Kinnick Stadium Was Built in Seven Months
Editor’s Note: The following was written by George Wine. It appears in the book, Black & Gold Memories,” published by the UI Department of Intercollegiate Athletics in 2003.
Kinnick Stadium opened for business 70 years ago this month.
Given the turmoil within the athletic department in 1929, Iowa fans at the time must have been surprised they got a new stadium. Iowa fans today are astonished to learn how fast the stadium was funded, planned and built.
In his fifth year as athletic director, the much-maligned Paul Belting surprised a 1928 homecoming pep rally by promising students and alumni that the Hawkeyes would be playing in a new stadium within a year.
It’s not that Iowa didn’t need a new place for the football team to play. It’s just that Belting had such a low approval rating few people believed anything he said. The alumni had been trying to get rid of him and Coach Burt Ingwersen for years.
In the early part of this century the Hawkeyes played football on the east side of the Iowa River on a field located about where the English and Philosophy Building now stands. The capacity was only 22,000.
The University was just beginning to develop the west campus in the 1920s. The hospital, the fieldhouse and a golf course had already been built there, and Belting also wanted the new stadium to be constructed west of the river.
Despite his personal unpopularity—he was said to be a man “with a singular flair for antagonizing people”—Belting got funding and architectural plans approved in a surprisingly short time. Ground was broken on March 6, 1929, less than six months after Belting made his announcement.
The design was straightforward and relatively simple, calling for two matching grandstands constructed of steel, concrete and brick, with a capacity of about 45,000. But 30 feet of construction was below ground level, and that’s where 250 workers were confronted by major complications.
Giant Caterpillars are now used for earth moving, but 70 years ago excavation was done mostly by horses and mules, and 50 teams were brought in for the job. The excavation unearthed numerous springs, which turned the stadium floor into a muddy mess. Spring rains added to the problems.
Horses often got mired in the muck and sometimes they couldn’t be pulled out. Those that broke a leg or suffered exhaustion—and several did—were destroyed on the spot and eventually buried under what is now the north end zone.
A pundit might say they weren’t horsing around when they built the stadium, or maybe they wanted to make sure the Hawkeyes always had the horses.
Work after dark ended in July, but by then the Iowa athletic department had a bigger mess than the muddy floor of the stadium. The Big Ten announced it was suspending Iowa for failure to have faculty control of its athletic program. The action prompted Belting’s resignation, giving the alumni what they wanted.
The faculty might have lost control of athletics, but it had command of the stadium construction, which continued at amazing speed. William G. Raymond, dean of the college of engineering, had his hand firmly on the project, making sure the stadium was being built according to specifications. When he found the longitudinal expansion joints unsatisfactory, he had them redesigned.
Only seven months after ground was broken, the first game was played in the new Iowa Stadium (renamed to honor Nile Kinnick in 1972) on October 5, 1929. Monmouth College was the foe for the shakedown game, and the Hawkeyes cruised to a 46-0 victory. Willis Glassgow scored the stadium’s first touchdown.
The dedication game was held October 19 with Illinois as the opponent. Although the weather didn’t cooperate on dedication day, a capacity crowd paid $3 per ticket to be part of the festivities. Heavy rains creadted mud puddles outside the stadium, and the fans were funneled along two boardwalks from Melrose Avenue, some arriving to the game without their shoes.
Eric Wilson, my predecessor as sports information director, gave this account: “Either side of that boardwalk was a sea of mud. When a lady was accidentally bunped off the walkway she was pulled back to safety, often munus her slippers, which were irretrievably engulfed in the mud.”
The footing on the playing field was also uncertain, but it didn’t prevent Glassgow from running 78 yards to give Iowa a 7-0 lead. Illinois got a touchdown from Doug Mills, who later served for many years as the school’s athletic director, and that was all the scoring in a 7-7 tie.
Five days after the dedication game, the stock market crashed and the nation fell into the Great Depression. In December, 12 Hawkeyes were ruled ineligible for borrowing money from Belting. The average loan was $45, the cost of tuition. Iowa athletics, as well as the nation’s economy, stayed depressed throughout the 1930s.
History tells us that Paul Belting was an arrogant man who broke the rules, but if it hadn’t been for him Iowa’s new stadium probably wouldn’t have been built for another 20 years. It certainly wouldn’t have been constructed during the depression when funding was all but impossible, and nobody built anything during WW II.
We’ve been fortunate to have the stadium for most of this century. We’re also lucky it was not designed to include an eight-lane running track, as many stadiums were during that time. Fans are close to the action at Kinnick, one of the most intimate stadiums in college football.
Through the years there have been many changes in the original structure. Both end zones are now enclosed, with capacity increased by 25,000. The grass playing field went to artificial turf, then back to grass. The one-level press box is now five stories high and houses far more contributors than reporters. The number of toilets and concession stands has been increased. Scoreboards, once hand operated, are now electronic marvels. A video screen and corporate signage are recent additions.
The stadium’s original cost was less than half a million dollars. The investment now is several times that, which is still a bargain.
If Nile Kinnick, who lost his life in World War II, were to return to the stadium where he gained fame 60 years ago, he probably wouldn’t recognize the place. But it’s safe to assume he would be proud of it.