Hayden Fry (1929-2019): Ahead of his time on and off the field

It is rare in American life that one person, outside of holding a high-ranking political office or achieving great economic wealth, captures the collective imagination of a state as a whole.

Hayden Fry captured that imagination, and held it with a Texas-sized bag for over 20 years. He was bigger than life for the people of Iowa…which is what made the announcement of his death that much harder.

John Hayden Fry died at the age of 90 on Tuesday night surrounded by his family after a long battle with cancer. The native of Odessa, Texas had lived a good, long life and had much to prove that.

Before he arrived in Iowa City in 1979, Fry had already lived a full life of football. A graduate of Baylor and quarterback for the Bears football team, he got into coaching during his four-year stint in the United States Marine Corps, where he was discharged at the rank of captain in 1955.

From there Fry became the head coach at his alma mater, Odessa High School and taught history as well, including to a young man by the name of Roy Orbison. Fry quickly rose up the coaching ranks, and by 1962, was named the head coach at SMU.

During his tenure at SMU, Fry held his own against the stiff competition of the old Southwest Conference, holding a 49-66-1 record in his time with Mustangs. However, his biggest accomplishment at SMU came off the field.

Jerry LeVias was a recruit from Beaumont, Texas and was a stud quarterback at Herbert High School. LeVias was also black, which limited his options in a time in history where the southern United States had not yet fully integrated.

This did not seem to bother one Hayden Fry whatsoever, even with the opposition from hundreds of SMU alumnus. LeVias became a three-time All-SWC wide receiver, an All-American selection in 1968 and was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

LeVias gave a statement following the death of Fry on Tuesday.

“Coach Fry caught a lot of hell for doing what he did. After he left SMU, he went to North Texas, and he couldn’t get a break in Texas – sometimes coaching and having to go to good bowl games,” LeVias said. “All of a sudden, Iowa calls. From my understanding, before Coach Fry got there Iowa had not had a .500 season since 1948 or so. This guy comes in and he turns the program around. When one door closes, the Good Lord has plans. It was like in the Good Lords plans for him to come to Iowa.”

Fry was fired after the 1972 season and quickly accepted the head coaching job at North Texas State and quickly turned the Mean Green into consistent program. His hope was to raise the program’s status to the point where they would receive an invite to the Southwest Conference.

That invite never came, and for the people in Iowa, they’re forever grateful it didn’t.

Hired after the 1978 season, Fry instantly appeared much different than his predecessors. His thick southern-drawl, crop-duster mustache and his aviator sunglasses made him look like a real-life caricature. But there were never any jokes on if he could coach football.

In three seasons, Fry’s Hawkeyes won the 1981 Big Ten Championship and traveled to the Rose Bowl, the program’s first since 1959. From his “scratch it where it itches” philosophy, to the standing tight ends to see coverages and blitzes and his beloved “exotics”, Hayden Fry changed everything about Hawkeye football.

He even introduced the now-standard Tigerhawk upon his arrival in 1979, a logo that Iowa fans can no longer think about not being apart of the university.

While the 1981 season made Fry a legend in the state of Iowa, the 1985 season made him immortal. A team that finished the season 10-2 and spent a handful of weeks as the #1 team in the country, led by a quarterback named Chuck Long, who was the runner-up to the 1985 Heisman Trophy.

“I have to give him all the credit for getting my personal career launched among others. I speak for many of the Hawkeye football past players. He had a special way of making you feel good all the time even in the tough games and in the tough moments,” Long said.

Fry couldn’t have done it without a top-notch coaching staff either. It was a coaching staff that at one point had SEVEN future Division I College Football coaches on it. His assistants included Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, Kirk Ferentz, Bob and Mike Stoops, Jim Leavitt and Dan McCarney.

“Hayden Fry is a college football icon and an Iowa legend. His Hall of Fame career is well known, but personally, he will always be the man who took a chance on me at the start of my coaching career,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said in a press release. “I was proud to coach with him and honored to succeed him when he retired. He’s been a great mentor and a true friend. I am forever grateful to him.”

Fry remained the head coach until after the 1998 season, retiring with a record of 143-89-6 in his 20 seasons in Iowa City. In his retirement, Fry would make an annual trip to Iowa City to watch the Hawkeyes and in 2009, FryFest became the official kickoff to the Iowa football season.

Along with his former player Jerry LeVias, Fry was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003 and was presented with the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the AFCA in 2005.

I write this as someone who never saw Hayden Fry coach a down of football at the University of Iowa. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t even alive when he coached his last down of football. But as I write this tonight, I feel the same somber, sorrow emotions as those who watched his entire career.

When you have that kind of impact on people, is when a person should know they’ve done good in their life. Hayden Fry did good in his life, and I’m sure that’s all he ever wanted to do.

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