The University of Michigan’s winged helmet made its successful debut in the 1938 season opener against Michigan State. Sophomore halfback Paul Kromer (83) scored the first touchdown wearing the winged helmet and accounted for 13 of Michigan’s 14 points to gain the Wolverines’ first win over MSU (14-0) in four years.
Fritz Crisler’s first team went on to compile a 6-1-1 record and tie for second in the conference. Whether attributable to the new helmet or not, the passing game improved significantly over 1937′s final statistics; total yardage nearly doubled, interceptions were cut nearly in half and completion percentage was up by nine percent.
Crisler won a national championship in 1947, he changed the game forever with the platoon system in the late 1940s, and he shaped college football by serving on the NCAA rules committee for more than two decades before he retired in 1968. Yet former Michigan football coach and athletic director Fritz Crisler might be best remembered for designing the Wolverines’ distinctive “winged helmet,” the most recognizable headgear in college football.
But here’s a dirty little secret: Crisler first designed the winged helmet at Princeton, not Michigan, and brought it with him.
Crisler’s winged helmet design took advantage of features of a helmet advertised in the 1937 A.G. Spalding & Bros. Company edition of the Official Intercollegiate Football Guide.
Back then the headgear looked like the leather biking helmets favored by today’s Tour de France riders. They typically consisted of a leather bowl with an extra pad to protect the forehead, from which three strips of padding ran to the back—all of it painted black. To help his Princeton quarterback identify his receivers downfield and give his team a little style in the process, Crisler simply painted the extra padding Princeton orange and— voila! — the winged helmet was born.
More trivia : The Michigan-Michigan State game of 1938 had the most fans show up of any game in the 1938 season!
John U. Bacon, “Winged victory”, Michigan Today, September 17, 2013.
University of Michigan Football Michigan’s Winged Helmet courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library