Part Two: History of College Football in Iowa

This is part two of the Dan Cagley's five part series on the History of College Football in Iowa. In part two, Dan examines the continued growth of interest in football between 1917 and 1941.

Interest in Football continues to grow, 1917-1941

The coming of World War I exposed a higher number of young American males to the game. Thousands of young men played the game in army camps across the nation. In Iowa, Morningside caught the nation's attention on November 10, 1917, when star player George Gipp and Notre Dame came to Sioux City. Gipp was a standout for the Irish until he broke his ankle on a boundary post. His loss did not change the outcome that most expected as Morningside lost, 13-0. Hit hard by the influenza epidemic and Student Army Training Corps policies, many Iowa colleges cancelled their schedules during 1917 and 1918, while others continued despite these hardships and the lack of good material. However, Head Coach Howard Jones and the University of Iowa came up with a strong team in 1918 as they went 6-2-1. The year would mark the beginning of 8 straight winning seasons for Iowa and continued success over Minnesota, the football power to the north.

College football stood higher in the public esteem during the postwar era than ever before, and there were Iowa college teams worthy of public attention. Future Hawkeye Head Coach Dr. Eddie Anderson put together an undefeated Loras College team in 1922. Playing tough schedules, the University of Dubuque squad was outstanding in 1920, Westmar College (then Western Union) fielded one of its best teams in 1923, and the 1926 Grinnell team had a 6-1-1 record against strong competition. William Penn lost only one game in 1925, and Iowa Wesleyan went undefeated and won the Iowa Conference title in 1929.

Howard Jones is famous for establishing the tradition in the powerful USC program, but his time at the University of Iowa was just as successful, just shorter. He had winning seasons before the 1920s, but by the end of the 1920 season the Hawkeye program had become so strong that they started a winning streak of 20 games that lasted until the fourth game of the 1923 season. The fruits of their labor were two undisputed Big Ten championships and one national championship. It might have also produced a Rose Bowl appearance had the conference not voted against Big Ten representation in post-season play prior to the 1921 season.

Besides outscoring the opposition 185-36 combined over the 7-0 campaign in 1921, the Hawks ended Notre Dame's 20-game winning streak with a 10-7 win over Irish Head Coach Knute Rockne. In addition, the 41-7 victory over powerhouse Minnesota was the worst Gopher loss in the first 68 years of that program. Four of Iowa's starting eleven gained all-American status, and QB Aubrey Devine was recognized as the best football player in America while T Duke Slater was recognized as the best lineman. Every player in the Iowa two-deep was from the state of Iowa.

Despite losing Devine, Slater, and other outstanding players from the 1921 team, the 1922 squad went undefeated behind a large group of returning starters. The 1922 squad outdid the previous season by outscoring the opposition 208-33 in the 7-0 campaign. Besides winning the Big Ten for the second straight year, the highlight of the season was beating Yale, 6-0. Yale was then a bastion of college football and the Bulldogs had never lost to anyone other than an Eastern football team. So significant was the victory to Midwest football that The Chicago Tribune, self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Newspaper," the next day headlined the Hawk win on the front page of its general news section: "IOWA ELEVEN SMASHES YALE."

Public interest in football reached new heights in the 1920s, with one result being a shortage of tickets on Saturday afternoons. To accommodate the larger crowds, Iowa State built Clyde Williams Field in 1921, with 20,000 seats. Drake dedicated its new 18,000-seat stadium in 1925. In 1929 the University of Iowa moved into a 42,500-seat stadium, and officials announced that the seating capacity would eventually reach 70,000.

Football at Luther College began in 1896, but the sport was soon dropped because of a fatality resulting from a playing field accident. The game was revived on the Luther campus in 1918 through pressure from the local Student Army Training Corps during World War I. Known as a baseball power in the Midwest from the turn of the century until at least World War II, the Norsemen did not start fielding consistent football powers until 1928. However, from that time until the late 1970s, Luther had a better record than any other football school in the Iowa Conference. Coach Hamlet Peterson was responsible for much of that success in the 1930s and 1940s, and Coach Ed Schweizer took Luther Football to new heights with his dominating teams from the middle-1950s through the early 1970s.

The Iowa Conference in the 1930s saw several years in which schools like Morningside and Iowa Teachers (UNI) did not play as many games as other league opponents. Iowa Teachers usually played four conference games (many teams played six league games at that time), but Morningside only played two league games every year in the early 30s, and played three games in 1934 before being dropped from the league. Luther and Simpson both won three titles during the decade, but St. Ambrose was the most consistent team as they were near or at the top of the standings almost every season.

Before Japan attacked the United States and forced our country into war, Dr. Eddie Anderson coached the 1939 Iowa gridirons to one of the most famous seasons in the history of college football. The 1930s were one of the worst decades in Iowa Football history, and the 1937 and 1938 teams were the least accomplished teams of the decade as they combined to go 2-13-1. Not only did Iowa return to prominence as they finished 6-1-1 in 1939, but six of the eight games were decided in the final minutes.

Although they could have been known as the comeback kids for their late-game heroics, Nile Kinnick and the rest of the 1939 team will always be remembered as the Iowa Ironmen as long as football is played in the state of Iowa. As a result of injuries and a lack of quality depth, many Hawkeye standouts were forced to play both offense and defense in all of the close games. No one did more to help the Iowa cause than Kinnick as the 5-8, 170-pound senior back was the most overwhelming winner of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award since the inauguration of the award in 1924. He also won the Heisman Trophy after leading the nation in kickoff return yardage and interceptions. Nile also threw, ran, or kicked for 107 of Iowa's 130 points that year.

An outstanding athlete who played on the Iowa Basketball team for a time, Kinnick was also a great leader and a great student. After graduation, he was one of the top students in the U of I law school before enlisting in the military to defend America during World War II. Tragically, Nile died on a flight-training mission when he and his plane were lost at sea.


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