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Thursday, October 19, 2006

M Zone History Lesson: Michigan versus Iowa

Iowa’s loss to Indiana last Saturday has taken some of the luster off of this Saturday’s Michigan-Iowa game. Not sure if Michigan should be more worried about the Indiana game now.

Anyway, although this season is indeed an enjoyable one for the Michigan fan, it can be confusing at times. Things I would ordinarily be doing at this point in the season, I’m not able to do now. There’s not much to complain about football-wise—even if the team could improve in some areas—I’m not in a frenzy trying to figure out which teams ranked higher than Michigan need to lose—since there aren’t too many of them—and, because there’s so much that’s wonderful about this year’s team, I haven’t had to be a typical Michigan fan and reach back into the pages of history to find something good about Michigan to talk about.

Still, I’m a bit of history buff and I just can’t resist and this Saturday’s game against Iowa provides the perfect opportunity to examine the pasts of both Michigan and Iowa.

I can't even remembered exactly how I stumbled across this, but I was doing that short attention span, stream of consciousness thing that I tend to get sucked into on the internet—you know, you go online to check your checking account balance and end up reading about the Peloponnesian War or hot, young coeds—and the next thing I know I was checking out some old photographs of Tom Harmon in the Bentley Historical Library.

This photograph—with the caption of: "Tom Harmon vs Iowa 1939"—caught my eye so I clicked on it for a larger view.

What was it that caught my eye? It wasn't anything on the field—although it looks like Harmon is likely to have a good run since I count at least seven Iowa players well behind him—it was all those empty seats in the background. It looks more like a photo of a practice than of a game. What's up with that? That's Tom Freakin' Harmon (of Michigan! no less) out there and the stands look three quarters empty. But wait, it gets worse.

The photograph next to it had this caption: "Tom Harmon intercepting a Nile Kinnick pass vs Iowa, 1939." Now, I didn't really read the caption completely but clicked to enlarge that photograph thinking, "that explains it, the game was played in Iowa." Wrong. Once I completely read that caption, I realized the name Nile Kinnick wasn't referring to Iowa's stadium but to Iowa's quarterback at the time.

At this point, I didn't know anything about Nile Kinnick but had to assume that he must have been pretty damn good since Iowa eventually named their stadium after him. Now I'm even more confused since we've got a Heisman Trophy winner and Michigan legend sharing the field with a guy so good he gets a stadium named after him—which sounds to me like a pretty marquee matchup—and there are all those empty seats.

So, I did some checking and found out that, yes, Nile Kinnick was good and in fact won the Heisman Trophy THAT year. He won a bunch of other awards as well, was voted the best male athlete in any sport that year, and is apparently considered the greatest Iowa football player ever. The runner up for that year's Heisman Trophy was none other than Tom Harmon who eventually won it the following year. So, here we have two Heisman Trophy winners and two of the most celebrated athletes for their respective schools going head to head against each other and no one's there to see it.

OK, a few people saw it. The game was actually in Ann Arbor and the official attendance is listed as 28,248. Yes, that's under 30,000 for a game in Michigan Stadium. Boggles the mind doesn't it? Especially considering who’s on the field. Today, I don’t think the World Wide Leader would let that one slip by without a decent amount of hype. What the hell was wrong with people back then? It’s not like Michigan wasn’t a big college football school, Michigan had won eight of the eleven mythical national championships by then. You couldn't watch games on television, you could only see clips of games in newsreels at the movies or listen to them on the radio. Was there some sort of Buick Century giveaway going on nearby?

OK, sure, it was the autumn of 1939—14 October to be exact—and people might have been a bit preoccupied with the recent German blitzkrieg of Poland and the fact that the world was about to be plunged into the deadliest most destructive war in all of human history and were maybe just getting over the effects of the Great Depression, but what better way to get you mind off such depressing stuff than attending a college football game? It couldn't have cost more than a nickel to get in back then. And, good seats were definitely available. Talk about a missed opportunity.

