The Big Ten Conference is the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the United States. Founded as the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives in 1896, The Big Ten actually predates the founding of its regulating organization, the NCAA, and for much of its history, the conference consisted of ten universities. Thus the name – The Big Ten.
As intercollegiate football rapidly increased during the 1890s, so did the ruthless nature of the game. Tempers flared, fights erupted, and injuries soared. Between 1880 and 1905, college football players suffered more than 325 deaths and 1,149 injuries! To deal with mounting criticism of the game, President James H. Smart of Purdue University invited representatives from the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, University of Wisconsin, and Lake Forest College to meet in Chicago on January 11, 1895 to discuss the regulation and control of intercollegiate athletics.
The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives was founded at a second meeting on February 8, 1896. Representatives from Lake Forest failed to attend this meeting, so it was decided that the Chicago-based school would be replaced by the University of Michigan. At the time, the organization was more commonly known as the Western Conference, consisting of seven schools – Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Chicago, Purdue, and Northwestern.
The first reference to the conference as the Big Nine was in 1899 after the State University of Iowa and Indiana University had joined. In April 1907, Michigan was voted out of the conference for refusing to adhere to league rules limiting football teams to no more than five games and players to three years of eligibility, so in 1912, Ohio State University was added to the conference.
The first known reference to the conference as The Big Ten didn’t occur until December 1916, when Michigan rejoined the conference after a nine-year absence! Which brings us now to our story of Iowa’s only Heisman Trophy Winner – Nile Kinnick and the 1939 Iron Man season.
Coming into the 1939 Big Ten football season, the hapless Iowa Hawkeyes had accumulated a won/loss record of just 2–13–1 over the last two seasons (1937-1938), finishing among the worst three teams in the Big Ten every year during the 1930’s except 1933. Iowa had won just one conference game in the last three years, and the team they beat, Chicago, had just announced that they would be dropping their football program following the 1939 season. Read more here.
So now, let’s look at The Big Ten as we enter the 1939 football season…
Below, we’ll take a journey around the Midwest – making a stop in each of the ten communities that host a Big Ten school. As we travel, we’ll share with you a couple of great memorabilia items from each school.
(BS-009) First, is a page out of the classic songbook – The Big Ten College Football Songs – published by Melrose Music Company.
(M-0152) Second, is a rare memorabilia item from the 1930’s. Picking up on the widely popular hobby of collecting trading cards, The St. Louis Globe-Democrat issued dozens and dozens of small circular cardboard cutouts called Seal Craft Discs. Throughout the 1930’s, the Globe-Democrat celebrated many different themes – issuing a series of Discs for each subject. One such theme was Midwest colleges and universities, and as you can see from the pics above, the first Seal Craft college series had 18 Discs and it included most of the Big Ten schools. Enjoy those Discs we have been able to add to Our Iowa Heritage collection.
So now, let the tour begin…
(M-0152a) As you might expect, we’ll start with The State University of Iowa in Iowa City. Founded in 1847, the school colors are Black & Gold. Joining The Big Ten in 1899, the primary school song in 1939 was On Iowa. After two earlier mascots – Burch The Bear and Rex the ROTC Dog – met with disaster, there was really no team mascot in 1939 – only the nickname – the Hawkeyes. FYI – Herky the Hawk didn’t appear on the scene until 1948. Read more here. In 1939, the Hawkeyes played in Iowa Stadium which opened on the west side of the Iowa River in 1929, replacing Iowa Field which stood on the shore of the river directly west of Old Capitol. The 1939 Iowa team finished the season at 6–1–1 (4–1–1 Big Ten), with Nile Kinnick winning the Heisman Trophy. Read more here.
Probably the biggest win of the 1939 Hawkeye season was a non-conference game on November 11 against #3-ranked Notre Dame. The Hawks won 7-6. Read more here.
(M-0152b) The University of Chicago in Chicago. Founded in 1890 – with classes beginning in 1892 – the school colors are Maroon & White. Joining The Big Ten in 1896, the primary school song in 1939 was Wave The Flag. The school mascot is the Phoenix – taken from the school shield – and more recently has been named Phil the Phoenix. In 1939, the Maroons played their final year of collegiate football in Stagg Field. By 1946, U of Chicago dropped out of the Big Ten completely, being replaced, in 1949, by Michigan State University. The 1939 Chicago team finished the season at 2–6 (0–3 Big Ten) and did not play the Hawkeyes in this, their last season.
(M-0152c) The University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana. Founded in 1867 – the school colors are Orange & Blue. Joining The Big Ten in 1896, the primary school song in 1939 was Illinois Loyalty. From 1926 to 2007, the school mascot was Chief Illiniwek, and in 1939, the Fighting Illini played in Memorial Stadium. The 1939 Illinois team finished the season at 3–4–1 (3–3 Big Ten), and did not play the Hawkeyes this year.
(M-0152d) Indiana University in Bloomington. Founded in 1820 – the school colors are Cream & Crimson. Joining The Big Ten, with Iowa, in 1899, the primary school song in 1939 was Indiana, Our Indiana. The school has never really had a mascot, but simply goes by the name Hoosiers, playing in Memorial Stadium. The 1939 Indiana team finished the season at 2–4–2 (2–3 Big Ten), losing to the Hawkeyes (32-29) in Iowa City on October 7.
