'A Texas-sized hole in our hearts': Iowa City, Hawkeye communities remember Hayden Fry

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Planted off exit 242, two miles from Iowa’s football palace, is a menacing man of bronze watching over the town he once owned. Hayden Fry wanted his statue here for a reason.

The route from Interstate 80 to Kinnick Stadium runs right down Coralville’s First Avenue, now nicknamed Hayden Fry Way. All visiting teams take this journey on gamedays. Upon exiting is Fry’s intimidating presence — chiseled to perfection with his aviator sunglasses, stern look and all. Opponents get one last reminder on the lengthy tradition lurking down the road. Iowa fans get to revel in the culture Fry established long ago.

The statue has stood since 2016, revealed on one of Fry’s final visits to his former stomping grounds. Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Fry passed away following a lengthy cancer battle, the bronze figure became a sanctuary for grieving and remembering among Hawkeye supporters. It was one of the many Fry honors that engulfed Iowa City on a somber afternoon.

“It’s hard to go anywhere and not run into people who — somehow, someway — have a Hayden Fry story,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “His reach was really unbelievable.”

That was evident when perusing the tributes left at Fry’s bronze feet. Throughout Wednesday, flowers, messages and Iowa memorabilia piled up around the statue — each item coming with love and adoration for the Hawkeye legend.

One fan left a pair of Fry’s iconic aviators. A signed hat from the Iowa grounds crew sat front and center. Wreaths and roses added a sympathetic touch.

“There’s a Texas-sized hole in our hearts today,” read one tribute, attached to a bouquet of yellow flowers. “Thank you for all the joy you brought to the state of Iowa and our families! #hokiepokieinHeaven”

Tales of emphatic wins, unforgettable Haydenisms and more seeped into Hawkeye conversations throughout Wednesday. One theme, though, resonated with almost every Fry mention.

The man known for his eccentric fashion and brash personality gave Iowa fans hope.

Hope, that after 17-straight non-winning seasons, Hawkeye football could be resuscitated. Hope that Iowa could compete with the likes of Ohio State and Michigan atop the Big Ten. Hope that Iowa didn’t have to settle for mediocrity and below.

Hope that still resonates today, long after Fry’s coaching days were through.

More on the life of Hayden Fry

“Thank you Coach Fry for allowing all Hawks to hope and dream big when it came to Hawkeye athletics,” another tribute message read. “You set the standard for generations to come.”

Ferentz felt the weight of that as he maneuvered through Wednesday’s press conference with moments of outward sadness. Fry’s pupil who became his replacement teared up multiple times upon reminiscing, none more so than when asked how often he felt the responsibility to match Fry’s excellence expectations.   

“Every day,” said Ferentz, who took over Iowa football in 1999 after a 10-year stint as Fry’s offensive line coach. “We all have mentors.

“The hope for him was to keep (the program) in the family (once Fry retired in 1998). I think he was hopeful someone in the Iowa family would be the next person to take it over. Afterwards, you couldn’t ask for a better person in terms of support.”  

Elsewhere in Iowa City, members of the university's current student body shared fond memories even if Fry was a bit before their time. There were family stories about the man’s larger-than-life legacy, passed down from parents.

“Hayden Fry saved Iowa football; my dad told me that all the time," said Iowa student Michael Smith, whose family has owned season tickets for parts of three decades. “The man’s a legend — nothing less than that.”

It seemed fitting Iowa had Fry’s picture on both Kinnick Stadium jumbotrons Wednesday, allowing the Hawkeye hero to loom over the football grounds he once oversaw. He’ll continue watching from the northwest corner of First Avenue and Ninth Street, as well. 

Fry may be gone. But his impact isn’t fading anytime soon.

“Just the way that he captured this whole state was really, really impressive,” Ferentz said. “The bottom line is every day, he set a standard for leadership and a standard for excellence.”

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.