LLR Books

The Football Genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald

The literary star wasn’t just a Princeton football fanatic. He helped inspire a key innovation on the field.

The Newman School football team with F. Scott Fitzgerald seated third from the left in the front row.

Kevin Helliker

You don’t need to know about the literary backdrop of Princeton University football to take an interest in Saturday’s game against Harvard. For two years running this storied rivalry has produced thrillers that came down to the final seconds—last year in triple overtime. At stake once again is the Ivy League title.
It’s safe to say that this weekend’s game would have mattered a lot to F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a prep-school student in the stands for the 1911 installment of the rivalry, Fitzgerald watched Princeton pull off an improbable late victory. At that instant, his biographers say, he vowed to enroll at Princeton. Once there, he tried out for the team—but got cut on the first day, a well-chronicled disappointment that some scholars believe explains the sense of rejection that permeates his novels, especially “The Great Gatsby.”
But long overlooked evidence suggests that football didn’t just influence Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald himself may have exerted a decisive influence on the development of the game.
The evidence comes from a 1956 interview with Fritz Crisler, a man who unquestionably shaped the game of football. After becoming head coach at Michigan in 1938, Crisler established the practice of fielding distinct offensive and defensive units; previously, 11 men had played both sides of the ball for 60 minutes. This shift became Crisler’s legacy. His biography at the College Football Hall of Fame calls him “the father of two-platoon football.”
The tantalizing question raised by the 1956 interview is: Did Crisler get the idea from Fitzgerald? It is not a subject discussed in the ever-expanding library of popular and academic writing on Fitzgerald. (This year alone has seen the publication of at least three books about Fitzgerald.)
Scholars who focus on Fitzgerald’s fascination with money, women, booze, jazz and 1920s Paris have never made much of his devotion to a Princeton football team that won 10 national championships in his lifetime. His life as a devoted fan never fit well in the narrative of Fitzgerald as a tortured artist, heartbroken by his wife’s mental illness and confronted at every turn by commercial failure.
Even at Princeton, there is little awareness that the university’s most famous dropout fanatically followed the Tigers. “I had no idea Fitzgerald was a football fan,” says Princeton football coach Bob Surace, a Princeton graduate whose coming reunion carries the Fitzgeraldian theme of “This Side of Paradise” (the title of the author’s first novel).
Fitzgerald was, in fact, a pioneer of the fanaticism that characterizes so many college football fans today, and his relationship with Crisler is exhibit one.
Wooed from Minnesota, Crisler became the head coach at Princeton in 1932, 15 years after Fitzgerald had dropped out as a junior. Crisler stayed five years, winning two national championships, before moving on to Michigan, where he stayed as coach and athletic director for more than 20 years. He died in 1982.
In 1956, a Michigan graduate student in romance languages did something that apparently no other Fitzgerald scholar had done before. The student, Donald A. Yates, asked Crisler if during his Princeton years he’d had any contact with Fitzgerald. Mr. Yates got an earful, and in 1956 he published an article about it in the Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper.
During his Princeton years, Crisler told Mr. Yates, his phone would ring late at night before games. Answering, he would hear the voice of Fitzgerald, calling from Miami, Chicago or Hollywood. The calls came “between 12 midnight and six a.m. of the night before our games—not just sometimes, but practically every eve of every home game,” Crisler told Mr. Yates. Often, behind Fitzgerald’s voice, Crisler heard the laughter and cries of a dying party.
What Fitzgerald called to talk about was Princeton football. “It wasn’t just a matter of the habitual old-grad spirit and enthusiasm,” said Crisler. “There was something beyond comprehension in the intensity of his feelings. Listening to him unload his soul as many times as I did, I finally came to the conclusion that what Scott felt was really an unusual, a consuming devotion for the Princeton football team.”
In his article about the Crisler interview, Mr. Yates argued that Fitzgerald’s obsession with Princeton football was rooted in his failed effort to make the Princeton team as a freshman. Yet Fitzgerald had to have known he had little chance of making that era’s most dominant college football team: He weighed only 135 pounds, and in high school he had been a mediocre player.
He was a smart football fan, though, to judge from that 1956 interview. “Sometimes he had a play or a new strategy he wanted me to use,” said Crisler. “Some of the ideas Scott used to suggest to me over the phone were reasonable—and some were fantastic.”
In the fantastic department, Crisler cited an example: Fitzgerald, he said, “came up with a scheme for a whole new offense. Something that involved a two-platoon system.”
At the time of the interview, the coach was already known as the father of two-platoon football. But Mr. Yates didn’t know that. “I didn’t pay a lot of attention to sports,” says Mr. Yates, now 84 and a professor emeritus of Latin American literature at Michigan State University.
So Mr. Yates didn’t ask Crisler the million-dollar question: Did he get the idea for a two-platoon system from Fitzgerald? Looking back at the statements Crisler made to him, Mr. Yates says, “That seems to be what he is saying.”
In the early years of college football, the NCAA limited the use of substitutes to cases of injury. In the early 1940s, when Crisler implemented a two-platoon system at Michigan, the NCAA was starting to relax those rules. Platoon-based football was a much-discussed topic at the time and may well have originated elsewhere than with Fitzgerald.
Even so, “he was way ahead of his time,” says Mr. Surace, the current Princeton coach. “The thinking back then was that if you had a great player, you’d be crazy to take him out for half the game.”
There’s one bit of supporting evidence. In 1962, Fitzgerald acquaintance Andrew Turnbull wrote a biography of the author. He recounts that Asa Bushnell, a Princeton athletic manager during the Crisler years, reported receiving a call from Fitzgerald promoting the idea of distinct units of players. “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.”
Fitzgerald never stopped thinking and writing about football. In 1936 he published in Esquire a hilarious story about a Princeton team whose best player is an ant—that’s right, an insect.
At the age of 44, he was reading a Princeton Alumni Weekly analysis of the coming season—a document that now resides in the Princeton library—when a fatal heart attack felled him. In the margins of that newsletter, Fitzgerald had scribbled several comments, including “good prose”—which makes college football the last thing he ever wrote about.
Corrections & Amplifications
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1936 short story about an ant on the Princeton football team was published in Esquire. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the story, called “The Ants at Princeton,” was published in the Saturday Evening Post. (Oct 29, 2014)
Write to Kevin Helliker at kevin.helliker@wsj.com