Leistikow: Behind the sunglasses, Hayden Fry's true genius was revealed in Iowa football's resurgence

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The sunglasses, the white pants, the cowboy hat, the mustache, the folksy rhetoric?

All Hayden Fry. And all part of the genius behind a 1980s resurgence that became the heyday of Iowa Hawkeyes football.

But behind that persona that represented radical change in Iowa City, perhaps the most important thing Fry brought from Texas in December of 1978 was his Master’s degree in psychology from Baylor.

Fry wound up being uniquely qualified to help the Hawkeyes ditch nearly two decades of losing football and believe that they could not only be good … but great.

Fry wasn’t slow-witted, although that's what he wanted his coaching counterparts to think.

Behind the aviator glasses was a leader, a motivator, an innovator and a master psychologist.

From 1983: Iowa Hawkeyes football coach Hayden Fry and quarterback Chuck Long.

“This was little old Iowa,” former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long said Tuesday night, not long after the news broke that Fry had died after a long battle with cancer at 90. “It’s cliché and it’s coach speak, but he made us believe in something bigger than what we were as individuals. He made us believe.”

The stories were flowing from Long, whose career is forever intertwined with Fry’s as a player and coach, and Chuck Hartlieb — two of the most prolific passers in Hawkeye history and catalysts for an amazing 11-year run from 1981 to 1991 in which Iowa lost only 24 Big Ten Conference games and attended three Rose Bowls.

“He pulled out all your emotions and got you to play your absolute best,” said Hartlieb, who directed Iowa’s 10-win season of 1987. “He was the Bear Bryant of the '80s. He had an unbelievable aura around him.”

The stories, oh, there are plenty of them.

Everyone knows about the pink visitors’ locker room at Kinnick Stadium, a tradition that Fry’s successor, 21st-year Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, kept going.

You still see footage on national-TV broadcasts today of the pink walls, pink urinals, pink lockers ... pink everything.

The color was thought to have a calming effect, a mentality visiting coaches of course would want their team to avoid. But the mere idea of thinking about the pink walls was the calculated layer that Fry outlined in his biography, “A High Porch Picnic” (an expression in West Texas that means having a good time).

“When I talk to an opposing coach before a game and he mentions the pink walls, I know I’ve got him,” Fry wrote. “I can't recall a coach who has stirred up a fuss about the color and then beat us.”

He particularly enjoyed getting under the skin of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.

The story has been famously told, but it’s worth memorializing.

During the pregame of the biggest matchup of Fry’s 20-year Hawkeye tenure — No. 1 Iowa vs. No. 2 Michigan in 1985 — the ole fox sent an imposter to snap errant footballs to Iowa's punter. And to make sure Schembechler could see the staged gaffes.

"He’s snapping the ball into the ground and over the guy’s head,” Long recalled. “And Schembechler calls Fry over and says, ‘You’re not going to have this long snapper snap to your punter today, are you?'"

Fry turned to Schembechler and told him simply, “Well, we don’t plan on punting today, Coach.”

Iowa, of course, went on to win that legendary game at Kinnick Stadium by a 12-10 score on Rob Houghtlin’s walk-off field goal, a triumphant moment that epitomized the excitement of that 1985 season.

Who ever could have imagined Iowa winning three of five from mighty Michigan between 1981 and 1985?

Fry did.

And he got it done.

Fry's mind games translated into how Iowa moved the football, too.

Under Fry (who called the plays) and offensive coordinator Bill Snyder, Iowa brought an aggressive, pass-happy style to the black-and-blue Big Ten.

Three decades before RPOs took over college football, Fry’s Hawkeyes were cutting-edge innovators.

“It was a bomb here or a draw on third-and-15,” said Hartlieb, whose 3,738 passing yards in 1988 are far-and-away a school record. “He just knew you had to take chances sometimes and keep your opponent off kilter. Again, it’s that psychology of don’t stay between the rails, don’t be vanilla. That stuff rubbed off on us.

“Every single time we took the field, we felt we were going to win.”

More coverage on Hayden Fry

The unforgettable bootleg run by Long on third-and-goal to beat Michigan State, 35-31, during that 1985 season that saw Iowa ranked No. 1 for five straight weeks as it rolled to a 7-0 record? Fry called that out of a timeout.

Hartlieb also tells the story of a play call that Fry let him make — perhaps a stroke of desperation but also psychological genius.

You remember the play, don’t you?

At the Horseshoe in Columbus, 1987. Iowa’s trailing, 27-22. Fourth-and-23 from the Buckeyes’ 29-yard line. Just 16 seconds left.

Iowa called timeout. Hartlieb met Fry near the sideline, with one final shot to beat Ohio State.

“He took his sunglasses off and looked me in the eye,” Hartlieb recalled, “and said, ‘What do you think?’”

Hartlieb responded without hesitation.

“Lion 75 Y Trail. Marv (Cook) is our best player,’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Hartlieb recalled. “No head coach would do that today.”

But Fry wanted his quarterback to have a belief that the play would work. And sure enough, Hartlieb found Cook along the right sideline in man-to-man coverage. The future NFL tight end caught the pass around the 10-yard line and lumbered into the end zone for a miracle touchdown and a 29-27 Hawkeye win.

Those type of moments stemmed from a coach with a plan.

The plan included the shtick. Like when Fry dressed in overalls, a flannel shirt and a cowboy hat following Iowa’s 21-16 win at Minnesota in 1982, after Gophers coach Joe Salem had referred to the Hawkeyes as “a bunch of farmers.”

Fry always had a knack for grabbing his team’s attention.

“He made it fun,” Long said. “You could not wait to go to practice every day to see what he was going to say or do next. I think that’s the big reason he has so many coaches out there.”

Hartlieb was recently reminiscing with Mark Stoops, a former Hawkeye teammate and Kentucky’s head coach. Stoops told Hartlieb that the best football meetings he’s ever had were with Fry at Iowa.

You could never predict what Fry would do next.

It was enough to keep you on edge.

It was enough to keep you coming back for more.

And, with Fry's human connection to his players and their parents, you didn't want to let him down.

Fry convinced his players that anything was possible.

Like going from the bottom of the Big Ten to the top.

"And that," Long said, "was the beauty of Hayden Fry.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.