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Who was the first college football team to wear the winged helmet that the Michigan Wolverines have made so famous?
The popular story is that it was Princeton, then Michigan that first wore winged helmets. This is false. Michigan State had a winged helmet first. The thing is, Michigan State wore gold and black for a 14 year period, a fact that has been pretty much forgotten. And during this time, which was 1933 to 1946, Michigan State wore a series of winged helmet designs. The Michigan State winged helmet came two years before Princeton’s winged helmet, and 5 years before the Michigan Wolverines’ winged helmet. [Note: Michigan State was an independent during this time period, and were not invited to join the "Big Nine" conference until 1948, and by that time they were back in green and white gear and no longer sporting winged helmets. With Michigan State joining the conference in 1948, it became popularly known as the Big Ten.]
The University of Michigan's cross-state rivals, the Michigan State Spartans, who as the Michigan State College Spartans, from 1933 to 1947, under coach Charlie Bachman, wore a gold leather helmet with a black 'wing' design that featured a small block-letter S in the center of the wing. The 'wing' was simply the shape of an extra layer of re-enforced padding over the forehead, and was a standard part of the Spalding leather football helmet's design... it only became a wing shape when it was painted a different color than the leather helmet itself. The Spartans' gold and black winged helmet predates the navy blue and yellow winged helmet's debut at the University of Michigan by 5 years.
In the photo above from 1939, you can see Tom Harmon of Michigan on a sweep play, versus Michigan State. Both teams are wearing winged helmets.
After Michigan State coach Bachman retired, his successor, "Biggie" Munn returned Michigan State's football colors to green and white, and the Spartans started the 1947 season in white leather helmets with a green wing design (seen above). But in the team's first game under Munn's charge, Michigan State were beat badly by the Michigan Wolverines. Munn scrapped the white and green winged helmets after that one game, and outfitted the Spartans in a green plastic helmet that had just a plain white center stripe. That was the last of the winged helmet for the Michigan State Spartans, and over the years, the Michigan Wolverines winged helmet has overshadowed the Michigan State Spartans' contribution to football iconography. So yes, it's true that future Michigan Wolverines' coach Fritz Crisler used the winged helmet at Princeton from 1935 to 1937 (painting the helmets the Tigers' orange and black, plus adding orange paint to the three stripes that radiated out from the front of the helmet), and it is true that Crisler then took this winged helmet design to Ann Arbor, Michigan when he took over the head coaching role at Michigan in 1938. But the Michigan State Spartans' winged helmet came first in 1933. To see an illustrated article on this, click on the following... 'The Official History of the Winged Helmet' (Spartans Jerseys.com site).
This link from the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library site and their article on the Michigan Wolverines’ winged helmet, also confirms that the Michigan State Spartans had used the winged helmet before the Michigan Wolverines. But this article buries that fact deep into the 12th paragraph, and doesn't even bother to give a date for the Spartans' innovation (The link to the article on the umich.edu website).
The Answer is: the Michigan State Spartans invented the winged helmet in 1933.