Kinnick Stadium has been atop my wish list of college football game days for years. Finally– on a snowy and blustery Midwest afternoon– I made the seven-hour trek to Iowa City for some Hawkeyes football.
Aside from having college football’s coolest tradition, an Iowa football game day is entrenched in tradition and history.
Fight For Iowa!
Most of the US saw a major dip in temperature during the week, but none perhaps more extreme than the Mississippi Valley region. From the ninth floor of my hotel on the bank of the Mississippi River, I could almost visibly see puddles freeze over in real time. What began as a day with highs in the upper-70s turned into 29º in a matter of about six hours.
Luckily, the bar was only a short elevator ride away from my room.
Saturday comes around and it’s time to end my Hyatt hibernation. Having grown up a Midwesterner, I was fully prepared: multiple layers, the winter coat, gloves, beanie, about six packs of hand warmers, and multiple socks.
Temperatures in Iowa City stalled out around 30º but a stiff 25-mph wind brought the chill down to around 17º at kickoff. It never changed.
Maybe I’m sick, but I was hoping for a bundled-up, blustery day in Iowa; I even got my snow wish in this one.
When Wisconsin plays Iowa, this is the kind of weather you envision.
College Football’s Best Tradition
There are thousands of traditions in college football. A dozen or so make up the most iconic– be it the Penn State Whiteout, Rolling Toomer’s Corner, or Dotting the i in Columbus– but there’s one that sits in a category of its own.
That’s the Iowa Wave.
At the end of the first quarter, every single one of the 70,000 fans in Kinnick Stadium face the Stead Family Children’s Hospital that overlooks the grandstands and waves to embattled children who are staying there. From childhood cancer to life-threatening accidents, there’s a lot of tribulation that goes on behind that glass.
And for an extended moment it’s an opportunity for Iowans, visiting fans, coaches, media, and players to extend warm gratitude and pass along a gesture of encouragement.
Though it started just in 2017, it’s immediately caught on nationwide. Many folks go to Iowa specifically for the Iowa Wave.
It’s powerful. It’s emotional. The Wave is college football’s best tradition, period.
Iowa Football’s Other Traditions
Before 2017, Iowa was still jampacked with tradition. Before heading into the stadium, catch the Hawk Walk (Iowa’s version of the team walk) near Melrose Avenue and don’t forget to pickup a pork tenderloin– an Iowa delicacy. After that, make your way to the indoor track facility for a pep rally put on by the Iowa marching band, cheer squad, and mascot.
The pep rally is absolutely worth seeing, especially on a day with temperatures below freezing (due in part to the building being heated). But get there early because it’s a popular event and seats fill up fast.
Once you head into the stadium, make your way to the south end zone for a history lesson. First thing’s first: locate the Nile Kinnick statue that greets you at the Hawk Walk (this area is later closed off and becomes part of the stadium). Give a pat to his shoe and to the leather helmet for luck.
It worked for the Hawkeyes on this day.
Nile Kinnick is Iowa’s sole Heisman Trophy winner back in 1939. This was during a period of serious turmoil for the world and Kinnick gave an impassioned speech.
“I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe,” he said. “I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather struggle and fight to win a Heisman award than a [War Cross].”
This speech is played before the team runs out onto the field at each home game.
You’ll also find a statue dedicated to Duke Slater, college football’s longest-tenured African American player and college football legend. It depicts a touchdown scored over the legendary Notre Dame team of the 1920s led by Knute Rockne that led Iowa to a 7-0 undefeated season.
The day before, Iowa’s and Wisconsin’s team managers play a rivalry football game of their own, dubbed the “Battle for the Rusty Toolbox.” Iowa took home the prize this year in the flag football contest.
Pregame, before the team runs out, a falconer sends out a hawk from the press box to the 50-yard-line, dubbed the “Hawk Flight.” It’s no Auburn, but any live raptor incorporated into game day is fine by me.
Iowa 24, Wisconsin 10
Do you like offensive football? Then this game isn’t for you.
Iowa and Wisconsin both had struggling offenses this season, but Iowa’s is historically bad. Despite coming away with 24 points, only 14 of those came by way of an offensive score, and both of those touchdowns were setup by short fields thanks to the punt return team.
In total, Iowa scored those two touchdowns on fields of 17 yards and 18 yards. Otherwise, it was a Cooper DeJean pick-six off Graham Mertz that gave Iowa its second of three touchdowns.
But the crowd of nearly-70,000 stayed pretty much intact until the final whistle. Many students bolted after the Wave and many more after halftime, but the laymen crowd stayed put. The atmosphere was explosive and you could tell these two teams have a fierce and storied rivalry.
After each touchdowns, a thunderous “I-O-W-A” circulates throughout the stadium while the crowd also counts off pushups done by the ROTC in the end zone– one for each point. Unfortunately, the cadets didn’t get much of a workout this season.
When the final gun did sound, every single one of Iowa’s players rushed down to the north end zone, promptly grabbed the Heartland Trophy (which the two teams were vying for) and marched it straight into the locker room. No handshakes, no fan fare.
And just as an added bonus, the PA played “Jump Around” just to really nudge the ribs of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Game Day Grades
Stadium: B+. The aesthetic of Kinnick Stadium just works. Coupled with the blackout and it’s colorfully one of my favorite deals. The Children’s Hospital is almost an extension of Kinnick Stadium and adds to the visual dynamic. There’s not a bad seat in the house.
Tradition: A+. The Wave. End of assessment.
Atmosphere: B. It was downright cold, but Midwesterners don’t care; after all, we’ve got another five months of this in store for us. This crowd was beyond fed up with the offensive ineptitude and clear nepotism of Kirk Ferentz’ son who runs the show. There were plenty of boos and groans. But when it came down to it, this stadium got pretty loud.
Tailgating: B-. I’m not entirely sure where all the tailgating was, but though it wasn’t widespread, it was sure creative. Some examples of tailgate vehicles include a combine, multiple busses, and an actual hearse.
Fans: A-. Staying throughout this entire game is damn impressive. Iowans are friendly and even the back-and-forth with arch-rival Wisconsin was only good spirited. I applaud Iowa fans for selling out the stadium in spite of their 5-4 record and disastrous offensive showings. They’re dedicated folks.
Extracurriculars: C. Iowa City is a pretty cool college town, but you don’t happen upon it. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere– halfway between the Quad Cities of Davenport and Illinois and Des Moines. Good luck finding a direct flight or anything to do outside of the immediate town itself.