Hawkeye Flashback: 1896 Missouri
[Author’s note: Today we revisit one of the most infamous games in Iowa football history and the shining moment of bravery exhibited by Frank “Kinney” Holbrook. For more on Holbrook, please read my Holbrook biography here.]
It’s important, as sports fans, that we never forget the contributions of early African-American pioneers, and the University of Iowa has been blessed throughout its history to be connected to a disproportionately large number of them. Iowa’s first black football player, Frank “Kinney” Holbrook, was one such player.
The integration of college football was a long and winding road that lasted nearly a century. Explosive racial incidents involving African-American players took place all across the country at different times, and no college football program in America that was around before 1970 was shielded from at least one such incident.
For the University of Iowa’s football program, the first recorded game marred by racial intolerance took place in 1896, when the Hawkeyes squared off against Missouri. Not only was it the first Hawkeye game affected by racism, but the racial confrontation that took place that day was by far the most explosive in Hawkeye history, and I imagine it will always remain so.
In light of that, this Hawkeye Flashback takes us back to the Missouri game of 1896, where we honor the stoic courage of halfback Frank “Kinney” Holbrook.
The University of Iowa played its first intercollegiate football game in 1889. Three years later, the school took a step forward by helping to create one of the first college football conferences in America.
In 1892, Iowa joined Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas to form the Western Interstate University Football Association (WIUFA). These four schools played each other in football every year, and the winner of the round-robin series was declared the conference champion. The WIUFA was one of the first conferences organized in college football, but Iowa had little success early on in the league. In the WIUFA’s first three seasons from 1892-1894, the Hawkeyes finished in the league basement.
The 1895 Hawkeye football season was even worse. Iowa nearly did not field an official team that season, as the football program teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Emergency fundraising allowed the 1895 Hawkeyes to play football, but they were forced to play the season without a head coach. In the absence of any real organization, practices were disorganized and sloppy, and the results were obvious on the field.
The Hawkeyes posted a weak 2-5 record in 1895; worse, the team went 0-3 against their WIUFA conference foes while being outscored 92-0. The 1895 squad finished in the league basement for the fourth straight year, and the program seemed hopeless.
But hope arrived in the form of Alfred E. Bull. Bull had been named a first team All-American center for the University of Pennsylvania football team in 1895. The Iowa job was his first coaching job out of college, but he quickly put together the best football team that had ever been assembled at Iowa.
Frank Kinney Holbrook was a big part of that. Holbrook, the first African-American athlete at the University of Iowa, earned a football letter as a freshman at Iowa in that disorganized 1895 season, but in his second football season, he blossomed into a star. As an incredibly quick halfback and Iowa’s primary ballcarrier, opponents seemingly had no answer for Holbrook, who also earned two letters with the Hawkeye track team.
Holbrook led the Hawkeyes to a 3-1 start on the 1896 season. The only defeat was a 6-0 setback to the powerful team from the University of Chicago, which was no embarrassment. Chicago, coached by Hall of Famer Amos Alonzo Stagg, had beaten their three previous collegiate opponents by a combined score of 123-0 and would finish the season with a record of 10-2-1.
Iowa’s biggest win so far in 1896 was a 6-0 triumph over Kansas. That victory snapped a five-game conference losing streak for the Hawkeyes and was made possible thanks to a late 45-yard touchdown run by Holbrook. The Hawkeyes now had their sights set on even bigger things. Iowa had never won two games in the WIUFA in a single season, but if they could do so, they would make history. Because Kansas defeated Nebraska, 18-4, on November 7, the Hawkeyes could claim a share of the WIUFA conference championship – the first conference title in school history – with a victory two days later on November 9 over the University of Missouri.
But earning a victory over Missouri would prove to be difficult…for a whole host of reasons.
The University of Missouri Tigers had a strong football program. Missouri had an 8-1 record in 1895, and they had won a share of the WIUFA title in each of the last three seasons. However, the 1896 Missouri team was not looking like one of their stronger units. The Tigers were just 2-3 on the season, including an 8-4 conference loss to Nebraska. If they wanted a share of a fourth straight conference title, they couldn’t afford a loss to the Hawkeyes.
And then there was Missouri’s attitude towards African-Americans, which was strongly southern in nature. Due to their location, Missouri often played football games against northern schools that were close geographically but worlds apart culturally. The state of Missouri strictly adhered to a policy of segregation between blacks and whites, and Missourians bristled at the notion of African-American football players.
Nebraska discovered this firsthand, and it caused the first major crisis of the WIUFA. The league was in its first year in 1892 when Nebraska was scheduled to play Missouri in Omaha for their first ever conference game. Nebraska was led by star sophomore halfback George Flippin, an African-American. The Tigers insisted that the game go on without Flippin, and when Nebraska officials refused, Missouri forfeited the game rather than play against a black player.
The WIUFA quickly installed a rule fining a school fifty dollars for forfeiting a scheduled conference game, a hefty monetary fine in those days. To avoid paying a steep penalty, Missouri played in Kansas City against Nebraska – and Flippin – in each of the next two seasons until Flippin graduated.