(M-0152e) The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Founded in 1817 – the school colors are Maize & Blue. Joining The Big Ten in 1896, the primary school song in 1939 was The Victors. The school has never really had a mascot, but simply goes by the name Wolverines, playing in Michigan Stadium. The 1939 Michigan team finished the season at 6–2 (3–2 Big Ten), defeating the Hawkeyes in Ann Arbor (27-7) on October 14. Playing for the Wolverines in 1939 was a junior quarterback named Forest Evashevski – who went on to coach the Hawkeyes in the 1950’s football revival in Iowa City. Read more here.
(M-0152f) The University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Founded in 1851 – the school colors are Maroon & Gold. Joining The Big Ten in 1896, the primary school song in 1939 was U.of M. Rouser. Like the Hawkeyes with no official mascot in 1939, the Minnesota team was simply known as The Golden Gophers. And it wasn’t until the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when Goldy the Gopher made his first appearance in Memorial Stadium. A national powerhouse in the 1930’s, the 1939 Minnesota team finished the season at 3–4–1 (2–3–1 Big Ten), losing to the Hawkeyes in a huge match-up of top-rated teams on November 18. It was Homecoming 1939 in Iowa City and Nile Kinnick & the Iron Men took home Floyd of Rosedale 13-9. Read more here.
(M-0152g) Northwestern University in Evanston. Founded in 1851 – the school colors are Purple & White. Joining The Big Ten in 1896, the primary school song in 1939 was Go U Northwestern. While there was no official Northwestern mascot in Dyke Stadium in 1939, ever since 1924, Northwestern football players were pegged by sportswriters as the Wildcats. Willie the Wildcat did not come to life until 1947, when members of the Alpha Delta fraternity introduced him during the Homecoming parade. The 1939 Northwestern team finished the season at 3–4–1 (3–2–1 Big Ten), and ended the season on November 25 by playing to a 7-7 tie with the #9-ranked Hawkeyes.
Ohio State University in Columbus. Founded in 1870 – the school colors are Scarlet & Gray. Joining The Big Ten in 1912, the primary school song in 1939 was Across The Field. Just as those living in Iowa are Hawkeyes, so those from Ohio are Buckeyes. So, from the very beginning of the University, Ohio State players have been known as Buckeyes. Brutus the Buckeye, however, didn’t arrive in Ohio Stadium until 1965. The 1939 Ohio State team won the Big Ten championship, finishing the season at 6–2 (5–1 Big Ten), but didn’t have to play the 1939 Hawkeyes.
(M-0152i) Purdue University in West Lafayette. Founded in 1869 – the school colors are Old Gold & Black. Joining The Big Ten in 1896, the primary school song in 1939 was Hail Purdue. In 1891, Purdue football players were pegged Boilermakers by a sportswriter, and since many students at the university experienced hands-on education, including the maintenance of fully-operational steam locomotives, the name stuck. The 1939 Purdue team, playing in Ross-Ade Stadium, finished the season at 3–3–2 (2–1–2 Big Ten), losing a low-scoring, defense-driven game (4-0) to the Hawkeyes in West Lafayette on November 4.
(M-0152j) The University of Wisconsin in Madison. Founded in 1848 – the school colors are Cardinal & White. Joining The Big Ten in 1896, the primary school song in 1939 was On Wisconsin. Wisconsin was dubbed the “Badger State” because of the lead miners who first settled there in the 1820s and 1830s. Without shelter in the winter, they had to “live like badgers” in tunnels burrowed into hillsides. The Badger name was adopted by the University in 1889, but Bucky the Badger didn’t appear in Camp Randall until 1949. The 1939 Wisconsin team finished the season at 1–6–1 (0–5–1 Big Ten), losing to the Hawkeyes (19-13) in Madison on October 28.
After the University of Chicago dropped from the conference (1946), the Big Ten conference was again known as the Big Nine. Three years later, on May 20, 1949, Michigan State joined the conference, making it, during the 1950 football season, once again known as The Big Ten. The conference would remain unchanged for the next 40 years, until expansion brought in Penn State (1990), Nebraska (2011), and Rutgers & Maryland (2014). In 2024, UCLA and USC will join the conference – bringing The Big Ten to sixteen teams.
Big Ten member institutions are known world-wide as major research universities with large financial endowments and strong academic reputations. A large student body is a hallmark of its universities, as 12 of the 14 members today enroll more than 30,000 students. All Big Ten schools are state public universities except founding member Northwestern University – serving as the lone private university. Collectively, Big Ten universities educate more than 520,000 total students and have 5.7 million living alumni. Here’s a big salute to the ever-expanding Big Ten Conference!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
The Big Ten Conference, Wikipedia
University of Chicago, Wikipedia
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Wikipedia
Indiana University Bloomington, Wikipedia
University of Michigan, Wikipedia
University of Minnesota, Wikipedia
Northwestern University, Wikipedia
Ohio State University, Wikipedia
University of Wisconsin, Wikipedia
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