For decades, many believed the winged helmet was invented by Princeton Coach Fritz Crisler in 1935, who then took the helmets to Michigan in 1938. However, there is more to this history than what was previously thought.
Four other teams wore the winged helmets before Fritz Crisler’s Princeton team, including University of Michigan’s rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. History proves that no coach or team invented the design of the winged helmet, it was simply a Spalding stock item that several colleges used starting in 1930.
On September 11, 1930, Ohio State Head Coach Sam Willaman had his Buckeyes debut new uniforms along with winged helmets at Northwestern.1 This was the first time any team, either college or professional, wore a winged helmet.
The first winged helmet was a dark leather helmet with a lighter contrasting color wing on the front. The wing was put in place as extra padding to help sustain collisions.
Willaman had his teams wear the winged helmet for three seasons and in 1934, new Head Coach Francis Schmidt kept the winged helmets for his first season, but opted to return to the traditional leather helmets during his second season in 1935.
In 1933, Indiana started wearing winged helmets under Head Coach Earle “Billy” Hayes with a victory over Miami (OH) on September 30, 1933.2
Indiana’s winged helmet consisted of a black leather helmet with a white wing and three white stripes running from front to back. A small block “I” logo was centered on the front of the wing.
In 1934, Indiana hired a new head coach, Alvin “Bo” McMillin, who began phasing out the winged helmets only one year after the helmets were debuted at Indiana. Photos of the team and games depict only half of Indiana’s players wearing winged helmets during this season, with the other half wearing the traditional leather helmet. This suggests the NCAA and Big Ten rules regarding consistency with helmets were more flexible in 1934.3
By 1935, the entire team switched back to traditional leather helmets ending their two-year stint wearing the winged helmets.
In 1933, Georgetown University wore winged helmets under new Head Coach Jack Hagerty. Georgetown’s winged helmet was not painted along its stitching like Ohio State and Indiana, but featured a small block “G” logo centered on the front of the wing, similar to Indiana’s “I” logo.4
For the 1939 season, the Hoyas briefly switched back to an all-gray leather helmet, but returned wearing their second-generation winged helmet from 1940-42.5
The second-generation winged helmet was a gray leather helmet with a black contrasting wing on the front.5
In 1934 during Charlie Bachman’s second season at Michigan State, he outfitted his teams in black and gold. The colors were reminiscent from Bachman’s days at Notre Dame, when he played football alongside Knute Rockne.5
Known as an innovator, not only did Bachman introduce new colors, he also chose for his players to wear the unique winged helmet, instead of the traditional leather helmet most football teams were wearing.
The leather, winged helmets were gold with a contrasting black wing design. A small gold block “S” logo was centered on the front of the wing with a single black stripe running from front to back.5
The winged helmets were worn during 12 of the 13 seasons of Charlie Bachman’s rein as head coach for Michigan State football.
Bachman’s successor, Head Coach “Biggie” Munn, returned Michigan State football back to the school colors of green and white. Munn had a new winged helmet designed. The second generation winged helmet was white with a green wing design and a small MacGregor Goldsmith logo centered on the front of the wing.5
On September 27, 1947, Munn’s coaching debut resulted in a 50-0 loss to arch rival University of Michigan. After the game, Munn scrapped the second generation leather winged helmets and replaced them with Riddell plastic suspension helmets. The new helmets were green with a white center stripe, which ultimately ended the winged design for Michigan State College.5
In 1935, Princeton’s head coach, Herbert O. “Fritz” Crisler, admired the winged helmets that were worn by a handful of college football teams and decided to duplicate them.