Frank Holbrook and the Hawkeyes played against Missouri in 1895 without any reported incidents. Holbrook was an end that year and generated little attention from the opposing team. However, in 1896, Coach Bull shifted Holbrook the halfback position, and he was now earning praise as arguably “the best halfback ever seen in Iowa.” Holbrook, then, was probably giving the Tigers flashbacks to their games against Flippin, and Missouri wasn’t going to allow Holbrook to visit Columbia again.
Missouri alumni sent word to Coach Bull, demanding that Iowa play the game without Holbrook. It would have been very easy for Bull to simply comply with the request…dozens of similar requests were made – and accepted – by football programs in the decades to come.
But Bull was, well, bullheaded. After years in the conference cellar, the Hawkeyes weren’t going to bench their best player for a road game against the three-time defending league champions. Coach Bull flatly stated that there would be no game if Frank Holbrook were not allowed to play, and since the Tigers would face a heavy punitive fine for scrapping the contest, they really had no choice but to play the game. But they weren’t obligated to be civilized about it.
Holbrook was subjected to prejudice on his train ride down to Missouri in 1895, and the scene a year later wasn’t much better. Holbrook was refused admittance to all the hotels in Columbia upon his arrival, before finally being taken in and given the “royal treatment” by a black barber.
The Columbia townspeople didn’t take kindly to Holbrook’s presence. “It was evident even before the game that Missouri had no intention of giving fair play to Iowa,” Iowa’s student newspaper, the Vidette-Reporter, claimed. “Alumni of Missouri could be heard in the corridors of the hotel at which the Iowa team was staying, and in other public places, saying in terms too offensive to print that they hoped the Missouri team would kill the Negro.”
Today, they sometimes say that a visiting team is walking into a “hostile environment” on the road. Kinney Holbrook walked into one of the most hostile sports environments that has ever presented itself, at any time. Yet when Coach Bull pulled Holbrook aside and asked him if he wanted to play under these circumstances, Holbrook’s response was simple: “Sure I will.”
The First Half
The scene at Missouri’s stadium resembled a mob, with Tiger fans waving canes, clubs, and even wagon spokes. “Iowa’s team had not yet got on the gridiron before the students and townspeople commenced to yell, ‘There’s the —– Negro!’ and ‘The Tigers will kill the Negro!'” the Vidette-Reporter noted. “The line of demarcation between the students and hoodlums could not be drawn. Evidently from the concern depicted on their faces, and from their expressions of regret, there were some students who deplored the situation. But they seemed to be so in the minority that their expressions were very feeble, and none made the least effort to quiet the crowd.”
By the time the players took the field, the crowd was seething with hatred. “When Missouri’s team came on the field, they were heartily cheered with the Tigers’ yell, followed by appeals from the rooters to individual players to ‘kill the n—-r’,” the Vidette-Reporter continued. “The game was started under these conditions.”
In a remarkable display of determination and will, Kinney Holbrook ignored the insults and epithets hurled his way. “Holbrook seemed not to hear these cries,” the Vidette-Reporter observed. “Holbrook took his place and by his courageous demeanor must have excited the admiration of every fair-minded spectator. If he did not at this time, he must have at several other points in the game.”
“He made numerous brilliant tackles and runs, even though the players with whom he was about to collide were being urged to do him violence by such remarks as ‘Now’s your time, Conley, to kill that ——- n—-r!’ and ‘Kill him, Hill!’ And it was evident that each man tried to do as he was bid by his admiring supporters, but never once did Holbrook show the least intimidation.”
Frank Holbrook wasn’t the only target of the Missouri players. The other Iowa players were complicit by playing alongside Holbrook, and they took their fair share of Missouri’s wrath, too. “There was hardly a man on Iowa’s team who did not receive a cowardly blow from the Tigers. [Left tackle Kalita] Leighton was even kicked down and several were hit while on the ground. One man received at least three blows from the fists of the Tigers,” said the Vidette-Reporter.
But the Hawkeye players refused to strike back. “Old Gold came out stainless. Not for ten seconds did one of Iowa’s men forget himself or lose his temper,” the Vidette-Reporter observed. More importantly, they always placed themselves near and around Holbrook to help shield him from the aggression of the Missouri players.
On the field, Iowa easily took control of the game. Missouri wasn’t that talented, as evidenced by their 2-3 record, and the Hawkeyes got on the board first with a touchdown run by halfback Joe Meyers. Later in the half, the crowd was really whipped into a frenzy, when Frank Holbrook crossed the goal line for Iowa to give the visitors a 12-0 lead.
“During this half, every available opportunity was taken to jump on Holbrook,” one observer wrote. “We could see every play he was in, he was kicked or mal-treated in some way. He played on amid loud expressions of ‘Kill the n—-r.'”
