October 14, 2016 – The Heisman Showdown that Fizzled!

Tom Harmon (#98) is standing in the third row of the 1939 team photo. He is the first player on the left side of that row. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

The 1939 football season was interesting in many respects. First, it was the second year of the Fritz Crisler Era at Michigan and expectations were high for Crisler’s Wolverines. Michigan posted an excellent record of 6 wins 1 loss and 1 tie in Crisler’s first year. Their 3-1-1 record in conference play was good enough for a second place tie. However, second place is usually not good enough at Michigan. Wolverine fans were hoping that Team #60 would win their first Big Ten Championship since 1933.

Second, this was also the fourth year of the Associated Press College Football Ranking system. After being unranked in 1936 and 1937, Michigan finished the season at number sixteen in 1938. Neither Michigan or Iowa would be ranked prior to their matchup on October 14, 1939.

Another fairly new innovation in college football was the Heisman Trophy voting by the nation’s sportswriters. It was too early to really know who the favorites were in 1939, but the game at Ann Arbor on the fourteenth day of October would give fans and sportswriters a look at two pretty good players.

Nile Kinnick, coming off an injury riddled junior season in 1938 was an all-purpose halfback who could run and pass. He also punted and kicked extra points for the Hawkeyes. Junior Tom Harmon had an excellent sophomore season and everyone in Ann Arbor was expecting big things from the versatile Harmon. Like Kinnick, Harmon could run and pass. He was also slated to handle the punting and placekicking duties for the Wolverines.

Both teams were undefeated coming into the game in Michigan Stadium Iowa was 2-0-0 and Michigan was 1-0-0.

Saturday, October 14, 1939 was a clear, dry day in Ann Arbor. Almost a perfect fall day. Things started very well for Kinnick and his Hawkeyes when he connected on a 71-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Dean. Kinnick made the point-after-touchdown. Iowa was up by a score of 7-0. Unfortunately for Iowa and Kinnick that was as good as things would get that day.

Nile Kinnick fumbled a Michigan punt and the Wolverines were in business. Harmon scored a few plays later on a 2-yard run. Harmon kicked the extra point and the game was tied at 7-7.

Harmon rushed for two more touchdowns (2-yards and 8-yards) in the second quarter, but only made one of the extra points. The second touchdown was set up when Michigan blocked Kinnick’s punt.  Michigan went into locker at room halftime with a lead of 20-7.

Harmon finished the scoring when he intercepted a Kinnick pass deep in Michigan territory. He went 95-yards to the end zone for a pick-six! This record setting interception is still the longest in Michigan football history – wow! Harmon kicked the extra point and the score was now 27-7.

Tom Harmon picks off a Nile Kinnick pass in Michigan's 27-7 win over the Hawkeyes!

Tom Harmon picks off a Nile Kinnick pass in Michigan’s 27-7 win over the Hawkeyes!

Neither team scored in the fourth quarter and the game ended in Michigan’s favor. Final score: Michigan/Harmon 27 Iowa/Kinnick 7. I am certain that this is the first and only game in Michigan football history where one player from each team scored all of his team’s points.

There were two amazing things about this game. First, only about twenty-eight thousand fans saw the face-off of these two Heisman Trophy contenders. It was easily the smallest home crowd of the 1939 season. Second, there was probably no doubt in anyone’s mind who was the best player on the field that day. Even the Iowa fans had to know that Thomas Dudley Harmon had just played the game of his life! Tom Harmon did it all that day. He rushed eighteen times for one-hundred and twelve yards. He ran for three touchdowns and kicked three extra points. He intercepted two Kinnick passes and returned one for a record-setting touchdown. So, the junior thoroughly outplayed the senior, but in the eyes of the Heisman voters, it was only one game. And, true to form, seniors mattered to the early Heisman voters.

Michigan would go on to finish the season with a record of 6 wins and 2 losses. Both losses came in back-to-back games against Illinois and Minnesota. So, Michigan finished at 3-2 in the conference which was only good enough for fourth place.

Iowa would not lose another game, but ended the season with a 7-7 tie against Northwestern. The Hawkeyes ended the season with a final record of 6 wins, 1 loss and 1 tie. They finished with a conference record of 4 wins, 1 loss and 1 tie which was good enough for second place.

Nile Kinninck bounced back from the Michigan game and went on to have a spectacular season. His stellar play was recognized by America’s Heisman voting sportswriters. He received thirty-one percent of  the Heisman votes and went to New York to get his trophy. In addition to being the fifth man to win the Heisman Trophy, the Iowa senior won virtually every major award in college football that year. He was also an All-American, All-Big Ten and the Most Valuable Player in the Big Ten for the 1939 season.

Junior Tom Harmon didn’t have a bad season, but he finished second to Kinnick in the Heisman voting and in the Big Ten MVP voting as well. Like Kinnick, Harmon was an All-American and he also earned All-Big Honors. Tom Harmon led the Big Ten, and the nation, in scoring and was a stellar performer for the Wolverines in almost every game. Illinois and Minnesota did figure out a way to stop him and the rest of the Michigan offense so that probably didn’t help Harmon’s Heisman resume. In the end, Harmon would have an absolutely spectacular senior year in 1940. He received fifty-one percent of the Heisman votes that year and became the sixth man (first Wolverine) to win the Heisman Trophy. Tom Harmon was certainly good enough to win the Heisman Trophy as a junior, but it wasn’t meant to be. It would have been really cool if he was the first two-time winner and not some buckeye! Ugh!

Sadly, Nile Kinnick, a Navy pilot, lost his life in the service of his country on June 2, 1943 at the age of twenty-four. Like Kinnick, Tom Harmon was also a pilot during World War II. Harmon survived two plane crashes and lived a long and successful life.

So, that’s what happened when two future Heisman Trophy winners met on the field in 1939. Both men were great players. They each did amazing things on the football field and left a legacy of excellence for future Hawkeyes and Wolverines to emulate. May Nile Kinnick and Tom Harmon rest in peace today. Thank you gentlemen for your great contributions to college football. Your legends will live forever!

To read more about these two legendary football players and the 1939 seasons for Iowa and Michigan check out the links below.

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1939_Michigan_Wolverines_football_team

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Harmon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile_Kinnick

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1939_Iowa_Hawkeyes_football_team

Barry Gallagher

Barry Gallagher

Barry Gallagher is a self-proclaimed Michigan Football Archeologist. He spends a considerable amount of his time digging into the 138-year history of Wolverine Football. He is on a mission to share his findings with Maize and Blue football fans everywhere. He is the author of one book about Michigan Football titled "21-194-13 Michigan Football's Greatest Era". His second book titled, "The Legend of Bo Schembechler-How an Unknown Buckeye Became the Winningest Coach in Michigan Football History" was released on September 12, 2017. You can learn something about Michigan Football everyday by going to his website at: bigbluefootballhistory.com. You can also follow him on Social Media.
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