Oct. 30, 2009
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By David Meyer
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Although thousands of University of Iowa football fans flock to the stadium that bears Nile Kinnick’s name on seven Saturdays each autumn, it’s likely that few know the story of the team that produced the Hawkeye’s lone Heisman Trophy winner, the 1939 Ironmen.
This season marks the 70th anniversary of that squad. The Ironmen were one of the most influential teams in Iowa football history — they helped shape the football program’s identity and exemplified the strong work ethic that is a defining characteristic of the state of Iowa and its people.
“It’s a legendary story about a team led by a legendary player,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You talk to some of the older, more experienced people and you hear a lot of great stories that came out of that season. I can only imagine how inspirational that had to be for people from this state.”
Iowa football had struggled in the years preceding 1939. With the exception of 1933, the Hawkeyes had finished in the bottom three of the Big Ten Conference standings every year of the 1930s. The Great Depression had been going on for a decade and it had taken a toll on the state’s agriculturally-based economy. The athletic department was in a poor financial position as the University’s debt on Iowa Stadium (renamed Kinnick Stadium in 1972) was growing. Coach Irl Tubbs was fired following the 1938 season after amassing a 2-13-1 record in two years.
Athletics director E.G. Schroeder hired Mason City native Dr. Eddie Anderson away from Holy Cross to replace Tubbs. Anderson, a disciple of legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, played for the Irish from 1918-1921. Notre Dame compiled a 28-1 record during his final three years. Coincidentally, the loss came to the Hawkeyes during the 1921 season (10-7), Anderson’s senior year, in which he captained Notre Dame and was a named consensus First Team All-American.
“It’s a legendary story about a team led by a legendary player. You talk to some of the older, more experienced people and you hear a lot of great stories that came out of that season. I can only imagine how inspirational that had to be for people from this state.”
UI head coach Kirk Ferentz
“Anderson came in and he brought some magic with him,” said long-time Iowa broadcaster Bob Brooks, who paid a quarter to watch the 1939 home slate from the “knothole” section in the south end zone. “He got to use the full experience of Nile Kinnick’s athletic ability. Kinnick had done wonderful things here before, but other than being a good athlete, he had not been developed by the coaches as a great leader.”
Anderson’s intense style was evident from the start. After enduring his rigorous initial spring practice, 48 of the 85 players who showed up did not return in the fall. This left the team with a mere 37 letterwinners in 1939. The lack of depth forced many players to log a considerable amount of minutes, often even entire games. Before Iowa’s season-opener, the Des Moines Register printed a small note stating, “A set of iron men may be developed to play football for Iowa,” and thus the nickname was born.
In the first game, Kinnick scored five touchdowns as the Hawkeyes routed South Dakota 41-0.
Next, Iowa opened the Big Ten schedule at home against Indiana. After advancing the ball to the Hoosier 10-yard line for a first down late in the fourth quarter, Iowa was driven back five yards by the Indiana defense over the next three plays. Down three points and facing a fourth-and-goal from the 15, Anderson elected to forgo a game-tying field goal attempt. Kinnick hooked up with captain end Erwin Prasse for the third time that day on the game-winning touchdown. Only 23 Hawkeyes participated in the 32-29 triumph, yet that number represented the highest total all season.
Iowa traveled to Ann Arbor for its first road game on Oct. 14. Kinnick opened the scoring with a 71-yard touchdown pass to halfback Floyd Dean. Despite outgaining Michigan by more than 100 yards, costly turnovers and poor special teams play kept the Hawkeyes off the scoreboard the rest of the game and Iowa fell to the Wolverines, 27-7.
“There really wasn’t any indication of greatness at that point,” said Brooks.
However, Iowa did not lose another game following the setback at Michigan.
The Hawkeyes faced their second of three consecutive road tests against Wisconsin in the season’s fourth week. Once again, Kinnick threw a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. The 29-yard pass was hauled in by fullback William Green, as Iowa handed the Badgers a 19-13 loss. Five Hawkeyes played all 60 minutes, and the “Ironmen” nickname became widely used following this victory.
