From The Beginning: A Personal Memory of Hayden Fry

By Mark Hasty on December 18, 2019 at 5:36 pm
Hayden, probably after a win
Hayden Fry (Youtube)
13 Comments

One of us on this staff has to be the oldest, and it turns out that it's me. I'm fine with that, because it means I can bring my own perspective on what Hayden Fry meant to the Iowa Hawkeyes: I remember the day he was hired.

I was barely seven years old at the time but I remember hearing reports about Iowa hiring North Texas State's coach to take over its football program. Iowa football in the 1970s was about where Rutgers is right now, and I only wish I was making that up. You could have made the case that going from Denton to Iowa City in 1978 was a lateral move at best. But me? I was excited. At that age I knew that Texas meant college football (please note I used the past tense there) and I figured he would bring some of that excellence north. Also, he seemed really cool and looked more than a little bit like my grandpa Verne.

Hayden's first two seasons were only marginally better than Kirk Ferentz's forgettable first two years, except in the sense that the team's performance was markedly improved over what it had been. But then there was that magical third season, 1981.

We must state, quite clearly, that the 1981 season ended 8-4. It was not a season of dominance. It was a season of opportunities taken and a zillion lucky breaks. The Hawkeyes didn't play Ohio State that season but got a huge assist from the Buckeyes. OSU's season-ending defeat of Michigan (then ranked No. 7) allowed the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes to share the conference title, and Iowa got the Rose Bowl nod because it had gone longer without a trip to Pasadena.

It was a weird team. The best player was the punter. Of course, that punter was Reggie Roby, whom I had seen kick an extra point entirely out of Dodger Stadium in Fort Dodge a couple years earlier. (If you've never been there, there is a ten-foot-high brick wall about 25 yards beyond the back of the south end zone. Roby's kick didn't just barely get over that wall, it flew over it.) Two quarterbacks, Pete Gales and Gordy Bohannon, split time, and I swear Lon Olejniczak took some snaps too. The Hawks started that season by beating Nebraska. (That was much more impressive in 1981.) But they lost to Minnesota, Illinois, and -- eesh -- Iowa State. Still, everything took an Iowa bounce and the Hawks were off to the Rose Bowl. No Big Ten team other than Michigan or Ohio State had gone -- or even won a share of the conference title --since Indiana went after the 1967 season. (The Hoosiers haven't returned since.)

So it wasn't just a big deal to us. The Hawkeyes got national attention. Hayden's Lazarus act on Iowa football would be like Greg Schiano getting Rutgers to a New Year's Six game three seasons from now. Even Cyclone-leaning families made plans to watch on New Year's Day. The game stunk, of course, and the Hawkeyes were never in it, a Rose Bowl pattern yet to be broken. But still, it was great just to be there. It was great to see something positive come out of Iowa.

Granted, the Hawks were already dominating wrestling and the men's basketball team had been to the Final Four in 1980. But you know what you learned growing up in Iowa back then? You learned, very quickly, that you are not cool, because you are from Iowa. 

But for about a month as 1981 bled into 1982, Iowa mattered.

The following year we beat Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. We started to get used to the idea that Iowa might become a consistent bowl team. But mostly we grew to love the coach who led us there. He was, in so many ways, the antithesis of his two protégés, Bill Snyder and Kirk Ferentz. Those two coaches treat information like it's the last beer in the fridge. Not to be shared. And press conferences with either are like listening to a dehumidifier running in a storage closet. Hayden may have been a little crazy, but on the field or off, he was never boring. And the Hawkeyes went bowling almost every year.

But you know how I knew something had changed? Nobody in the flag football league was upset about being on a team called the Hawkeyes. (I assume. My team was called the Bengals. That wasn't an insult in the Ken Anderson-Cris Collinsworth days.)

There were grand moments to follow. I think the best was the 1985 season when the Hawkeyes were ranked in the top six all season and No. 1 for five consecutive weeks. The name Rob Houghtlin will set off a 50-year-old Michigan fan in the same way the name Keith Duncan turns your Husker coworker into Donald Duck with a mousetrap on his wingtip. And, except for Fry's last season and Ferentz's first two, Iowa has not missed a bowl game in back-to-back years since 1981.

Just trust me on this if you weren't there: What Hayden Fry built, Kirk Ferentz has refined. I know. You are not satisfied. You shouldn't be. Satisfaction is deadly to improvement. We all think we can see obvious steps to improve the Iowa program as we see it today. You'd love another conference title and a shot at the playoff. Who wouldn't? I just don't want some of you who don't remember the sinkhole that Iowa football was in the Seventies to ignore how far this program has come, or how many schools would love to be as complacent about annual bowl trips as we are.

And trust me on this, too: It's not a stretch to say that Hayden Fry forever changed the image of the state of Iowa, for the better. He was a great coach, one who knew how to build a program. He was a character. More than that, he had character.

Thank you, Coach Fry. You are one of many reasons why this displaced Iowa boy has always thought of himself as an Iowan living out of state and not a true resident of wherever I've lived. I'm even more grateful for that than I am for what you did for Iowa football.

13 Comments
View 13 Comments