The riotous atmosphere peaked at the end of the first half. With seconds remaining, Holbrook, “amid the vilest of threats and the exhibitions of canes and clubs,” tackled one of the Missouri players and rolled with him out of bounds and into the crowd. The Missouri players started to argue with the officials over something related to the play when Tiger player Hal A. Conley punched one official, Professor Dehn, in the face. “This act disgraced Missouri and it looked as though the game would break up in a serious riot in which Prof. Dehn and Holbrook would likely have been seriously injured,” the Vidette-Reporter noted. But at that moment, the first half ended, and the teams retreated to their respective locker rooms.
The Second Half
Prof. Dehn ejected Conley from the game as the teams left the field. Word of Conley’s ejection reached Missouri coach Frank Patterson, who was far from an innocent bystander in all of this. He refused to reign in his players and ran out onto the field numerous times in the first half, which was clearly against the rules. But he knew that in this type of atmosphere, that was the least of the officials’ problems.
Patterson went to Prof. Dehn at halftime and told him that if he didn’t reinstate Conley, he would find himself on the business end of an angry mob. In no uncertain terms, Patterson was threatening Dehn physically to get his player back onto the field. Dehn initially refused, but Iowa’s coaching staff then approached Dehn and also asked that Conley be reinstated for the sake of peace; the last thing the Hawkeyes wanted was for this angry crowd to have an excuse to get even worse. Dehn reluctantly agreed to rescind his ejection of Conley.
It took only eight minutes into the second half to prove that allowing Conley back into the game was a bad decision. After an Iowa play, Prof. Dehn blew the whistle and Leighton dropped the football. Hill of Missouri, who claimed not to have heard the whistle, scooped up the ball and started running up the field. He found himself with a seven-yard head start before the Hawkeye players began to give chase. Forty yards downfield, the speedy Holbrook overtook Hill and dragged him to the turf.
Prof. Dehn waved off Hill’s run and called for the ball to be brought back to where Leighton was downed. Missouri’s players protested, and Conley found himself in the middle of the action once again. He grabbed Dehn by the neck, but Dehn fought himself free and began to walk away. Conley responded by punching Dehn for the second time in the game, this time in the back of the head, dropping Dehn to the turf.
Another official, Professor Sims, went over to the Iowa sideline and told Manager Price of the Iowa administration that, in his opinion, Iowa (and the officials) had suffered enough indignities and that Price would be justified in calling the Hawkeyes off the field. Conley, who was within earshot of this conversation, yelled at Price, “Take your —- —– men, and go to —- with them!”
The game was called at that point with Iowa notching a 12-0 victory. The Hawkeye team retreated to the locker room, gathered their things, and made their way to the team bus. After the squad had boarded the bus, a crowd of Missouri fans discovered the Hawkeye caravan and began pelting it with rocks. The Iowa bus was only able to roll away thanks to “the sheriff and two deputies on horseback at our sides and three big Negroes with shotguns bringing up the rear,” one Iowa student wrote. But the Hawkeye team left town with what they came for – an important road victory.
“The football team of the S.U.I. went down to Columbia, Missouri, to play the team of the Missouri State University last week and received about the worst and most uncivilized treatment ever accorded a football team anywhere,” the Tipton Advertiser reported. The Vidette-Reporter added, “Probably never in the history of professionalism or amateur sports, either east or west, has such a disgraceful exhibition been given as that at Columbia yesterday.”
Inexplicably, the Missouri media felt that Conley was justified in punching Dehn, claiming that he had been provoked. “Iowa’s tool thought he would amuse himself by calling a Tiger vile names,” the Columbia Statesman reported. “The insult was promptly resented, and Dehn escaped a deserved punching only by the interference of the police. The Columbians who are casting reflections upon a man that resented an insult that is too vile for publication…make a sad mistake. They should feel proud.”
But the Hawkeyes’ pride in the victory would be much longer lasting, because the University of Iowa had just clinched a share of the WIUFA championship, the first conference title in school history. Less than three weeks later, the Hawkeyes made their WIUFA title an outright one by defeating Nebraska, 6-0…on a touchdown run by Frank Holbrook.
Iowa and Missouri had played for five straight seasons from 1892-1896, but the circumstances of the 1896 game resulted in a six-year freeze in the Iowa-Missouri series. The two schools would not play each other in football again until 1902.
In a larger sense, the bad blood that came out of the Iowa-Missouri game of 1896 was primarily responsible for the collapse of the Western Interstate University Football Association. Iowa and Missouri refused to play each other in 1897, and that made round-robin play impossible in the WIUFA in its final season. With only four schools in the conference, and two of those four schools having broken off athletic relations, the WIUFA could no longer function, so the league dissolved after the 1897 season.
In six seasons from 1892-1897, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska each claimed three outright or shared WIUFA conference championships. Iowa, on the other hand, only captured one, winning the WIUFA championship outright in 1896. That conference championship stands as the University of Iowa’s first, in any sport. And it was due in large part to a hard-fought victory over Missouri…and the incredible courage of Frank Holbrook.