The matchup against Purdue turned out to be a defensive struggle as the fourth quarter began scoreless. Kinnick was intercepted four times by Jack Brown. Nevertheless, Brown’s punting miscues in his team’s own end zone cost the Boilermakers the game. Brown bobbled a snap that led to the first of two Hawkeye safeties. Brown’s second attempt from Purdue’s end zone was blocked by tackle Mike Enich. After the second safety, Iowa ran out the clock to secure the unconventional 4-0 win.
“Anderson came in and he brought some magic with him. He got to use the full experience of Nile Kinnick’s athletic ability. Kinnick had done wonderful things here before, but other than being a good athlete, he had not been developed by the coaches as a great leader.”
Broadcaster Bob Brooks
Anderson’s team returned to Iowa City to face his alma mater, Notre Dame, on Nov. 11. The game was primarily an exchange of punts. Iowa led at halftime following a thrilling sequence of events late in the second quarter. In consecutive plays, Kinnick made a touchdown-saving tackle, intercepted a pass, and threw an interception of his own. However, during the return of Kinnick’s errant throw, center Bruno Andruska forced an Irish fumble and the Hawkeyes regained possession. Three plays later, Kinnick rushed for a 4-yard touchdown to put Iowa up 7-0. In the second half, Notre Dame put together a successful drive resulting in an early fourth-quarter touchdown, but missed the extra point wide left and still trailed by one. The teams continued to punt back and forth for the remainder of the contest. The 7-6 final was imminent when Kinnick booted his 16th punt of the game 63 yards, pinning the Irish at their own 6-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. For the second straight game, eight Hawkeyes played the full 60 minutes.
Iowa came into its matchup against Minnesota ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history at No. 15. After three quarters, it looked like Iowa might suffer its second loss of the season. The Gophers led 9-0 after Kinnick threw two first-half picks, but the Hawkeye star redeemed himself with two touchdown passes in another spectacular fourth quarter. Kinnick connected with Prasse and Green for 48 and 28 yards, respectively. His midfield interception on the ensuing Minnesota drive sealed the 13-9 Hawkeye triumph.
In the final game of the season, Iowa took on Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. The Hawkeyes fumbled five times in the first half, allowing the Wildcats to take a 7-0 lead with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The script flipped in the third quarter, as Northwestern fumbled three times and Iowa was able to even the score after obtaining the ball at the Wildcat 22-yard line. The Hawkeyes were largely ineffective offensively because Kinnick suffered a separated shoulder. After two Northwestern possessions, where the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs at the goal line and missed a field goal, Anderson decided to run out the clock and the game ended in a 7-7 tie. Inexplicably, Anderson did not realize that a tie would cost his team a share of the Big Ten title as Ohio State had finished 5-1 in league games while Iowa was 4-1-1.
Neither of the teams received a bowl bid as only four bowls existed at the time – the Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Rose. However, the Ironmen earned the No. 9 spot in the final AP rankings and Kinnick garnered national attention. He was involved in 107 of the 130 points Iowa scored, played 402 out of 420 possible minutes and set 14 school records. His accolades from the 1939 season are staggering: he was named a consensus first team All-American, the Big Ten MVP, the Walter Camp Award winner, the Maxwell Award winner, AP Male Athlete of the Year, and of course the Heisman Trophy winner.
“The expectations were nothing with Eddie’s staff, but it was a rare, rare season,” said Brooks.
1939 UNIVERSITY OF IOWA FOOTBALL RESULTS
|Sept. 30||South Dakota||W||41-0|
|Oct. 14||at Michigan||L||7-27|
|Oct. 28||at Wisconsin||W||19-13|
|Nov. 4||at Purdue||W||4-0|
|Nov. 11||Notre Dame||W||7-6|
|Nov. 18||Minnesota (HC)||W||13-9|
|Nov. 25||at Northwestern||T||7-7|