By Adam Jacobi on December 18, 2019 at 5:37 pm
Hayden Fry smile
University of Iowa Athletics

Where do you even begin?

Really: when you tell the story of John Hayden Fry, where on earth do you begin?

Maybe you begin with the coaching tree, that indelible legacy of talent that changed the landscape of college football beyond any other coach's reach in the history of college football. Kirk Ferentz. Bill Snyder. Barry Alvarez. Bret Bielema. Bob Stoops. Mike Stoops. Mark Stoops. Bo Pelini. Dan McCarney. Jim Leavitt. Chuck Long. Jay Norvell. Bob Diaco. Hell, throw in Don Patterson, who turned Western Illinois into an FCS playoff contender. And let's also include two of the best to never lead a program: Bill Brashier and Bobby Elliott. Most of them got their first college coaching job at all from Fry, usually as graduate assistants.

Every Iowa fan knows 12-10. Every one of us.

Fry once said he didn't want to hire a coach who didn't want to lead a program one day. He not only found them, he taught them how, down to every detail imaginable. Most of them were successful. And most of those successful coaches replicated Fry's feat of building a program from the rubble of prolonged failure. He was proud of that.

Maybe you begin with a bewildered painting crew, gathered in Iowa's cramped visitor's locker room, painting the entire thing... pink. Fry, a psychology major at Baylor, knew pink was known as a "calming color." Fry, also a captain while enlisted in the Marines, knew a thing or two about aggressive young men, and knew the color would distract them and their coaches. More accurately: he knew it would piss them off. He knew that they associated it with girls, and here's where the psychological chess comes in: he knew that they knew about the calming thing. And that's how he knew he had them in the palm of his hand. The painters didn't know—what a surreal experience that must have been—but he knew.

Maybe you begin with the Hokey Pokey, Iowa's famous locker room dance after big wins—and Iowa had plenty to choose from. Fry beat Michigan four times, Ohio State thrice, and even Nebraska once, way back when that was special. He went 0-for-3 in Rose Bowls, though. It sure would be nice to see the Hokey Pokey go down in Pasadena someday.

Maybe you begin in a living room in Wheaton, Illinois, where Fry sold a curly-haired quarterback, one who only held offers from local lightweights NIU and Northwestern—offers he said that only came because Iowa's came first—on becoming the most prolific quarterback the Big Ten had ever seen. Chuck Long (Hayden called him Charlie) became the face of the program, leading the Hawkeyes to their first top ranking in the AP Poll in decades and to the 1986 Rose Bowl. It took Bo Jackson going Full Bo Jackson to keep Long from winning the Heisman, and the race was the closest in Heisman history at the time. 

That success wasn't pure luck, though. Motivation isn't a matter of chance, not to a psych major. And before Fry even gave Long the starting role, he was writing letters back to that Wheaton living room, telling his parents that Chuck—well, Charlie—had had a good scrimmage, a good practice. So before the reins were handed to Long, he wasn't some rinky-dink suburban Chicago QB who had thrown for -3 yards in the state championship anymore; Fry had made sure Long knew, and the people closest to him also knew, that he was ready to be a star.

Maybe, if you're as audacious of a storyteller as Hayden was, you begin right at the peak, with Long leading the way, back for his senior season when he didn't have to be. Maybe you begin with Rob Houghtlin hovering over the football in prayer at the 19-yard line, No. 1 Iowa's game against No. 2 Michigan hanging in the balance for national supremacy.

Bo Schembechler couldn't rattle Houghtlin. Couldn't rattle Fry. Houghtlin let him know, sent the kick square through the uprights to disappear in a mass of ecstatic humanity, and set off a roar so loud it echoes through the halls of Kinnick Stadium to this day. Just walk by Kinnick and close your eyes, put your hand on the brick. It's there. Every Iowa fan knows 12-10. Every one of us.

Maybe you begin with Fry signing off on the Tigerhawk, the logo that's paradoxically even more synonymous with Iowa athletics now than Fry himself. The story goes that Fry composed the logo to include an F, R and Y. Not sure Hayden himself even bought that story. But most Iowa fans don't know that that wasn't his first time rebranding an athletic department; Fry also gave North Texas its eagle logo, or as the UNT faithful called it, the "flying worm." Whatever; it stuck. So did the Tigerhawk. And so did the revamped black and gold uniforms he modeled off the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It is absolutely, indisputably true that Hayden Fry was directly responsible for the identity of the Iowa Hawkeyes that we revere today. He knew branding. Of course, the winning helped too. There's no sense in keeping a logo if your program keeps winning three games a year.

Maybe you begin before Fry takes the job, when he's contemplating the Iowa offer extended by Bump Elliott. Fry's watching film with UNT offensive coordinator Bill Snyder, each marveling at the fan support for the supposedly moribund Hawkeye program. They love this story. As they tell it, Bill notices the crowd's reaction for a first down in the middle of a blowout inflicted upon the Hawkeyes. Hayden later said, "I got to thinking, my gosh, what would happen if we ever scored a touchdown?"

That's a great part of the story. But maybe you don't begin in Iowa at all.

Maybe you begin in Fort Worth, at Southern Methodist University, where Hayden Fry welcomed himself to campus—his first time running a college program—by offering and signing a black man to a football scholarship, a first in the Southwest Conference. Audacious? Absolutely. So maybe you begin a little while earlier, while Fry was still the offensive coordinator at Arkansas, on the phone with SMU booster Lamar Hunt (yes, that Lamar Hunt, SMU '52) demanding to be able to recruit black athletes. According to Fry, Hunt acquiesced at one. That one turned out to be All-American running back and fellow College Football Hall of Fame honoree Jerry LeVias.

Racial integration is a heavy burden on the athletes. You've heard the stories about Jackie Robinson. You know that. We don't have to begin there. But people should know LeVias bore that burden at a heavy emotional cost, and Fry bore it with him. People should also know that Fry told him, as only Fry could, "Levi, they can't get your goat if you don't let them know where it is."

Fry couldn't make tiny SMU a powerhouse in the over-loaded, under-compliant SWC. As he told it, he was fired after refusing to participate in a slush fun to funnel money to athletes, the same slush fund that doomed the Mustang Express to the NCAA's proverbial death penalty in 1987. Fry loved to traffic in stories, of course, but on this one the timing checks out. And if he wanted to cheat, he probably could have prolonged his career down there. That tracks too. So as far as we know, he told the corrupt boosters to go to hell. In a way, that's all that matters. Hayden Fry was a psych major, remember?

Maybe you begin before that. Maybe you begin on that field at Odessa High School, in the late '40s, where the legend of young Hayden Fry first took shape. Fry was a championship quarterback for the Bronchos (yes, Bronchos, with an H—then and to this day), leading an upstart, seemingly undermanned squad to new heights over established powers. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? That was Odessa's first championship, ever. The state of Texas learned about Fry then. They'll never forget him.

It wasn't just about the things that show up on Wikipedia, though. It was the charisma, though. Right? Saying Fry's personality was magnetic was like saying fire is hot. It was something greater than that, something singular and elemental. That Texas drawl wasn't what we speak up here, but it was close—and for the legion of rural Hawkeye fans at the time, closer than another polished city coach. His West Texas aphorisms boiled complex decisions into simple, relatable truths. "Scratch where it itches." "Dance with the one that brung ya." "Find your bell cow." Lord, that man knew his bell cows. He had an almost impossible swagger, but he backed it up with a fierce, unwavering loyalty for his players, no matter how many times his roster turned over. And if his aggressive playcalling resulted in a blowout, well, all he could do was hope we didn't hurt their boys too bad.

