I didn’t know much about Hayden Fry when I first set foot on the University of Iowa campus. But I would learn.
I would learn about the pink locker room, and how Fry was one of the first coaches to openly embrace psychology while most of his peers dismissed science of the mind as hocus pocus. I would learn about how he wore white pants on game days so his quarterback could pick him out immediately on the sideline after throwing an interception.
I would learn about aviators and scratching where it itches and the Swarm. I would learn about the Tigerhawk and stand up tight ends and why Iowa wore basically the same uniforms as the Steelers. I learned about “I hope we didn’t hurt your boys too bad” and his inspiring a TV sitcom that lasted eight seasons long.
I would learn about the image one could leave behind.
I would learn about Hayden Fry’s coaching tree, the one that includes Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, Jay Norvell, Bo Pelini, Bret Bielema, Dan McCarney, Kirk Ferentz and all the Stoops brothers. I would learn that even before he became Big Ten football royalty, Fry was already a king in Texas.
Long may he reign.
I would learn that that Fry coached under Frank Broyles at Arkansas. He just needed one year in Fayetteville before he was offered his first head coaching job at SMU. There he integrated the Mustang football team, awarding a scholarship to a black player for the first time ever by a team in the Southwest Conference. The year was 1966.
I learned that when Bump Elliott hired Hayden Fry, Iowa’s athletic director told the football coach that he would be the last coach he’d hire at Iowa; that Fry would either be a long-term success, or that if Fry failed, it’d be the end of both them.
With Elliott’s passing just over a week ago, Iowa has lost two of its Mount Rushmore figures in a matter of days.
I think the first thing I learned about Hayden Fry was what the ANF decals meant on Iowa’s helmets. I learned about the farming crisis of the 80’s, and how Fry, a farm boy himself, wanted to lift up Iowa’s farming communities during a time when crop prices plummeted and farmers were taking their own lives.
America needs farmers just as bad as it needs figures like Fry.
I learned that Hayden Fry was more than just a football coach. I learned that he gave an entire state an identity and something to be proud of. Before Fry arrived in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes won 22 football games the combined 10 years prior. It took him four years to exceed that number, and just three to reach the Rose Bowl for the third time in program history. It would be his first of three trips to Pasadena.
With Hayden Fry, I learned about the impression one can leave on an entire community. I learned after meeting countless dogs, young children and goldfish named Hayden while in Iowa City. I learned about it after attending my first FRYfest, where I marched along Hayden Fry Way and did the Hokey Pokey with a bunch of strangers.
And I think that’s kind of the point. Fry would probably call himself a teacher first and a football coach second. He taught history at his alma mater, Odessa High School while he coached the football team. He was the athletic director and football coach at SMU and North Texas State.
Eventually, I learned about his battle with prostate cancer, and how he kept his radiation treatments a secret from the team and his coaches, entering the University hospital through the backdoor every morning to receive chemotherapy. I learned about his retirement to Mesquite, Nevada, to not only escape to warmer weather, but also mobs of adoring fans that would flock to his table while going out to dinner with his wife, Shirley.
Through Fry, I learned about the impact of a life. I learned about legacy and humility. I learned what it meant to be a Hawkeye.
Rest in peace, Hayden Fry.