Anderson was indeed a fanatic for physical conditioning, and his spring practices were so arduous that from an original turnout of 80 or more candidates, only 35 survived into the season. Of these only about 20 would play regularly, and 12 would play the full 60 minutes in at least one of the eight games.
Anderson brought with him to Iowa City two fellow Notre Dame alums, back-field coach Frank Carideo, an All-America quarterback for Rockne in 1929 and '30, and line coach Jim Harris. Both shared the good doctor's obsession with conditioning. Carideo had the additional distinction of being an expert at punting and drop-kicking, and Kinnick, who had learned both skills from his father, became his star pupil. Before and after every practice—Kinnick was always the first on the field and the last to leave it—the coach and player would kick to each other from various points on the gridiron. "They were so accurate," Couppee recalls, "it was like watching two guys playing catch."
From Carideo, Kinnick mastered the technique of "coffin corner" punting, and he refined his skills as perhaps the last serious practitioner of the then outdated, now lost art of drop-kicking field goals and points after.
Anderson's offensive system was the Notre Dame Box, with variations. The T-formation revolution, led by Clark Shaughnessy's Stanford Wow Boys, was a year away, and in 1939 the dominant formation was the single wing. In the Notre Dame system, the team first lined up with the backfield in a tight T, from which the quarterback called the play and the snap count. Only in an emergency would the Iowa team huddle before a play. On the quarterback's signal, the backs shifted into the box formation, which differed from the single wing only in that the line remained balanced.
No more than 20 times during the '39 season, and then merely for shock value, did Iowa run a play from the T. The tailback (usually the left halfback) and the fullback were the deep backs in the box. The quarterback played close to the line and was the principal blocking back. The right halfback, or wingback, was flanked outside or directly behind the end on his side. The tailback was the workhorse. He was the triple-threat man—a runner, passer and kicker. Kinnick was Anderson's tailback.
The '39 Iowa team was relatively small in stature even at a time when 200-pound linemen were considered "behemoths." Anderson did start the season with three "big" men—260-pound guard Henry Luebcke, 212-pound tackle Mike Enich and 202-pound tackle Jim Walker. But Luebcke suffered an abdominal hernia in the second game and Walker went out with a bad knee in the third. With those big men gone, Iowa averaged 191 pounds on the line and 181 in the backfield. If the team had any advantage, it was in age. Three players—guard Tollefson, tackle Bergstrom and guard Max Hawkins—were approaching their middle 20's. Tollefson had dropped out of school for three years to "go on the bum," Bergstrom had shipped out on a South American banana boat and Hawkins had done a tour of duty in the Navy before starting school as a 22-year-old freshman.
Preseason polls picked Iowa to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten. Bill Osmanski, the Chicago Bears fullback who had played for Anderson at Holy Cross, had no illusions about the team's potential after helping coach at spring practice. "Among 5,000 male students at the University of Iowa," Osmanski said, "there are only five real football players." But Anderson's confidence was unshaken. In Kinnick, he said, he had potentially the best back in the country. "All of which sounds quite rosy," Kinnick wrote home, "but I shan't be put off my base or guard the least bit. However, I can't deny that I was happy to hear him say this for the simple reason that I have practiced all my life to learn to run, throw and kick and haven't, as yet in college, had the opportunity to show myself a good single wing back."
Kinnick was born in Adel, Iowa, on July 9, 1918, the oldest child in a farming family of three sons. Although they were far from wealthy, the Kinnicks did have a certain station in the community because Nile's maternal grandfather, George W. Clarke, had been governor of the state from 1913 to 1917. Nile Sr. had been a scholar-athlete at high school in Adel and at Iowa State, where he was celebrated for drop-kicking two field goals once against Missouri. "The trouble is," the elder Kinnick recalls, "while I was kicking field goals, they were scoring touchdowns."
He and Frances Clarke were married on Dec. 14, 1916, and Nile was born 19 months later. Ben came 13 months after that, and George eight years after Nile. Between farm chores, Nile and Ben learned to play every sport, but it was Nile who excelled. In the eighth grade he caught a hard-throwing pitcher of his age from the neighboring town of Van Meter named Bob Feller. Nile was a superb basketball player, naturally ambidextrous, and he could do everything on a football field. He was also, it became apparent to his family and friends, an unusually sensitive boy. When one of his friends was punished by a teacher for failing to give a correct answer in class, Nile came home in tears. "He couldn't tell her the answer," he complained to his father, "because he didn't know it." "He had this natural sympathy for the less fortunate," his father says.
The Depression finally forced the Kinnick family off the farm and into Omaha, where Nile Sr. found work with the Federal Land Bank in 1934. At Benson High, Nile Jr. was all-state in football and basketball and graduated as an A student. At Iowa, to concentrate on football and his studies, he quit the baseball team after his freshman year and the basketball team after two seasons. "The athlete," he confided to his diary before his junior season, "learns to evaluate—to evaluate between athletics and studies, between playing for fun and playing as a business, between playing clean and playing dirty, between being conventional and being true to one's convictions. He is facing the identical conditions which will confront him after college—the same dimensions and circumstances. But how many football players realize this?"