The Other Champion Tigers

Good morning, it’s January 8, 2020, President Trump had scheduled his first prime-time Oval Office address this night last year, presumably on the ongoing government shutdown. Meanwhile, college football had a new national champion, Clemson University, which many commentators believe has eclipsed Alabama as the supreme college program. Perhaps, but as they say in my favorite sport: “Wait ’til next year!”

Historically, the phrase “national champion” was preceded by the caveat “mythical” because college football — not having a true format for picking the best team — employed sportswriters, polls, and ranking systems to name its top team.

These days it relies on a cartel called the College Football Playoff in which four teams compete for the title. The formula has produced an Alabama-Clemson matchup in four of the five years, three times in the championship game, so some tweaking is probably in order. (An eight-team format seems one obvious improvement.) But domination by one school over a sustained period is the norm in college football history.

In other words, there have been other dynasties, including others by Alabama, which, depending on when you start counting, has won 17 national titles in football. But you could win a bar trivia contest by knowing which two schools have won the most championships.

On this day in 1897, Princeton’s college newspaper carried the news that Caspar Whitney had picked his annual All-American football team for Harper’s Weekly. Princeton, coming off an undefeated season, could boast six of the 17 players named.

The schools in what we now call the Ivy League long managed to play Division I sports without losing perspective, although it’s less true in football, for sure. But I’m thinking of Ivy League football this morning because Princeton is the school that can credibly claim the most mythical national championships in college football history. Yale is second.

Most sportswriters will tell you that this distinction belongs to Alabama and Notre Dame. But bragging rights for the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish depend on starting the clock in 1936, when the Associated Press began its annual college football poll. To any Princeton Tiger (or Yalie, for that matter), that seems an arbitrary year. It negates the Yale powerhouse teams of the 1890s, while air-brushing from history all 28 championships bestowed on Princeton.

Admittedly, the first such title wasn’t much: It was conferred, many years after the fact, for the 1869 season when Princeton went 1-1 against Rutgers — the only two games played in college football that year. But by the 1880s, Princeton was playing full 10-game schedules, and winning almost every Saturday.

Take the 1889 squad, for instance. It was captained by all-American quarterback Edgar Allan Poe, the namesake and second cousin of the great writer, and went 10-0, ending the season with shutouts over Yale as well as Washington, which it defeated 57-0.

According to Princeton lore, after that team routed Harvard, a Cambridge alum in the stands asked a Princeton grad if QB Edgar Poe was related to the great Edgar Allan Poe. “He is the great Edgar Allan Poe,” came the reply. Actually, Ed Poe was only one of six Poe brothers from Baltimore who starred on the Gridiron for Princeton over a 20-year span from 1882-1902.

The oldest, Samuel Johnson Poe, was also an All-American lacrosse player. Neilson Poe, who played in the backfield in 1895 and 1896, later returned to coach the team. All-American end Arthur Poe won the 1899 Yale game with a field goal, despite never having kicked before.

The most colorful was John Prentiss Poe Jr., an undersized halfback on the 1892 team as a sophomore at a time when it was rare for an underclassman to start on the varsity. He flunked out of school, but landed stints coaching football at Virginia and Navy, and was an assistant at Princeton where he was credited with coining the phrase “If you won’t be beat, you can’t be beat.”

Johnny Poe served stints in both the Army and the Marines, gravitated to the West, becoming a New Mexico ranch hand, surveyor, gold prospector, and eventually a soldier of fortune. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he enlisted in the British Army. He was killed in the Battle of Loos.

Seeking to avenge his uncle’s death, Edgar Allan Poe Jr. — son of the quarterback, who by then was attorney general of Maryland — enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, which had then joined the action in World War I. He was wounded in France.

Things have a way of coming full circle. These days, the pro football team from Baltimore derives its name from a haunting poem by one of its favorite adopted sons, the original Edgar Allan Poe. Thinking this morning of those boys cut down in France and in battlefields around the world, I’m put in mind of “The City in the Sea,” Edgar Allan Poe’s verse about death and the place “where the good and the bad and the worst and the best have gone to their eternal rest.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

%d bloggers like this: