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Throwback Thursday: Revisiting Hawkeye Football History With The Director, 1939-1952

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Old State Capitol of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
Iowa’s history is long and great. And it’s certainly entertaining.
Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It’s been nearly a decade since BHGP commenter The Director took to the FanPost to educate us all on some Hawkeye history - the good, the bad and the ugly. Over the next few weeks as we prepare for football season, we’ll be revisiting these history lessons as they truly are great reading.

The following was originally posted on October 21st, 2010. You can read the original here: All parts of this series can be found here: Iowa Football History PART IV: A New Hope! 1939-1952

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

When last we saw the Iowa squad, they were getting face-shat upon by nearly every team they faced: in 1938, their only win was at the U of Chicago, which sounds good until one discovers that the U of Chicago’s commitment to football excellence was probably a little “iffy” at the time, given that two years later their stadium would be entirely bereft of college students playing football, to be used solely for atomic fission testing during development of the A-bomb.

Yeah, that’s quite some distance from legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg’s glory years, or even Dubuquer (yay Iowa!) Jay Berwanger’s Heisman-winning campaign earlier in the Thirties (1). And now that I brought it up, how DOES a program go from developing a Heisman Award Winner to solely Egghead Atomic Testing in under a decade? Maybe being nicknamed The Maroons had something to do with it. What a bunch of Maroons! You know, I bet they heard that all the time. I bet it really got under their skin, too. Ironic, that they were literally as smart as a bunch of atomic scientists, yet they couldn’t save their football program. Nevertheless, their physicists were, indeed, “the Bomb.”

Anyway, Iowa beat them in 1938, and no one else, and few thought 1939 would be different. Nile Kinnick, in truth a joint Iowa-Nebraska product (2), had been a promising soph on the football squad in 1937, who’d led the nation in punting (he played basketball, too, for the Hawks), had been injured in 1938 (3), but was ready to go for 1939. I’m not going to rehash all of the Kinnick stuff everyone already knows--was a boyhood American Legion baseball teammate of Bob Feller (yeah, that team was probably pretty good), grandfather was governor of Iowa, and so on--otherwise this post will only be about him. But I knew one of Nile’s old college roommates (4), and he told me that Nile WAS indeed all it was said he was: intelligent, ambitious, eloquent, and with an innate dignity about him--he was what one would call an “old soul”--that instantly commanded respect.

Nile wasn’t big, only about 5-9 and 170 pounds, but he was what I would term “field fast”: his nickname was the “Cornbelt Comet”, but I think the “Rural Rabbit” would have been more apropos. (5) That grainy old three-color footage doesn’t really show it well, but Kinnick’s genius was in an efficiency of movement and purpose: nary a step was wasted as he ran or pursued. He KNEW where to go, what to do, as innately as birds know how to take those first few hesitant wing-flaps yet fly with ease when it’s time to go. Combine that with his leadership, the shining example of his scholarship and ambition and enthusiasm, and you have quite a force. With Kinnick as their senior leader, the 1939 Iowa team would be different.

Doctor Eddie Anderson, a Notre Dame product, would be their new coach, succeeding Irl Tubbs (6). What the good Doctor brought the team was confidence, the confidence that only someone who’d been on top of the football world could know. He brought with him, as an assistant, former Irish All-American Frank Carideo as well. Say what you like about the Domers, but without those old Irish teams there would have been no Eddie Anderson and no Frank Carideo--and no Nile Kinnick, either. Hats off to them, for once. (pause) Okay, hat back on again.

Anderson saw trouble right away: the team had no depth, all of the talent was crammed into but a dozen players. Even before the season started, he told them they’d have to be “Ironmen” to make it through the Big Ten schedule. The nickname stuck.

”There will be eleven men fighting for me in there at all times, regardless of how they play football!” was how Anderson referred to his philosophy that season. It worked.

The team went 6-1-1 to the surprise of the nation, with fourteen players playing both ways, and many nearly all of the team’s 480 minutes of total field time that year. The first game was at South Dakota, and unlike some Big Ten teams who are unable to defeat teams from that fine state(cough-Minnesota-cough), the Hawks dispatched the SD team with ease, 41-0. The next week was Indiana and the contest was closer but still a Hawkeye win at 32-29, courtesy of a game-winning pass by the Rural Rabbit Cornbelt Comet himself. Then trouble: Michigan pasted the Hawks 27-7 in week three, and I’m sure people were wondering if this would be the inevitable spin down the old toilet bowl of futility.

No. Dr. Anderson didn’t let that happen. The Hawks rebounded and reeled off four straight wins, including dramatic victories over powers Minnesota and Notre Dame. They entered the last game of the season on top of the Big Ten standings, and only one team stood in their way for the title. Naturally, Iowa tied that game 7-7 and did not win the championship. I’ll give you one guess as to which team kept them from the title.

Northwestern, of course. Fucking hell, the more things change the more they stay the same, huh? It’s now time to put things in perspective. The “greatest” games ever played are entirely era-dependent. My vote is Iowa-Michigan 1985, the big #1 vs #2 game in the rain. Of course, the fact that I was there has nothing to do with it! Those of the Evy era point to Iowa-Ohio St in 1956 perhaps as the peak of Iowa football history. Well, for the first half of the century, the Iowa-Notre Dame game or the Iowa-Minnesota games of 1939 were that type of game, the “I was there!” type of game, the “If you think Kinnick Stadium is wild now, you shoulda’ seen it back in ‘39 when Bill Green caught that pass to win the Minnesota game!” type of game. ( Beating those teams was a BFD of major proportions, and basically won Kinnick the Heisman.)

Kinnick. Look at his stats that year and they don’t tell the tale--he rushed for only 374 yards, and I can’t even find passing stats but I know he almost certainly passed for under 1,000 playing part-time QB--but look at what counts and it’s impressive. Football is about points and points are about turnovers, right? In 1939, playing only eight games, against teams that passed the ball less than 15 times a game, Nile Kinnick had EIGHT interceptions. Extrapolate that to modern football (30+ passes a game defended, over twelve games), and you have Kinnick conservatively having approximately a shit-load of picks a year (my math says at least 24, but “shit-load” is funnier).

And points! Talk about a one-man offense! If you think Denard Robinson dominates his team’s stats, you haven’t read that Kinnick, in 1939, played a part in 107 of his team’s 130 points that year! And not just as an offensive backfield player. With the aid of Carideo’s expert coaching, Nile became a fine kicker, drop-kicking 11 points of his 107 total, in addition to being one of the nation’s best punters. (7)

We all know the Heisman speech, they play it before every Iowa home game in the stadium named after him. But let’s go over the most famous part once again, and then I’ll tell you something incredible:

”I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather, struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the croix de guerre.” (8)

Amazing. Contrast that to what we get nowadays in player interviews: “Um, well, coach had us well-prepared, and they’re a tough team, they came to play, but we had a good, you know, game plan, and we knew it was gonna be tough, if you know what I’m sayin’...” (9)

Here’s the thing: Nile gave that speech OFF THE CUFF. They called him up, he adjusted the mic, and simply....talked. He didn’t pull out some prepared “player-speak” nonsense. He didn’t waste time thanking “coach” or speaking in faded and worn-out platitudes. The man (and yes, he was a man, not a kid like players too often are these days) spoke about the troubles of Europe, the fear that war would engulf the planet, that halcyon days of contest on the gridiron between young men would soon be replaced by the deadly game of warfare between young soon-to-be corpses. He spoke, movingly and eloquently, in a Heisman speech I cannot imagine ever will be equaled in its content, not to mention its spontaneity and ease. Listen to him! To his voice. He’s in his element. He’s not nervous, he’s not hesitant. His voice says, plainly and clearly: speaking this way is what I am meant to do.

We know the tragic end of his story. He stops law school to join the Navy and becomes a flier. Rather than risk crashing into the deck of his carrier when his plane begins to fail, he ditches (or so goes the legend....which is probably just legend, but I am printing the legend because it makes me feel better). Neither he nor his plane are found, so he never returns to law school, never becomes the Governor of Iowa, never becomes President. The man who was Nile’s roomie, a man who knew him well--and could not speak to me about Nile without visible emotion, though it was almost 60 years after Kinnick’s death--was convinced Nile would’ve been President. I didn’t want to argue the point. For one, he was an old man, and let him believe the best for his dead friend. For another, I think, maybe he could’ve been right.

Yeah, 1939, the Glory Year, the Ironmen. Ah, I wish the glory could’ve gone on for our Hawks, but with the graduation of the Ironmen, and the passing of Nile in 1943, and the Navy’s need for Dr Anderson’s medical skills (more on him later), the program faded once more. Oddly enough, it was replaced by another Iowa squad of the era--and it wasn’t Iowa State, either! Any guesses?

World War Deuce had something to do with it, and if I mention that the St Louis Browns baseball team once had a one-armed outfielder during the war, that just might explain it. Many able-bodied young men were enlisting, and the creme de la creme joined the academies or flight schools. It is no coincidence that the Army, Navy, and flight schools fielded tremendous college football teams back in the early Forties. The Hawks declined, but the Iowa Pre-Flight school rose from Eastern Iowa like a football-playing Phoenix. I read that they shared facilities--don’t know if that included Iowa Stadium for games--and Iowa Pre-Flight was so good, they actually played Notre Dame in a de-facto championship game in 1943 in the penultimate week of the season. ND won, 14-13, and the final poll rightly reflected that result: Notre Dame was #1, Iowa Pre-Flight #2.

We are at war with Notre Dame. We have always been at war with Notre Dame.

Or did it? In the final week of the year, ND was beaten by unranked Great Lakes Naval Station while Iowa Pre-Flight destroyed Minnesota, 32-0. I suppose if Iowa Pre-Flight still existed people might debate who was truly the better team and all, but God only knows where all the IPF stuff is these days. I bet the U of I has it somewhere, in some unmarked box in a warehouse next to the Arc of the Covenant. If so, they should un-box it and use it to destroy our enemies craft a display on those few short, but wonderful, IPF years (10).

Alright, so WWII ends and the good guys win, and Iowa is coached by a guy named “Slip,” which I cannot believe is a good omen, and I’m right since Slip Madigan’s Forties teams lost about 13 of their first 15 games. The only joy is that they beat the Bugeaters Cornfuckers CornHUSKERS twice, and handily. But before Madigan left, he gave the world a departing gift: the idea to make the Rose Bowl solely a Big Ten and Pac Eight/Ten affair (11). So thank you for that, Slip! But after Slip came a guy named Clem (Crowe), who proved that going from a guy named Slip to a guy named Clem isn’t likely to bring improvement.

So the powers-that-be figured: when in doubt bring back Eddie Anderson, fresh from Naval medical service in the war. Unfortunately, the water he was drinking in New Guinea or wherever the hell-hole he was wasn’t so fresh, so in addition to toting his war-chest and duffel bag home, he also was toting an intestine-load of parasites, too. If you think that you’re probably not going to play real sharp when your coach has to be hospitalized with a parasite infection 19 days before your first game--well, you’d be right. Anderson’s second reign as coach wasn’t as glorious as the first. He fielded .500 teams, and though he ended up coaching an NFL Hall of Famer in Emlen Tunnell (12) he left as the Hawkeye coach in 1950. However, his parasites were offered positions in the University administration, where they remain to this day.

The team limped along in the early Fifties like a Viagra-depleted porn set, posting losing seasons in 1951 and 1952, making 1939 seem much longer ago than just a dozen years. They were in a funk, and when you’re in a Big Ten football funk, everyone knows you need to call a Polack from Detroit (13). His surname was a tongue-tiring twister, and of unusual length, so to make it easy on all it was shortened by the media to a mere three letters and two syllables:



(1) Berwanger is still a hero in Dubuque, and I’m told a replica of his Heisman trophy is at Senior High School, where Berwanger attended (when it was known as Dubuque High).

(2) Like Johnny Carson, Kinnick was born and partially raised in Iowa, but went to high school in Nebraska. Still, given his family’s history, I feel we have the stronger claim on him, by far. As for Carson, they can have him instead.

(3) As a Christian Scientist, Kinnick routinely refused any medical care for his sports injuries. In one football game it is said he broke two ribs and yet kept playing. How did he do that? Legend has it that the team called plays to only one side, to keep Nile’s broken ribs away from the opposition.

(4) This man was on the Iowa baseball team, and knew Nile first from the Quadrangle dorm where they both lived. As upperclassmen they shared an apartment with another couple of guys. In addition to the usual stuff, he told me that Nile “had a couple of girlfriends” so obviously the Cornbelt Comet did not have any trouble producing testosterone. However, he was still pretty darn clean-cut: “After a big game, Nile and me and his family might drive to Cedar Rapids and go to Bishops, and then get some ice cream,” he once told me. Just like players today, huh?

(5) Most nicknames in the old days were tremendous, like “Hopalong” Cassidy and the “Galloping Ghost” and so on, but the “Cornbelt Comet” is just atrocious, akin to those horrible ABC intros to Iowa games where all you see are cornfields, tractors, silos, three-legged dogs, mobile meth-labs, broken-down cars in front-yards, old sofas on porches, and run-down trailer parks. Really a travesty for such a great young man to have such a “corny” moniker. I’m taking nominations for another nickname for Nile, since he deserved better! I’ll print any you give me next post.

(6) When your name is “Irl Tubbs,” you are either A) a highly successful sheriff of a backwards county in Texas, or B) a failed Western Conference football coach. Obviously, Irl should’ve stuck with the one where you chase someone named “The Bandit” across the south to stop him from bootlegging Coors beer.

(7) Just for emphasis: when you’re a great halfback who also can play QB, when you are a good kicker, when you are a top punter, and when you are a tremendous leader and student, and student-body president, and future law school student, you are deserving of the Heisman Award even if you don’t rush for more than 400 yards in a season. Honestly, a glorious 20-foot statue doesn’t do him justice. Frankly, a 70,000 seat stadium doesn’t even do it.

(8) Not a typo, the French war award of the croix de guerre, I once noted, is not supposed to be capitalized. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why French truckers are continually on strike, but that is also true. ALWAYS on strike. NEVER working.

(9) Nile was a born intellectual. His family used to quiz each other on tough vocabulary words at the dinner table, if someone used one and another didn’t know what it meant. After his first year of Iowa Law, he was third in his class. I bet it pissed him off, too--and I bet that if he’d survived the war, he would never have been third again. It’s not really fair to compare players today to a guy like Nile Kinnick, but there are some really interesting and bright kids out there now--Myron Rolle, or our own Julien Vandervelde, for example, come to mind. Still, too many don’t know how to give even a reasonably interesting or original interview--Pat Angerer and AJ Edds excepted, of course. NO ONE gave interviews like those two.

(10) I am indeed dying to learn more about Iowa Pre-Flight. Did they have a nickname? Cheerleaders? What were their school colors? Fight song? How could a team formed so fast get so good SO FAST? So good that they almost won the National Championship? Lastly, how did Great Lakes Naval Station beat #1 Notre Dame? Why hasn’t anyone heard of this game?

(11) Yeah, like the Rose Bowl is played between the Big Ten and Pac Ten. Poor ol’ Slip is probably spinning in his grave.

(12) It is a curious but wonderful quirk of Iowa Football History that #1 and #2 in NFL all-time interceptions remains ex-Hawkeyes Paul Krause and Emlen Tunnell. No one else is basically even close. I think Rod Woodson is third, by at least 10 picks, if not more. Tunnell also held, if I recall, an NFL punt return record for a time, too. He was a big-time player in college and as a pro, though not as well-known as he deserves.

(13) Forgive the borderline ethnic slur, but what else was Evy but, bluntly, a Polack from Detroit? To my mind, that’s a compliment to the man, and to all of Polish descent to be compared to him in that way. Still, with Evy you got the bitter as well as the sweet--next post, however. Next post.