shutouts. Coach Charlie
Caldwell's single-wing teams won 24 games in a row between 1949
and 1952. The Tigers of '50 and '51, led by Heisman Trophy
winner Dick Kazmaier, finished undefeated.
Knute Rockne took Notre Dame teams to Palmer in 1923 and '24,
and there he met at least his oratorical match in Tigers coach
Bill Roper. Roper, the head man since 1919 and a star end on
Princeton's 12-1 team of 1899, was also a lawyer, insurance
executive and three-term Philadelphia city councilman. But his
approach to football was hardly cerebral. "This game is
90-percent fight," he was fond of saying. "There is a great deal
of bunk to all this talk of 'system' and involved plays." He
would tell players, "If you have a Princeton jersey on and the
other man doesn't, you have him licked."
But the team wearing Notre Dame jerseys defeated Roper's Tigers
25-2 in 1923, ending a 10-game Princeton winning streak. A year
later, on Oct. 25, 1924, Palmer Stadium would entertain college
football's most legendary team. The week before in New York's
Polo Grounds, Notre Dame had beaten Army 13-7, behind Rockne's
small (159-pound average) but swift backfield. Rice was so taken
with the four backs' dash and daring that he wrote, in his game
account for the New York Herald Tribune, this immortal lead:
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen
rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine,
Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their
real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."
After a photograph of the four players on horseback appeared in
virtually every newspaper in the land, a capacity crowd turned
out to see the Four Horsemen ride into Palmer. And ride they
did, helping Notre Dame down the previously unbeaten Tigers
12-0. Left halfback Jim Crowley scored both touchdowns.
The Nov. 23, 1935, game between Princeton and Dartmouth was
played in a snowstorm so severe that patrons in Palmer's upper
seats could not see the field. In a 26-6 win the Tigers, who
threw only one pass all day, outgained previously undefeated
Dartmouth 208 yards to 49. Then a Dartmouth fan, well fortified
internally against the cold, tottered out of the stands late in
the fourth quarter and lined up with the Dartmouth defense for a
goal line stand. "Kill the Princeton bastards!" he bellowed in
encouragement. But Princeton's Jack White scored anyway in a
game known thereafter as the Twelfth Man Game.
The elements also played havoc in a Nov. 25, 1950, game between
Princeton and--who else?--Dartmouth. Hurricane Flora, with
80-mph winds gusting up to 108, raged through Palmer Stadium,
and torrential rain drenched the 5,000 spectators (of an
original crowd of 31,000) who stayed to brave the storm. A
tarpaulin protecting the turf was blown loose from its moorings
shortly before kickoff, and the field was instantly under an
inch of water. The opening coin toss disappeared into the
torrent. When they had the wind behind them, both teams often
punted on first down rather than risk fumbling the soggy ball.
Punts with the wind sailed the length of the field; a punt
against the wind blew backward over the head of the kicker.
There were 19 fumbles, 13 by Dartmouth. But even a hurricane
couldn't stop Kazmaier, who scored on a 37-yard run and set up a
second touchdown with a 23-yard wade. Princeton won 13-7.
In a 1974 game at Palmer, Rutgers fans were so excited by their
team's 6-0 lead late in the fourth quarter that many of
them--shades of the Twelfth Man Game--descended on the field and
tore down the goalposts. It was a premature celebration,
however, since Princeton soon scored the tying touchdown.
Deprived of goalposts, the Tigers tried to run for the
conversion. They failed, and the game ended in a tie.
Perhaps the most thrilling game ever played in Palmer was in
1981 against Yale, won in the last four seconds when Tigers
quarterback Bob Holly, who had already passed for an Ivy
League-record 501 yards, scored on a keeper from the one-yard
line. The final score was 35-31. It was a season of prolific
scoring at Palmer. The week before, the Tigers had lost 55-44 to
Maine. A Maine assistant coach that day was Steve Tosches, the
current Princeton coach.
The balcony down the hall from Tosches's office in Jadwin Gym
looks out on the open end of Palmer Stadium. From that vantage
point the old warhorse seems to rise majestically into the
clouds, and it appears, for all of its blemishes, as impressive
as on the day it was built. "It has lived its life, and it's
been a good life," said Tosches one day on the balcony. "And its
time has come. But there are ghosts there."
W. Thacher Longstreth, Princeton class of '41, hasn't missed a
game at Palmer in 47 years. "Palmer Stadium to me will always be
more Princeton than any other single building," he told Jerry
Price of the university's athletic communications department.
"To lose it is a sign of my own mortality."
But undergraduates seem to have less of a romantic attachment to
the stadium. "I don't think there is really a student following
for football, as opposed to other sports, such as lacrosse and
basketball," says Mike Clementi, class of 1999. Indeed, the
loudest cheer from the Princeton rooting section during the 24-0
Charter Weekend loss to Harvard was for the halftime appearance
of three male streakers on the field.
Palmer is now second only to Harvard Stadium, built in 1903 and
extensively renovated in 1982, as the oldest college football
stadium in the country. Demolition will begin soon after the
last game of the season, on Nov. 23 against Dartmouth, and
construction of the $45 million replacement will start in the
spring of 1997.
Palmer, however, will be remembered as the site of more
inspiring runs and the setting for some of the game's most
memorable contests. Its replacement should have as distinguished
B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN In 1920, a capacity crowd of 45,725 packed Palmer to see the unbeaten Tigers down Yale 20-0. [Princeton University playing Yale University in football at Palmer Stadium]
COLOR PHOTO: JON ADAMS Piecemeal repairs have only postponed Palmer's demise.[Cracked drain in Palmer Stadium]