Peterson: They made only one Hayden Fry

Randy Peterson
Hawk Central

They made only one Hayden Fry. 

That's a good thing, too. Because the sport of college football needed him at the time.  

And it turned out, so did much of Iowa. 

“Hayden was out of the box before being out of the box became a cliche,” former Fry assistant Dan McCarney told me Tuesday. 

McCarney spoke not long after news came out that the Iowa football legend, who came to define the university in Iowa City in so many ways, had died Tuesday at 90. McCarney, who coached with Fry at Iowa and against him as Iowa State's head coach years later, was swapping stories about the man he would forever call "coach." 

McCarney even threw out this suggestion about Fry: “Here’s one for you,” Mac said. “They should make a movie about Hayden Fry.”

Dan McCarney, right, served as an assistant coach under Hayden Fry at Iowa.

If the movie is anything like the man, not a minute would be boring. 

This was a man who made Hawkey football into what it is today. He put Hawkeye football on the map and made outsiders feel as if they were family. 

His big-picture story would also include moments such as these: 

"I got President Bush and Barbara their first apartment,” Fry once told reporters back when I covered his teams. “The parents of a girl I was dating back in Odessa (Texas) had a garage apartment they wanted to rent. George just got out of active duty and told me he and Barbara were looking for a place to live. I swung the deal for him."

Or this one: 

When Fry wore black pants during the 1982 Iowa State game in Iowa City. “It was the first time in my life I'd ever seen him in anything other than white pants on the sidelines for a game," McCarney said during a past interview. "I asked him what the deal was, and Hayden said that he was wearing black pants, so he could blend in on the sidelines because someone was trying to kill him."

He wore a bullet-proof vest for a while, too, because "my bodyguard at the time got word that someone had me on a list of people that he wanted killed," Fry said after his retirement. "The guy was afraid I was going to someday be the governor. He knew I was from Texas, and for some reason, he didn't want a Texan to be the governor of the state of Iowa."

Fry was so popular, that he might have even won, which would have been a dandy part of the movie McCarney suggested. But in reality, there's no need to take creative license with this man's story. 

Who’d be Fry?

We chatted maybe 10 minutes longer, before Mac abruptly said Kevin Costner.

Say what?

“Kevin Costner would be a great Hayden Fry,” McCarney proudly said. “He’d do a great job.”

More on the life of Hayden Fry

That’s how iconic the guy behind the dark glasses was. The more you knew Hayden, the more his charm grew on you. The more you covered his teams, the more you knew what to expect — from his crazy sayings, to the way he deflected criticism of his players when things weren’t going so well.

“He was a trailblazer,” McCarney said. “He was a life-changer. He was maverick. 'What the hell is Scratch where it itches?' What’s that?”

It’s one of those zany and wonderful things Fry said a lot.

“I scarcely know where to start,” Big 12 commissioner and former Iowa athletics director Bob Bowlsby said about his Fry recollections on Tuesday night. “One that happened the first year I was at Iowa — the awful shootings on campus,” he said of the 1991 campus killings.

“We were in Columbus. Hayden’s daughter was working in the area where the shootings were. We couldn’t get any information. We were playing a national television game the next day. I was a brand-new athletics director at Iowa, and somehow it didn’t seem right to play a football game.

“But on that Friday evening before the game, we decided to take decals off the helmets and show support that way. Hayden’s strength got us through it through it. He was a rock.”

Back in the day, the two biggest names in our proud state were Hayden Fry and Gov. Robert Ray.

Sadly, both no longer are with us. Both, however, were iconic in their own ways.

“I had the good fortune to know both of them well,” Bowlsby said Tuesday night. “It such a personal loss. They were both icons. They were both in the hearts of Iowans, and they resided there for many, many years.

“To have them gone, creates a significant void for those people — those that knew them, and those that knew them by reputation.”

Randy Peterson has been writing for the Des Moines Register for parts of five decades.