By the time I entered this world in January of 1999, Hayden Fry hadn’t been retired for 2 months and Kirk Ferentz was beginning his reign as the head coach at Iowa. The only Iowa football coach I’ve known in my life was Kirk Ferentz.
As I got more and more into Iowa football throughout my adolescence, the more I began to realize that there was much more to the Hawkeye program than just Kirk Ferentz. A lot of what I found had to with Hayden Fry.
My father told me stories of when he watched Fry’s teams growing up in central Iowa. My mom’s family consists of five Iowa State graduates, her two brothers and my grandpa were in awe of what Hayden did in his days in Iowa City.
When Hayden arrived in Iowa City in the fall of 1979, Iowa State was the superior program in the state thanks to the efforts of Johnny Majors and Earle Bruce. That all changed in the summer of ’79, when Bruce was hired as Woody Hayes successor at Ohio State and Fry came to Iowa City.
The games are plastered all over YouTube. The 1981 games against Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan were the hallmarks of Fry’s first conference championship run. One of Fry’s personal favorites was the 1984 Freedom Bowl, where Iowa throttled the Texas Longhorns 55-17.
The obvious one that ended up as the highlight of the Fry era was in 1985, where #1 Iowa faced off with #2 Michigan on a balmy October afternoon. The defensive grudge match came down to Rob Houghtlin’s 29-yard field goal from the right hash.
Jim Zabel’s call of the kick sails through resonated with me instantaneously, “It’s Good! It’s Good! It’s Good! It’s Good! The Hawkeyes win! The Hawkeyes win! The Hawkeyes win!”. The picture as Zabel was belting those immortal words was Fry running off the sideline with the fans storming the field around him.
When I saw that footage of film paired with that historic audio, I knew the magnitude of who Hayden Fry was and what he meant to the University of Iowa.
Perhaps the greatest quality I loved about Hayden was the stories he could tell, and as some of my long-tenured colleagues could tell you, there was an endless backlog of said stories.
My all-time favorite was the exchange between Fry and Michigan coach Bo Schembechler prior to their 1985 matchup. Fry had switched the guards and the centers during special teams warm ups and had the guards long-snapping to the punters and holders.
Schembechler saw what was happening and walked down to the Iowa side of the field and said “Fry! You’re not gonna let those guys snap during the game are ya?”. In only a style in which he could perfect, Fry responded “Coach Schembechler, we don’t plan on puntin’ today,” and promptly walked away.
There’s one story that stuck out to me more than any Hayden story did however, and it was a story I didn’t hear until my junior year of high school.
It was at Coach Hinkel’s funeral in December of 2015 and the pastor officiating the service told a story of taking his oldest son to a basketball camp in the late 90s. They were walking out of Carver when they ran into none other than Coach Fry himself.
They carried a conversation for about five minutes or so, but halfway through Fry asked them “So where y’all happen to be from?”. The pastor responded “Well coach we came over here from Madrid.”
“Madrid! Why y’all boys over there in Madrid play some real football up there, running the wishbone and all!”
When I heard that remark, a cracked a big smile and laughed. Even a thousand miles away, with a group of 1,000 people he’d never met, he could still get a good laugh.
That ability to get people to laugh like he did is what endeared Fry to so many people in his time as head coach. There had never been a figure like him in the state of Iowa before and there will never be another figure quite like him.
Hayden was one in a million.
Even as I say that as a person who never saw him coach a single down of football, I take my cues from those who came before me. All of them say that there will never be another like him: that’s good enough for me.
I never knew Hayden Fry, but I knew him my entire life, and there’s a whole generation of Iowa fans and students who feel the same way.