History of College Football in Iowa, Part One

This is the first of a five-part series on the history of college football in the state of Iowa. Since this is a Hawkeye website and the University of Iowa has the most large school tradition in the state, the Fighting Hawkeyes are a central part of this story. However, much of the proud tradition of Iowa football rests partly in small towns in rural areas playing tough, fundamentally sound high school football games every Friday night.

The Iowa Conference college rosters (Division III) over the years have been comprised mostly of Iowa high school players; and schools like Northern Iowa, Central, and Luther have thrived and forged proud small college traditions with those players being developed by great coaches.

What was the first intercollegiate football game played in Iowa and perhaps the Trans-Mississippi West?
Was it Iowa vs. Minnesota? How about Luther vs. Wartburg? Cornell vs. Coe? Or maybe Central vs. Drake? All of these would be good guesses, as each rivalry is longstanding and involves teams that have, at certain points, been strong football schools. However, the clash that started the tradition of football in Iowa and perhaps anywhere west of the Mississippi River was played at Grinnell, Iowa in November 1889. The Iowa College (now Grinnell College) team accepted a challenge from the State University of Iowa (University of Iowa) to play rugby, rather than association, football. The student newspaper at Grinnell informed readers that:

The S.U.I. has quite a reputation among Iowa colleges for athletics and when the challenge was issued it was with fear and trembling that Iowa College accepted it. The fear was in no way lessened when their brawny representatives appeared on the grounds last Saturday. Much heavier in actual weight and looking even larger than they were in their new uniforms, the S.U.I. team was not exactly calculated to inspire confidence in Iowa College's victory.

In what today would be considered almost impossible, the Iowa College team of 1889 defeated the State University of Iowa, 24-0. Many years later a monument was placed on the Grinnell College field to mark the event.

A Look at Football in Iowa, 1889-1916

Regularly scheduled games between Iowa college teams soon replaced the method of informal challenges. In 1890, representatives from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska met in Kansas City to form the Western Intercollegiate Football Association, a forerunner of the Missouri Valley Conference. Iowa Wesleyan and Cornell College organized teams in 1890. Within the next five years Drake, Coe, Buena Vista, Parsons, Ames College, William Penn, St. Ambrose, Central, and Simpson had teams.

Before the 19th century had ended, several Iowa college football rivalries had commenced which would eventually become traditional in the sport. Luther began playing Upper Iowa in 1893, when a 6-6 tie was recorded. Cornell defeated Coe, 82-0 in their first meeting in 1891. The University of Iowa lost to Minnesota 42-4 in their initial game, also played in 1891. Iowa Wesleyan defeated Parsons College, 14-0, in the 1893 start of their series. In 1892 William Penn was victorious over Central, 20-0.

As the only state university in Iowa at the time, the University of Iowa had an advantage over the rest of the Iowa colleges, but their athletic position was made even stronger after being admitted into the Western Conference. The Western Conference was formed in 1895 by the presidents of the universities of Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Purdue. Iowa and Indiana were admitted to the conference in 1899, and Ohio State joined in 1912 to complete the group long known for decades as the "Big Ten."

The state rivalries were particularly notable in the days when intersectional contests were rare, but at the turn of the century Iowa colleges were going into neighboring states for games. Cornell lost to a powerful Chicago Maroon squad, 21-0, in 1902. Grinnell and Minnesota played annually until 1904, while Drake also played many formidable opponents in the Midwest before World War I.

Most historical articles about football in Iowa before World War I start with the 1900 Iowa Football team. Few teams find immediate success when joining a new league, but Coach Alden Knipe's Hawkeyes came into the 1900 season with many returning players from an 8-0-1 squad the previous season. Besides victories over Iowa Normal School (University of Northern Iowa), University of Pennsylvania, Rush Medical, Iowa College, and Knox, the Hawks also beat present day major college teams Nebraska, Michigan, and Illinois. The one blemish in 1899 was a 5-5 tie with the powerful University of Chicago. So the 1900 Iowa team did not sneak up on opponents in their initial season in the Western Conference as they had everyone's attention after the 1899 team outscored their opponents 211-5.

The 1900 Hawkeye team went a step further as they outscored their opponents 311-12 in a 7-0-1 season that resulted in their first championship title in the Western Conference. They handled Chicago and Michigan in classic college gridiron match-ups, but came up short in a tie against a tough Northwestern team. However, the toughest opponent for the Iowa Football team in 1900 wasn't the Northwestern Wildcats, but creamed potatoes. Every Hawk player but one had the dish with their meal the night before the NU game, and everyone except the one player was very sick the next day. With the Hawks suffering from stomach cramps before and after the game, Northwestern tied Iowa with a late field goal, 5-5. Little did anyone know that the game would be the last of the season, as Iowa was supposed to play two games against the University of California around the holiday season. However, California mysteriously canceled on December 19th, and the season was over.

Coach Knipe left after the 1902 season, but the Hawks continued to find success. They were 9-2 in 1903, 7-4 in 1904, and 8-2 in 1905. Then the program began a period from 1906-1917 in which the Iowa Gridiron eleven each season usually won about as many games as they lost.


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