F. Scott Fitzgerald is known as one of America's greatest authors, but was he also responsible for one of football's most important strategic advances? Maybe. Possibly. Probably not. But how cool of a story would it be if he was?
At Princeton in 1913, Fitzgerald famously tried out for the freshman football team and was cut on the first day. Back in those days Princeton wasn't the joke that it is now; it was the near-unanimous best team in football in 1911. But as the Wall Street Journal details, Fitzgerald's love for the sport didn't die after he was cut.
In 1957, Donald A. Yates interviewed Fritz Crisler for the Quarterly Review of the Michigan Alumnus.* Crisler—who is in the College Football Hall of Fame—was the head coach at Michigan from 1938–1947, and also coached Princeton from 1932–1937. That was 15 years after Fitzgerald had last attended the school, but still Yates asked Crisler if he'd ever interacted with Fitzgerald. From the original story:
"I remember Scott's calls very well," Crisler comments. And with a smile he repeats, "Very well. Between 12 midnight and six a.m. of the night before our games. Not just sometimes, but practically every eve of every home game. It got so I sort of expected him to call. I supposed he just wanted to talk to someone, so he picked up the phone and called me. Most of the time there wasn't much sense in what he said. Sometimes, he had a play or a new strategy he wanted me to use. But usually I think he just wanted me to listen while he got some of the Princeton feelings off his chest."
Hmm, midnight to six a.m.? Don't those sound like prime F. Scott Fitzgerald party hours? Yes, yes they do:
Often over the line, behind [Fitzgerald's] voice, would come the laughter and cries and the other mysterious, private sounds of party-making. This was the ominous chorus of the desperately extended, fabulous parties of the 20's, perpetuated on into the 30's by the die-hards of the Jazz Age crowd.
There is something sorrowfully beautiful about Fitzgerald dipping out of some fabulous party to ring up one of college football's greatest coaches with his latest harebrained idea. As much as Fitzgerald spent his life trying to be somebody he was not, it seems that football was one of Fitzgerald's true, life-long passions.
But the Quarterly Review of the Michigan Alumnus article contains even more intrigue. Crisler notes that Fitzgerald did come up with one good idea:
"Some of the ideas Scott used to suggest to me over the phone were reasonable," Fritz Crisler recalls, "and some were fantastic. Once he came up with a scheme for a whole new offense. Something that involved a two-platoon system. He seemed really to believe in it and he urged me to give the system a try."
Wait a second...that sound like the exact thing that Crisler is credited with inventing! As the Wall Street Journal notes, Crisler's College Football Hall of Fame biography anoints him, "the father of two-platoon football." If Crisler invented two-platoon football—having separate offensive and defensive units instead of 11 player who play both—and Fitzgerald was the one to drunkenly teach it to him from the French Riviera at 2 a.m. or something, maybe Fitzgerald should be credited as its legitimate progenitor?
The Wall Street Journal finds supporting evidence for this viewpoint in a 1962 biography of Fitzgerald by Andrew Turbull. Turnbull tells the story of a Princeton athletic manager who also got a phone call from Fitzgerald, ostensibly about platooning:
"Princeton must have two teams," Fitzgerald told Bushnell, according to the book. "One will be big—all men over two hundred [pounds]. This team will be used to batter them down and wear them out. Then the little team, the pony team, will go in and make the touchdowns."
That kind of sounds like it could be the seed of two-platoon football, but probably not. What is more likely is that Fitzgerald was expanding upon a concept that Crisler invented, attempting to promote a useful wrinkle to it. Maybe, Fitzgerald thought, it would be better if instead of two equally-sized platoons, one was made up of the biggest players and the other the fastest?
Besides, some of the shit Fitzgerald called Crisler up about was certifiably crazy. From the Quarterly Review of the Michigan Alumnus:
"Another time he got me out of the bed in the middle of the night to unravel an elaborate fantasy he had imagined about a Harvard-Princeton football game that was to be fought by two teams of ants—the red ants and the black ants. … He'd gone into the characteristics of the two types of ants and had it arranged so that Princeton, represented by the black ants, was predetermined to win. Scott sounded at the time as if he were halfway convinced of its practiability."
Yeah, that sounds more like a guy blackout drunk than one of football's greatest masterminds.
But hey, maybe!
*The Wall Street Journal story, as well as the original version of our story, states that Yates published his article in 1956 in the student newspaper Michigan Daily, but upon further research we can only find it in the 1957–58 Quarterly Review of the Michigan Alumnus.
[Wall Street Journal, Quarterly Review of the Michigan Alumnus, Volume 64]
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