Hayden Fry, Hall of Famer and legendary Iowa football coach, leaves behind Texas-sized legacy

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Hayden Fry was 90 years old and had been battling cancer off and on for the past 21 of them.

Still, the legendary Iowa football coach's death hit hard for those who loved playing for him. It was evident in their voices late Tuesday as they talked about the man who shaped their lives, who was a de facto second father to so many.

Grown men were crying. And for good reason.

“He didn’t coach football. He changed lives," said former Hawkeye quarterback Gordy Bohannon, who ventured here from Southern California as Fry's first recruit 40 years ago and stayed to raise a family.

"He changed my life because he gave me a chance to play in the Big Ten and fulfill a dream. And because of him, I got to stay in Iowa and met my wife and have four kids."

Fry brought a Texas-sized personality and a keen desire to win to the Iowa football program. He redesigned the uniforms, painted the visiting locker room pink and doled out homespun witticisms in his southern drawl.

Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry is carried off the field after a 1981 victory that helped Iowa to its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1959.

But most significantly, Fry restored the Hawkeyes to national relevance, and then prominence, after two decades of dormancy.

Fry won 143 football games and the hearts of thousands of Iowa football fans in his 20 seasons, retiring in 1998 while secretly fighting prostate cancer. 

One of the most cherished and admired sports figures in Iowa history, Fry died Tuesday surrounded by family in Texas.  

“He’s one of those guys you think will be around forever,” former Iowa defensive lineman Jared DeVries said upon hearing the news.

“It hurts because he has a special place in your heart. ... You knew he cared about you. He wanted the best for you. And he would challenge you in his own unique way to get that out of you, to become a better person, a better football player.”

Fry was introduced as the Iowa football coach on Dec. 9, 1978, flashing a self-assured smile and making fans believe the swagger would return to a Hawkeye program starved for success.

Iowa endured 17 consecutive non-winning seasons before Fry’s arrival. He brought the Hawkeyes to three Rose Bowls. He also brought pizzazz to a Big Ten Conference known for stodgy offenses and stingy defenses.

“I looked at film when I first took the job, and what I saw was a bunch of teams that liked to run the ball,” Fry said. “Being an old quarterback, I knew that it’d take a while for Big Ten defenses to catch up to us.”

Bohannon said Fry told his players he needed to run "exotic" plays, because they weren't talented enough to win with a more traditional style.

"It wasn’t really complicated," Bohannon said of innovations like the shotgun formation. "It just looked like it was."

Fry’s early success, however, was measured in small gains. The Hawkeyes went 5-6 and 4-7 in his first two seasons.

Iowa moved among the league’s elite in 1981, winning the Big Ten title and earning its first Rose Bowl trip in 23 years.

Suddenly, Michigan and Ohio State were not the only contenders in the nation’s oldest conference.

“Bringing Hayden in was a breath of fresh air,” former Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke once said. “As a conference, at times our personality was a little stuffy. Hayden brought his Texas humor, tales and one-liners. He brought a passing game that changed the course of our games.”

John Hayden Fry was born in Eastland, Texas, on Feb. 28, 1929. His family moved to the football-obsessed town of Odessa when he was 8 years old and he quickly showed an affinity for that favorite pastime. He played quarterback and safety on the high school team, leading it to a state championship in 1946.

Then, it was off to Baylor, where he played some quarterback and earned a degree in psychology that would come in handy during his decades of coaching.

Fry coached at Odessa for a year, then served from 1952 to 1955 in the Marine Corps, where he played and coached football. He rose to the rank of captain.

He returned to Odessa for three more years of coaching. He followed that with assistant jobs at Baylor and Arkansas before taking the reins at Southern Methodist and North Texas State, winning 89 games in 17 seasons.

More on the life of Hayden Fry

Iowa Athletic Director Bump Elliott had tried Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings in search of a spark for his football program. Nothing clicked. Then, he turned to Fry and watched him work his magic.

Elliott, who died Dec. 7 at age 94, often said Fry was going to be his final hire at Iowa, either because the losing seasons would continue and Elliott would be fired, or because the football team would finally prosper.

Fry promised fans a "high-porch picnic," an expression from his West Texas upbringing that meant things were going to be fun.

He wore white slacks, aviator glasses, a thick mustache and a cowboy hat or a ball cap. If he had been a losing coach, this would have been dismissed as eccentricity. But Fry won. Hawkeye fans considered it character, and generations later you can still see young men dressed as Fry on Halloween.

DeVries used to love listening to Fry's rambling pep talks.

“Every time that he got behind the podium, it could have been some kind of motivation in its own right, but it also could have been a comedy show. I’m not sure people realized how funny he was," DeVries said. "He’d get up there, and sometimes we’d struggle to find the correlation, but man he was funny.”