Princeton’s winged helmet consisted of a black leather helmet with an orange colored wings and three stripes running from front to back. Just as other college football teams were benefiting from the design, the wings acted as a highly visible emblem on the helmet which, when painted orange, assisted his quarterbacks to more readily spot their downfield receivers.7
This winged helmet was included in the 1937 Spalding Official Intercollegiate Football Guide. It was called the FH5 helmet and was described as “National Federation H.S.A.A. Approved.” This was a streamlined version of the helmet and consisted of:
Spalding sold these helmets for $10 a piece.8
The very next year, the same winged helmet with three stripes graced the cover of the 1938 Spalding Official Intercollegiate Football Guide. The cover photo was taken from Princeton’s game against the University of Chicago, which was Crisler’s alma mater.8
When Crisler left for the University of Michigan at the end of the 1937 season, Princeton returned to the traditional leather helmets for the 1938 season.7
On September 19, 1998, Princeton’s football team began wearing the winged helmet once again, after taking 61 seasons off.7
Winged Helmet Controversy
Some people claim Princeton’s head coach, Herbert O. “Fritz” Crisler, was the inventor of the winged helmets when he had his Princeton Tigers football team wear them in 1935. Supporters of this say Crisler created the design to resemble, not wings, but a fighting tiger’s ears flared back. He painted the three stripes orange, matching the tiger striping on the Princeton jerseys.
This claim, however, is found to be false. Historical data confirms that Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State College outfitted their football teams with a winged helmet, with Ohio State starting in 1930, five seasons prior to Crisler’s selection of the Princeton Tigers’ helmet in 1935.
In 1938, Crisler arrived as the new head coach of the University of Michigan. Just like he had done for Princeton, he ordered the FH5 winged helmets from the 1938 Spalding Official Intercollegiate Football Guide for his new team.
The University of Michigan helmet consisted of a blue leather helmet with a maize colored wing and three stripes running from front to back.
The first game in which University of Michigan football players wore the Michigan helmet was against arch rival Michigan State College on September 1, 1938.8 In this game, both opponents wore winged helmets.
Even though University of Michigan was not the first to debut the winged helmet, it did make it famous. During the switch from leather helmets to plastic suspension helmets, most teams changed their helmet designs as well. However, University of Michigan retained the winged design by painting the wings and stripes on the new, plastic suspension helmets and have worn the wings ever since.
It’s ironic that University of Michigan’s history with the winged helmet is the most limited, though through consistency they have turned the design into arguably the most recognizable helmets in college football.
1Laybourne, Everette B. and William K. Thomas. The Makio 1931. Columbus: Junior Class of the Student Body of Ohio State University, 1931. Page 25.
2Rensberger, Lamar. The 1934 Arbutus: Vol. 41. Undergraduates of Indiana University, 1934. Page 124.
3Drabing, Selma. The Arbutus of 1935: Vol. 42. Bloomington: Undergraduates of Indiana University, 1935. Page 92.
4Reagan, John. “Re: Georgetown Winged Helmets.” Message to Eric Greenwald. 28 April 2011. E-mail.
5Constantine S. Demos and Steven S. Demos, M.D., The Tradition Continues: Spartan Football (Muskegon: Michigan State University Football Players Association, 2008) 515.
6Tiger Football. “The Tiger Helmet.” 26 Mar. 2010 http://www.princeton.edu/football/helmet.htm.
7Princeton Online Weekly. “After 61 years, “Tiger” helmet returns to Princeton.” The Trustees of Princeton University Sep. 1998, 26 Mar. 2010 http://www.princeton.edu/paw/archive_old/PAW98-99/01-0909/0909sptx.html#story2.
8Bentley Historical Library: University of Michigan Athletics History. “University of Michigan Football: Michigan’s Winged Helmet.” The Regents of the University of Michigan. Apr. 2006, 26 Mar. 2010 http://bentley.umich.edu/athdept/football/helmet/mhelmet.htm.
Photography Credits: Masthead image is courtesy of The Tradition Continues – Spartan Football; image of Ohio State winged helmet debut is courtesy of The Ohio State University’s Makio Yearbook; images of Indiana’s winged helmets are courtesy of Indiana University’s Arbutus Yearbook; images of Michigan State College’s winged helmets are courtesy of Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections; image of Princeton University’s Charley Toll is courtesy of Tiger Football; image of Spalding’s FH5 helmet is courtesy of Bentley Historical Library; image of 1938 Spalding Official Intercollegiate Football Guide is courtesy of Spalding; image of University of Michigan winged helmet debut is courtesy of University of Michigan’s The Michiganensian Yearbook. Spartan Jerseys claims no ownership to these images.