The Legend of Ike Armstrong — University of Utah Football Pioneer

By Chris Frkovich

A 1940 issue of the Utah Chronicle featured a photo on its sports page of the University of Utah’s twin tailbacks, Guy and Huck Adelt, with the headline “Tacklers’ Nightmare.” The caption noted that “picking between the two has given Ike several headaches.” Who was Ike?

U Archives A-Fa IKE Armstrong 1938

Ike Armstrong in a photo from 1938. Armstrong was the head coach of the football team and the athletic director for the University of Utah from 1925-1949. Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Isaac “Ike” J. Armstrong was born June 8, 1895. He played four years of high school football and basketball for Seymour High School in Seymour, Iowa, before declaring for Drake University in Des Moines. Armstrong played fullback for the football team in the early 1920s. (Kellner) According to the Salt Lake Telegram, “Realizing Armstrong’s ability as a leader,” Drake’s head football coach, Ossie Solem, chose Armstrong to assist him during his senior year and the season after he graduated.

When Thomas Fitzpatrick resigned as the head football coach at the University of Utah in October 1924, President George Thomas put together a search committee for the next gridiron leader. (“I. J. Armstrong”) In a recommendation letter for Armstrong, Solem wrote, “I am glad to tell you that he is one of the cleanest, most exemplary young men that I have ever known. If you can get him, all I can say is that you are indeed getting all that you are looking for.” The search didn’t last long as the 29-year-old Armstrong was appointed the next head coach of the Utah football team.

U Archives B Rice Stadium Fd 1 #005

An interior view of Ute Stadium, probably in the early 1960s; The Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse is in the background. Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

At the time of his hiring, Armstrong also agreed to terms to serve as the university’s athletic director (AD). While Armstrong is still the all-time winningest coach and longest tenured coach in the school’s storied history, his work as AD may be more meaningful. A 1950 article in the Daily Utah Chronicle reported, “As the athletic director at the university Ike has made Utah one of the centers of the western sports world.” Under Armstrong’s direction as AD, Ute Stadium (1927-71) was built. In January 1927, the Salt Lake Telegram reported the structure initially “cost about $125,000, and will have a seating capacity of 30,000.” Of course, now (and several upgrades later) it is known as Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse (1939) was also built during Armstrong’s time as AD. Once the home of the Runnin’ Utes basketball team, this building can be seen at football games above the North end zone with the letters U-T-A-H on its roof. (Wharton)

In his 25 years, Ike Armstrong helped mold the winning brand that is Utah athletics. The structure that is Rice-Eccles Stadium was built under his direction. One might call it “The House that Ike Built.” Armstrong also built a legacy on a 141-win foundation, best in school history. (Kellner) That is remarkable because his final season of coaching was 1949. To quote the iconic baseball movie The Sandlot, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”

Chris Frkovich is a sophomore at the University of Utah. He is majoring in communication with an emphasis in broadcast/journalism. He is currently working as a graduate assistant in video production for the Athletic Department.


“Stadium Bids To Be Opened,” Salt Lake Telegram, January 28, 1927.

“Iowa Athlete Chosen Coach Of Crimson,” Salt Lake Telegram, February 16, 1925, 1

“I. J. Armstrong, Assistant Coach At Drake University, Named By Utah Officials To Succeed Tommy Fitzpatrick,” Denver Post, February 17, 1925.

“Utah’s Ike Armstrong Holds Chance at Top Athletic Job,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 30, 1950.

“‘Double Trouble,’ These Tricky Adelt Brothers,” Utah Chronicle, October 17, 1940.

Wharton, Tom. “Whatever happened to … Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 4, 2016.

Kellner, Holly. “Rockne of the Rockies — Utah’s Ike Armstrong left lasting impression on RMAC Football,” Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, June 8, 2016.