Fry redesigned the Tigerhawk logo. He altered Iowa's black-and-gold uniforms to closely resemble those of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who dominated the NFL in the 1970s. He had his players enter Kinnick Stadium running and holding hands in a tradition called "The Swarm." And he painted the visiting locker room pink as a way to get under his opponents' skin before the game had even started.

But none of that would ensure success. To do that, Fry built a legendary coaching staff that included, at various times, Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops, Barry Alvarez, Dan McCarney, Bret Bielema, Mark Stoops, Bo Pelini and Kirk Ferentz, who is in his 21st season after replacing his mentor.

“They’re just like my sons,” Fry said. “I never hired an assistant coach unless I knew they were motivated to be a head coach. Because I knew they would do all the things that needed to be done, other than teaching the technical aspect of football.”

Those who worked under Fry considered themselves fortunate.

“Fans saw greatness,” said Ferentz, who joined Fry’s staff in 1981. “He was a great coach and a great person, who through his folksy ways and little sayings captivated a state for 20 years.”

In 1985, Iowa spent five weeks at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, beating the then-second ranked Wolverines, 12-10, in a memorable showdown at Kinnick Stadium.

Chuck Long, the ’85 Heisman Trophy runner-up, was one of seven first-team all-conference quarterbacks the Hawkeyes produced during Fry’s tenure.

“Hayden added the passing game to the conference,” legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler said. “His offenses were very imaginative. You had to start recruiting speedy guys in the secondary to stop it.”

Fry’s last Big Ten crown came in 1990, after Iowa beat Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois on the road.

Fry loved playing up his persona. Matt Bowen, who played safety for him at Iowa, vividly remembers Fry strolling into his Illinois home on a recruiting visit, sporting an Iowa blazer, sunglasses and the cowboy boots he loved to show off, the ones with a rose embedded in a Tigerhawk logo.

"I'll never forget how big of a moment it was to have Hayden Fry in my house," Bowen said.

“Hayden was bigger than football, the way he treated his players, the way he loved his players, the way he saved a lot of his players. No one’s perfect, and a lot of men go through hard times. The football side of it, that stuff leaves you. Whether you’re 18 or 30, eventually the music stops. And you’re going to go on to life, have a second career, have a family, be involved in the community. The core values he gave me to develop as a person, I still use in my everyday life.”

Bo Porter came to Iowa in 1990 from his native New Jersey, entranced by Fry's persistence in recruiting and the chance to compete against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State. Fry later became a valuable mentor as Porter embarked on a baseball career.

In 2012, Porter was chosen to manage the Houston Astros. He created a foundation called S.E.L.F. (Sports, Education, Life Skills and Faith). He insisted that its first "Torch" award be given to Fry. Porter flew to Nevada to accompany his ailing former coach to Houston for the ceremony.

Porter said Fry was in tears.

"When you talk about generational impact and leaving a legacy, this man has done it better than anybody in the world," Porter said.

"There are some coaches that are into transactions. They’re trying to be successful in the moment, and it has nothing to do with the lives that they get to impact. Coach Fry saw well beyond that. He's the greatest coach in my era."

Fry's final season resulted in a 3-8 record. He later said that his battle with prostate cancer was a distraction for him and his staff.

“We kept it from the public,” he said. “Nevertheless, it bothered us.”

It was the willingness to take risks and provide opportunities that led to what Fry considered his greatest moment.

Before shaking things up in the Big Ten, Fry broke down the Southwestern Conference color barrier.

On Sept. 24, 1966, Fry was coaching at SMU when he started receiver Jerry LeVias in a game against Illinois. LeVias was the SWC’s first black player.

“I’m more proud of giving Jerry Levias a scholarship,’’ Fry once told a reporter, “than I am of any game, bowl game or championship I’ve ever won.’’

Fry and Levias went into the College Football Hall of Fame together, in 2003.

Fry has a street named after him in Coralville and a life-sized statue there that greets visitors. And hundreds of former players still live in the area.

Randy Reiners is one of them. The Fort Dodge native played quarterback for Fry. He estimated that there are nearly 200 of his former teammates living nearby, a testament to how tight-knit Fry's squads were.

Reiners has a poignant example. His sister Natalie died four days before August training camp was to begin in 1998, Fry's last season. Fry never liked to cancel practice, but he did the day of Natalie's funeral, stunning Reiners by bringing the entire team to Fort Dodge for the service.

“He was a human being as a coach. We had every walk of life in that locker room. He wanted to know what was going on, where you were coming from, why you were doing it. And he always knew everybody’s hometown," Reiners said.

“When he retired he said: 'I’ve got a fencerow that I’ve never walked. I’ve got guns I’ve never shot. I’ve got boots I’ve never worn.' He was an original. And he gave so much to this community.”

Services for Fry are pending.

Former Register reporter Andrew Logue provided earlier reporting for this story. 

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.