Each fall for the past three years, roommates Yasmeen Khan of Davenport, Iowa, and Katie Ebbesen of DeKalb, Ill., have sprung out of bed before dawn on football Saturdays to gear up for a Hawkeye showdown at Kinnick Stadium. They wait outside the athletic facility chatting with security guards and reading magazines until the wrought-iron gates are opened, in an effort to secure front-row seats in the student section.
In fact, the tradition is so strong that the women, who met each other in the residence halls their first year at Iowa, are considering graduate schools close to Iowa City so that they can easily make the trek to Kinnick on game days.
“It was pretty amazing,” says Khan, of the first Iowa game she attended her first fall on campus. “I had never been to a Big Ten game and I noticed it was a big deal, so I went to check it out. I could feel something special in Kinnick Stadium. I didn’t know all the players then, so I was not as die-hard a fan as I am now, but I could feel the support that the team got from the fans. I was drawn into the aura.”
Thousands of UI students, alumni, and friends have shared similar experiences at Kinnick Stadium, which this fall is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The revered home of Hawkeye football has been welcoming fans since 1929, when a capacity crowd of 42,500 braved rainy, muddy conditions to attend the stadium’s official dedication game. The contest resulted in a 7-7 tie with the University of Illinois, but the crowd did not leave disappointed.
Students had caught wind of a new stadium at a Homecoming pep rally the previous year, when the University athletic director announced—out of the blue—that Iowa would get a new stadium within a year. Ground broke the following spring and, sure enough, that fall the Hawkeyes hosted their first contest in the new location—a 46-0 rout of Monmouth College. The team previously competed on a field between the Iowa River and the Main Library that accommodated about 22,000 spectators.
Since then, the stadium has seen several increases in capacity and numerous facelifts, including a $1.7 million overhaul in 1976, a complete renovation of the north stands in 1983, and the installation of a natural grass playing field in 1989. The stadium now holds 70,393—a capacity envisioned by the stadium’s planners decades earlier.
According to an Athletic Council document dated March 1, 1929, “the front wall of the stands is only 20 feet from the sidelines, which means that no seat will be so far away from the play as to miss the thrill of the action.”
Dallas Clark, a former Hawkeye tight end from Livermore, Iowa, who was selected in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, says the proximity of fans to the field benefits the players as much as the fans.
“It’s a beautiful stadium with an awesome atmosphere. When the players come down the stairs onto the field and hear the roar of the fans get louder, that is the best feeling in the world,” he says. “There is no better place to play in college football. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.”
Kirsten Frey (BBA ’91, MBA ’95, JD ’95), an adjunct assistant professor in the UI Tippie College of Business, passed on grandstand seating her first year as a UI undergraduate and instead opted to enjoy the games from the grassy areas, often called “knotholes,” that once anchored the northern 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,” says Frey, a Spencer, Iowa, native. “I’ve had season tickets all but two years since 1987.”
In addition to the spectators who enjoy the action at Kinnick from the seats are those who do so behind the scenes and even “on stage.”
Aaron Blau, a junior from Latimer, Iowa, is majoring in journalism and sports studies and working in the UI Sports Information office. Although he was able to attend an Iowa game during a visitation day his senior year in high school, he now spends every game day in the press box, recording tackles and keeping other statistics, or on the sidelines, reporting on injuries.
“It’s definitely not the tailgating experience some students have, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he says. “After working here one week, I knew working in sports information and media relations was what I wanted to do as a career.”
Mike Elgin, meanwhile, arrives at the stadium two hours before kickoff and heads for the locker room. The junior from Bankston, Iowa, will be the starting center for the Hawkeyes this fall.
“I remember my first time on the field as a player. I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ The sea of fans in black and gold and the cheering—it brings the players to a new level,” he says.
Students can take some credit for naming the historic stadium. Nile Kinnick, the popular senior class president, honors student, and 1939 Heisman Trophy winner, died in 1943 when the plane he was piloting went down in the Caribbean Sea during a Navy training mission.
In 1945, the student council sponsored an unofficial vote on what to name what was 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.
Kinnick’s father resisted the effort to rename the stadium for his son, reasoning that many died in the war. In 1972, however, the elder Kinnick succumbed to public pressure and the University renamed the facility Kinnick Stadium.
To mark the building’s anniversary, the University is planning an $87 million facelift slated to begin this year. The renovation 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.
One of Blau’s assignments in Sports Information was to write a six-part series on the changes.
“The stadium has such a historic feel—just knowing that Nile Kinnick played on the same field is incredible,” he says. “When the renovation is done, it will benefit every fan. Parents should come down and see it—the upgrades are not just for those in the luxury boxes. I think Kinnick Stadium will be one of the best college football stadiums—if not the best college football stadium—in the country.”
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz also is looking forward to the upgrades.
“New stadiums are very nice, but to me there’s something special about the history of Kinnick. The renovation will blend the best of the new and the past—it will be the best of both worlds,” says Ferentz, whose first gig at Iowa was as an assistant coach under former Iowa head coach Hayden Fry. “Kinnick has a lot of charm and character. It’s great when it’s empty, but it’s even better on game days.”
Khan says she and Ebbesen likely will host some sort of Kinnick anniversary party at their apartment this fall, and you can count on them to be in the front row of each home game.
“I will be a lifelong Hawkeye fan,” Khan says. “I want to be an old lady wearing Hawkeye earrings.”
By Sara Epstein Moninger
Historic photos courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries; Stadium Renovation Architect’s Rendering: HNTB Sports Architecture; all other photos by Tim Schoon.