And, that game was Iowa's only loss of the season—they also tied one other game—Michigan won 27-7.

As an additional historical footnote, Harmon and Kinnick have a few more things in common than just sharing the field that day or winning the Heisman Trophy. Both went on to become pilots— Harmon for the Army and Kinnick for the Navy—in the Second World War. Their fates, however, would be different. Although, Harmon had to bail out twice—once in training over South America due to weather and once over China due to combat damage—he survived the war with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. Sadly, Kinnick would not. While on a training mission off the coast of South America, his aircraft developed engine trouble and he was forced to ditch in the ocean. His body was never recovered.

I’m not really sure what the point of all this is—since the game isn’t being played in Nile Kinnick Stadium and this is a post more suitable for Memorial Day—but I don’t really want to wait until next year to post this. So, now you know a little about the namesake of Iowa's stadium and some history on the Michigan-Iowa game. I’m still extremely puzzled by the ridiculously low attendance for that game—the average attendance that year for all other home games was over 67,000—and just can’t imagine so many people passing up an opportunity to see the likes of Nile Kinnick and Tom Harmon play.


Anonymous said...

Iowa still has the potential to be a very dangerous team. Especially considering that loss to Indiana, which will most likely inspire them to come out with a top nitch performance in hopes of salvaging whats left of their sesaon. But, I know Michigan's gonna fight back...this is the best I've seen them play in years, and they don't show any signs of a letdown. And, I just bought my extremely over priced tickets for that Nov. 18 showdown and I'm flyin all the way from Cali in hopes of a 1 v 2 showdown. I hope they dont let me down...Go Blue!

Allaha said...

The post is typically excellent. College football is a wonderful game, and there are elements that intersect with service to our nation, such as the sacrifices that certain players (as well as coaches and fans) have made. We should remember people like Harmon and Kinnick with gratitude -- and hope few will be called on to make similar sacrifices in the future.

Jeremy said...

Tom Harmon is an absolute stud among men. I will never get sick of reading the story about him singlehandedly beating OSU (by running, passing, intercepting, and returning kicks for TDs, and handling punts and kickoffs... and coaching both teams, and dotting the i and doing the backbend), then receiving a standing ovation in Columbus for his efforts. Hot damn.

Anonymous said...

In 1939 people weren't exactly flush with cash. We were straight off the depression and I'll bet a lot of folks would rather eat than watch a football game.

beast in 'bama said...

Absolutely fascinating post, BPD. And to echo the comments of allaha and jeremy, we all need to recognize the contributions of that particular generation of Americans before they are all gone. They truly changed the world.

Before I read your text, I glanced at the photos and immediately noticed the empty seats! If the average attendance at UM home games that year was 67K, what the hell happened? Was there a state fair nearby? They were very big deals back then.

The Tigers didn't make the World Series that year, and even if they did, the World Series would have been over by Oct. 14 back then.

I'd love to hear the reason for the slim crowd at such an important game.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

On the attendance, UM didn't regularly sell out the Big House until the 70s. As late as the 1969 OSU game, the UM athletic department was advertising in Columbus that there were tickets available.

guthrie said...

That's just a damn fine post, BaggyPants. From the photos to the writing to the timing, excellent all the way around. Great job.

I have to say, you've got me very curious about the low attendance at the game. They averaged 67,000 less than 30,000 for that game? Something big must have been in the area. Or maybe they had some kind of "fall break" back then. I'd love to see if you can get some kind of explanation.

And thanks for the information on Kinnick. All I knew was the stadium was named for him. Now I can see why. Gotta say it again: that's a damn fine post.

VictorValiant said...

my mother-in-law was a student at michigan. she recalls going to a game in 1969 (bo's first year) and being able to straddle the bleacher so that she could do homework during the game. even during the 60s, the stadium wasn't selling out.

she was at the 1969 michigan-tOSU game. still to this day, i don't think she realizes the significance of that game. to her it was just her regular saturday activity - doing her homework at a football game.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice column. Just a small nit to pick. Kinnick was actually a halfback, not a quarterback, even though he did most of the passing for the team. It's my understanding that, at that time, the quarterback was more of a blocker than a playmaker. In another side note, Harmon's main blocker in those days was Forest Evashevski, who would later become Iowa's coach and lead them to two Rose Bowls in the 1950s. Here's a link to an ESPN article on Nile Kinnick. His picture is on the coin that is tossed to start every Big Ten game.