But we're here to tell a story. Hayden knew that. People remember stories. So let's let Fry tell the bell cow story. From Beyond Xs and Os:

When discussing the issue of assembling a team of exceptional leaders, Hayden tells a story of doing chores on his family’s farm as a young boy. One morning, his father instructed him to take their pickup truck, fill it with hay, and deliver the hay to the cows in the field. Now, the farm consisted of nearly 800 acres of hills, trees, and streams, and the cows were allowed to freely graze the property. “Daddy,” Hayden protested, “I’ll never be able to find all those cows. They could be anywhere out there.” His father reassured him that the task was much simpler than he was making it out to be. All he had to do was drive the truck out in the field, stop, get out, and listen for the sound of a bell.

Before letting the cattle roam free, Hayden’s father observed them carefully to determine which cow emerged as the leader, and then he hung a cowbell around the leader’s neck. “When you find the bell cow,” he told Hayden, “you’ll find the whole herd.” It didn’t take long for Hayden to hear the clanging of the bell as he drove through the field. Sure enough, he easily located the bell cow, which was surrounded by the entire herd—just as his dad had predicted.

That's a great place to begin the story, isn't it? Of all our options, this might be the right place. We can focus on the Great Depression, and how it hammered West Texas as John Hayden was growing up. He had to work as a child to keep his family afloat. It's not what you want for him, not what you want for your own child, but many of us Midwesterners have ancestors who endured the same hardship. Fry had that hardship deeper in his bones than nearly any coach in the FBS today. "America Needs Farmers" was more than a slogan to him. He knew the struggle. He knew. It starts there.

And then there's how the story ends. 

The world said goodbye to Hayden Fry on Tuesday night. He died in hospice care, surrounded by his family. His wife of 40 years, Shirley, was there. He was 90 years old, a grandfather. Hospice is a beautiful thing.

The mistake is to call Fry's death a tragedy. Tragedies imply that something else should have happened. The correct answer is to call Fry's life a triumph.

When Fry retired after the 1998 season and announced he was in treatment for prostate cancer, the two operative words were "treatment" and "cancer." At the time, it sounded like a death sentence. And given Bob Elliott's concurrent treatment, it was fair to think an era of sadness and chaos awaited the Hawkeyes, that the program had been cheated out of its rightful future. But don't you dare end the story there either, not the way the millions of Hawkeye fans feared it would.

Instead, Hayden Fry got the gift he deserved: he got old.

Don't focus on the Ferentz/Stoops thing. That's not this story. Ferentz was no Hayden Fry; that was immediately apparent. Ferentz turned out to be something else instead, something arguably just as rare: a worthy successor. 

Ferentz has surpassed Fry's longevity mark in Iowa City. He has the Big Ten wins. He has the overall wins. He has the bowl appearances. Ferentz learned exactly what he needed to succeed here—and, candidly, what he didn't. The Hokey Pokey is long gone. The exotics don't have the same name or reputation. The tight ends have their hands in the ground again; they also have their tickets punched in the NFL.

Hayden Fry got to live long enough to see Ferentz break all of his records at Iowa, and any real mentor would want to live long enough to see that. Ferentz and Fry are together on the highest echelon of Iowa football coaches. Only a fool would argue otherwise.

Cancer may have claimed Fry's life, but not before he spent more than 20 years beating the West Texas hell out of it, and that is a special hell.

He got to grow old, old enough to outlive his predecessors and so many of his peers, and more importantly old enough to watch his family bloom. To schmooze and cajole with starstruck Hawkeye fans wherever he went. To tell his stories, and boy he had stories, to anyone who would listen. To see a statue of him—a statue!—be built in Coralville. To collect his proverbial flowers every year as the University of Iowa instituted "Fry Day," appropriately, on the Friday before the start of the season. He kept coming to them as long as health and age would allow.

It's the happy ending everyone wanted, and few saw coming two decades ago. Anything more would be selfish and indulgent. That—that—is how you end the story.

God, what a story. 

Rest easy, John Hayden Fry.

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