George Veenker was an innovative football mind and outstanding ambassador for Iowa State athletics in his tenure as coach and athletics director for the Cyclones from 1931-45.
Veenker grew up in Michigan and spent five seasons as an assistant football coach and head basketball coach at the University of Michigan prior to his arrival in Ames. Veenker had the dubious task of trying to turn around the Cyclone fortunes on the gridiron when he was hired. The Cyclones were mired in the nation’s longest losing streak, dropping their last 16 games under the Neal Workman regime.
Trying to change the complacency and bring a winning attitude to the squad, Veenker suited up his first team at ISU in 1931 with blue jerseys and gold numerals - just like Michigan. The idea worked, as the Cyclones ended the 16-game skid and defeated eventual Iowa Conference champion Simpson 6-0 in the season opener in Ames. The Cyclones went on to shock the Midwest by compiling a formidable 5-3 record in his inaugural season. ISU went 3-1 vs. Big Six Conference competition that year, including a landmark 13-12 win over Oklahoma in Norman to finish second in the league.
Veenker was considered as the "Miracle Man" for his unbelievable reversal of ISU fortunes. A soft-spoken man, Veenker garnered complete respect from his players. He always stressed defense and his teams showcased his teachings throughout the rest of his tenure.
One of Veenker’s biggest victories came during the 1934 season. Iowa State and Iowa had resumed its rivalry in 1933 after a 13-year layoff, with the Hawkeyes winning 27-7 in Iowa City. The same was expected the next season. The Cyclones were enormous underdogs. But ISU came up with one of the greatest upsets in the series, dominating the Hawkeyes 31-6. ISU was led by unlikely hero Tommy Neal, who ran for 52 yards and three touchdowns.
"Coach Veenker was a master psychologist and really got us fired up for the Iowa game by bringing up some of the things Iowa coach Ossie Solem had said prior to the game," Neal said years later while reflecting on the game. Iowa showed no interest in continuing the series after the 1934 game despite Veenker’s wishes. The Cyclones finished that season with another fine year, going 5-3-1. Veenker took over athletics director duties in 1935 and coached two more years before hanging up the whistle and concentrating solely on his administrative responsibilities. Veenker ended his career with a 21-22-8 overall record and coached eight players who earned first-team all-conference honors, including All-Americans Fred Poole and Ike Hayes.
Under his leadership as athletics director, the Cyclone athletic teams flourished. The 1938 football team was one of the best in school history, going 7-1-1. ISU won four Big Six basketball titles (1935, 1941, 1944, 1945) during his reign, including a Final Four appearance in 1944. ISU also won conference crowns in golf (1940), swimming (1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942) and wrestling (1937, 1941) under his watch.
Veenker was credited for raising funds and significantly increasing ISU’s budget. One of his proudest achievements was persuading the college to give up land to construct a golf course on the northern edge of campus. He spearheaded the campaign and hired legendary golf course architect Perry Maxwell, who designed Prairie Dunes and Southern Hills, to design the course. Intramural and football practice fields were also included in the 150 acres Veenker secured. With help from the Civil Conservation Commission, he made the construction of the course a government project. The Iowa State golf course was completed in 1938. Veenker retired in 1945 and moved to a farm near Ames. He passed away in 1959 at the age of 65. The Iowa State golf course was renamed Veenker Memorial in his honor shortly after his death.