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September 3, 2004
Volume 42, No. 2

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Glory Days: Historic Kinnick Stadium celebrates 75 years
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The University of Iowa

Glory Days:
Historic Kinnick Stadium
celebrates 75 years


Collage of photos of Kinnick Stadium construction.
This 1929 photograph shows the horse-drawn carts that were used for hauling lumber and dirt during the construction of Kinnick Stadium. The original architects planned for the athletic facility to be one of the largest in the country and to eventually hold 70,000 spectators. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, UI Libraries.

 

Gazing at early construction photos of Kinnick Stadium, it’s hard to envision the swarms of contemporary Hawkeye football fans milling outside the wrought-iron gates on game days, not to mention the swarm of University of Iowa student athletes taking the field inside. Vacant space surrounds the site. UI Hospitals and Clinics and its familiar Boyd Tower landmark look tiny, even distant, in the background.

Such early images are almost unfathomable today. Missing are the mammoth parking garages, the water tower, and the numerous hospital pavilions which now crowd the adjacent stadium.

The home of Hawkeye football is celebrating its 75th anniversary this fall. While Kinnick’s surroundings have changed significantly over the decades, some things have remained the same: the athletic facility’s looming brick and stone exterior and telltale arches, the east and west stands that dip 30 feet into a former ravine and rise 45 feet above ground level, and the reverence with which Hawkeye fans—including many UI employees—hold the stadium.

Artist'
This artist’s rendition of the planned renovation of Kinnick Stadium—slated to begin this year and be completed in August 2006—highlights a new grand entrance on the south side of the stadium. Rendering by Neumann Monson Architects.

Kirsten Frey, adjunct professor of management and organizations in the UI Tippie College of Business and Iowa graduate, has been going to Kinnick since her first year as UI undergraduate. She used to enjoy games from the grassy areas, often called “knotholes,” that once anchored the corners of the stadium.

“I’d go with a bunch of my friends and we’d sit on blankets. It was a blast. As far as I was concerned, going to games at Kinnick was part of being a student at Iowa,” she says. “I’ve had season tickets all but two years since 1987.”

Frey now brings her family to Kinnick, and she even made it to the stadium for a game the day she was due to have her first child.

Other fans, like Ken McCaffrey, are able to enjoy the action at Kinnick from behind the scenes. McCaffrey, also an Iowa graduate, has been recording rushing statistics from the press box for 35 years. He is employed by the UI athletic department and also is a volunteer at the UI Athletics Hall of Fame.

Photo: Young man on a double wide riding mow, mowing at the 40-yard line in Kinnick Stadium.
Andy Eiffert, a member of the athletics grounds crew, mows the stadium’s field in August. Eiffert and a small staff are responsible for grooming Kinnick’s turf. They mow the grass three times a week during the season and paint the gridiron before each home game. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

“If so-and-so just ran for five yards, I write it down,” explains McCaffrey, who came to campus as a journalism student in the 1950s and took a job assisting the late Iowa City Press-Citizen sports editor Al Grady. “Back when Hayden Fry first became coach and Iowa was ahead of No. 1 Nebraska by one point, I was so excited I forgot to put in the stats. I don’t think I missed another play after that.”

The stadium, which has welcomed thousands of fans like Frey and McCaffrey each year for more than seven decades, was built in just seven months at a cost of $497,000. Plans for the new stadium were announced—out of the blue—by the University athletic director during the 1928 Homecoming pep rally. Construction began the following spring, and that fall the Hawkeyes hosted their first contest in the new location—a 46-0 rout of Monmouth College. The stadium could accommodate 42,500 spectators, some 20,000 more than the previous field located between the Iowa River and the Main Library.

Workers labored around the clock to get the stadium completed, says Charlie Smith, a volunteer at the UI Athletics Hall of Fame and a 1940 Iowa graduate.

“We didn’t have steam engines or fancy equipment to use back then. The crews worked 24 hours a day at first, using scoops along with horses and mules that were kept in a nearby pasture. Some mules died in the process and were buried in the north end zone.”

Smith was a classmate of Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner whose name now graces the stadium. The popular UI athlete, honor student, and senior class president was killed in 1943 when the plane he piloted went down in the Caribbean Sea during a Navy training mission.

In 1945, the student council sponsored an unofficial vote on what to name the stadium—then known as Iowa Stadium. The ballot offered several options, including Robert Jones Stadium (the University’s first letter winner to die in World War II) and Memorial Stadium (after 14 UI athletes who had perished in the war). Among the write-in candidates were Franklin D. Roosevelt Stadium, Ironmen Memorial Stadium, and Corn Stadium. More than half of the nearly 2,000 votes cast favored Kinnick.

“The name is ideal—I wouldn’t want to lose it. Kinnick was so outstanding. I was in several business classes with him, so I knew him better than some,” Smith says. “And he came from a tremendous family. His father didn’t seek publicity at all—he bent over backwards to be modest—and when he was approached about naming the stadium for his son, he declined, reasoning that many wonderful sons had died in the war.”

In 1972, however, the elder Kinnick succumbed to public pressure and the University renamed Iowa Stadium to Kinnick Stadium.

For some on campus, Kinnick Stadium means work.

Ted Thorn, director of grounds, has sat in Kinnick’s seats only a handful of times. Most of his energy is spent preparing the grass playing field for action. For the past 25 years, he has supervised facilities mechanic Larry Putney and a crew of three that maintain the University’s outdoor sports fields. During home games, they are in the facility’s tunnels or on the sidelines, primed to patch any holes in the sod caused by tackles.

Thorn knows firsthand how special Kinnick is for some fans.

“A former student employee of ours had a friend whose grandfather had died and who wanted to disperse the ashes on the field. I said ‘no,’ since the University has a policy against it,” he says. “We also get a lot of calls from people who want photo opportunities on the field. And then there are the occasional romantic interludes—we find evidence on the field periodically.”

Head football coach Kirk Ferentz, meanwhile, claims to have the best seat in the house. He remembers vividly his first day of work at Kinnick Stadium.

“It was the season opener against Nebraska in 1981,” recalls Ferentz, who at the time was an assistant coach under former Iowa head coach Hayden Fry. “The crowd was enthusiastic and electric, and that energized us as we came out of the tunnel. Kinnick Stadium has a lot of charm and character, and the proximity of the fans to the field is a great advantage for the Hawks. The stadium is great when it’s empty, but it’s even better on game days.”

An $87 million facelift slated to begin this year will rebuild the press box and the stands in the south end zone, create a grand entrance to the south, upgrade and expand restrooms, and widen individual seats. Private donations and the leasing of private suites and club seating in the new press box will fund the project.

Ferentz is looking forward to the upgrades.

“New stadiums are very nice, but to me there’s something special about the history of Kinnick,” he says. “The renovation will blend the best of the new and the past—it will be the best of both worlds.”

by Sara Epstein Moninger

 

Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright the University of Iowa 2003. All rights reserved.
   

 

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