Ali Haji-Sheikh said...

I assume Kinnick's face is the "Head" of the coin the Big Ten uses for kickoffs, who's ass is the "Tail?"

Ali Haji-Sheikh said...

typo "whose ass is..."

Pat Mobley said...

Cool post. Nile Kinnick actually worked at the summer camp I've been going to since I was nine. He was an amazing person. As I heard it, he ditched his plane because he determined it would be a risk to the crew of his carrier to attempt to land it in its current condition.
He is also widely thought to have given one of the most eloquent Heisman acceptance speeches ever.

Finally, if you will permit me, I'd like to make a comment which in my mind, is indicative, perhaps, of the greater significance of football and sports emphasis in general in this country, and that is, 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.

Really puts to shame the mubling and shout-outs that go on today.

GiantWolverine said...

Great post. I am fascinated with early football history and have researched several NFL seasons in the past. I remember doing 1940 and while going through all the newspaper accounts for the pro games, there was Tom Harmon plastered all over the place because of his dominance that year in college football. Have you all seen the pictures of Harmon against Cal where a fan ran on the field and tried to tackle him? They broke it down into frames - the fan is in position to make the tackle, Harmon eludes him with ease, the fan falls and finally he is subdued by the police. Hysterical!

Allaha said...

Pat Mobley: thanks for the link to Kinnick's speech. You are absolutely right in saying it is incomparably more eloquent than almost anything we hear today.

Mike said...

I can't tell from the picture. Are the fans shaking their keys? It was probably louder back then than it is now.

Kirbdaddy said...

An interesting fact I learned about Tom Harmon while looking at IMDB....Tom Harmon is the grandfather of the Nelson twins!!! How could a band so BAD spring forth from the loins of someone so great???

Scarlet & Gray Matters said...

Actually Tom Harmon would have been an in-law to the Nelsons. His wife Elyse Knox is the -quote from IMDB.com - "Mother-in-law of actress Pam Dawber ...(son Mark Harmon's wife)..., actor/singer Ricky Nelson and John DeLorean."

Anyway - nice article - I love college football history!

Kirbdaddy said...

Straight from IMDB about Matthew Nelson:

Son of Ricky Nelson and Kristin Harmon

Grandson of Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard. Brother of Tracy Nelson, Gunnar Nelson, and Sam Nelson. Nephew of David Nelson, Mark Harmon, and Kelly Harmon. His maternal grandparents are the football great (and later sport broadcaster) Tom Harmon, and the 1940s "B" movie actress Elyse Knox.

Anonymous said...

I had read before about Nile Kinnick. The All-American kid and all. A lot of folks who knew him had said that if he had'nt died so young he would have been President, probably sometime in the 60's or 70's. Too bad. That would have meant no Nixon. Nice story.

Maize&BlueBlog said...

Very nice post. I always enjoy historical pictures, especially of Michigan Football. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Phenominal post. This is what makes "real" college football great. Tradition, Respect, Competition. All the things a lot of programs (Guess a few) have no clue about. Kinnick was a class act like most players of the era and many now (but not all). Nice to know more about IU's stadium's namesake.

Meechfan said...

I think that was a huge day in the run-up to WW II. Perhaps the day that Great Briton realized a big war was on - and Americans knew we were soon to follow? (Not a historian - help me out fellas - I'm dying out here!)

Link: http://www.orcadian.co.uk/features/20thcentury/7.htm

Anonymous said...

Great post and great site. I'm a Hawkeye fan, but I check out your articles every week, no matter who you are playing.

Thanks for the history lesson on Kinnick and Harmon. It really puts everything in perspective.