Hayden Fry has few black marks on his resume, and he's got a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame to show for it, but one point has always stood out in defiance of logic: in 1972, SMU fired Fry after his team went 7-4, only the Mustangs' third season with at least seven wins since the late 1940s (the other two, both 8-3 marks in 1966 and '68, were also Fry's work). SMU never offered Fry an explanation, but the program's loss was ultimately Iowa's gain; Fry landed on his feet at North Texas State before parlaying success there into a run at Iowa for the ages.
More than 40 years later, the now-moribund SMU program has finally realized that a Hall of Fame coach with a squeaky-clean record with the NCAA who has ties to your program and is still alive just might be someone worth associating with again, and gave him the inaugural "Legends Award" for contributions on and off the field. Of course Fry deserves it, but even if this move came 20 years prior it would have been oddly late. Anyway.
Mike Hlas of The Gazette talked with Fry over the phone earlier, and as you might expect, it's well worth the read. Here's one passage that stands out:
Fry was a 32-year-old offensive coordinator at Arkansas when SMU approached him. He says he told them he had to be able to recruit African-Americans to accept that job, and was originally rebuffed.
"We were at the Sugar Bowl getting ready to play Bear Bryant's Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl," he said. "I was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. During the pregame warm-up, a maintenance man said there was an emergency call for me at the phone under the stands.
"A gentleman said ‘Coach Fry, this is LaMar Hunt (who founded and owned the Kansas City Chiefs) representing SMU. If you'll change your mind you can recruit one black player.' "
That player was LeVias, who eventually became an All-American. He and Fry entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
You, like Fry, may consider racism silly and stupid, the domain of the feeble-minded and prejudiced. And it's certainly that, but it's not only that—plenty of well-educated and successful people (including, y'know, LaMar Hunt) have enforced it over the years, and defiance of it is an act that comes at one's own peril. As Hlas' article notes, Fry has speculated in the past that his firing came as a result of refusing to allow SMU boosters to pay the players, but it takes some deliberate misreading of the situation to think the animus created by Fry's forced integration didn't play a role in the decision to let Fry walk.
There's no bravery without risk. Fry knew what the status quo at SMU (and the rest of the whites-only SWC) was before he showed up. He did the right thing, and it probably cost him the benefit of the doubt when boosters decided they wanted more. That's a negative professional consequence to a statement of (at the time) radical belief. History has come down on both sides accordingly, and now let's make no mistake: it's SMU football who needs Fry's validation, and not the other way around.
The schools of the SWC wouldn't be segregated to this day if Fry hadn't shown up; that'd be preposterous. But Fry was the first one to insist, to declare that his would be the first program to stand up to the nonsense. And finally, after over 40 years, SMU has issued the only proper response to that decision: "thank you."