Big Fish

By Patrick Vint on December 18, 2019 at 5:36 pm
You just know there was a joke here
Hayden Fry

My favorite Hayden Fry story remains The Minnesota Story, as told at Fry Fest years ago:

In classic Hayden fashion, all of this is true (except for the Jesse Ventura thing), and none of it is true. 

  1. Minnesota started playing in the "Hubert Humphrey Dome" in 1982.
  2. Iowa never beat Minnesota 12-10 during Fry's tenure.  Iowa lost 12-10 to Minnesota in 1981 on a Gopher field goal with two minutes remaining.
  3. Iowa did beat someone 12-10 on a Rob Houghtlin kick at the final gun, but it wasn't Minnesota.
  4. Iowa only played Minnesota twice for the Big Ten title during Fry's tenure, 1985 and 1991.  Both of those games were at Kinnick, and neither was decided by a field goal.
  5. Lou Holtz was at Minnesota in 1984 and 1985.
  6. Rob Houghtlin kicked at Iowa from 1985 through 1987. 
  7. Houghtlin did make a kick in the Metrodome to beat Minnesota in 1986, 30-27, and Houghtlin got a second shot at the game-winner when Minnesota was flagged for having too many men on the field.
  8. It was a 15-yard penalty for too many men on the field in 1986.
  9. Neither the first nor the second kick hit the upright or crossbar in 1986.
  10. Jesse Ventura was not bald in 1986.

My guess: Hayden's had that punchline about Minnesota for thirty years.  But the 1986 story was more fun if the kick was to avoid a loss rather than a tie -- there was no overtime in college football then -- and the memories of that OTHER Houghtlin game-winner loomed large enough that Hayden just kind of merged the two together, threw in Lou Holtz and his old friend Jesse Ventura for some flash, and just like that, a legendary story was born.  Say this for him: Hayden never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  He was a showman for a program that needed a showman more than anything.  He was a bullshitter par excellence.  

Actually, this is my favorite Hayden Fry story:  Regional curmudgeon Sid Hartman, a Minneapolis newspaper reporter, had needled Iowa for decades.  Hartman loved little more than to refer to Iowa as a bunch of uneducated farmers.  Fry, a farm kid, didn't take kindly to it.

In 1982, Iowa was 3-3 going to Minneapolis but was also coming off a Rose Bowl appearance.  Minnesota was truly putrid.  The Gophers had lost to Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana in the three weeks before the Iowa game, but that didn't matter to Hartman.  All week, it was farmers and farmers and redneck farmers.  Only this year, Minnesota coach Joe Salem got in on the act, wearing bib overalls to practice for the week leading up to the Iowa game.

Fry REALLY didn't take kindly to that, and so when Iowa won 21-16, he had payback on his mind.  As Scott Dochterman wrote in The Athletic last year:

“ ‘Come on, Coach, we’ve got to go down to the press conference,’ ” [Iowa sports information director Phil] Haddy recalled telling Fry, who replied, “ ‘Wait a second, I’ve got to do something in the coaching room.’

“He had a special garment bag, and I’m sure the garment bag would not have come out had we lost. I can remember the assistant coaches. They’re just sitting there shaking their head. ‘He’s really going to do this.’ They thought it was pretty sappy at the time, but he loved doing that.”

Fry traded his white pants for bib overalls. He pulled out designer cowboy boots, a red flannel shirt, a white straw hat and a red bandana. The outfit flowed naturally with his thick mustache. Fry then stepped out of the locker room and into the throng of media waiting for him.

“Hey, all you great Minnesota writers and radio people and TV,” Fry told a group of reporters. “I didn’t want to make you look like liars. … We’re taking Floyd home where he belongs. Sooo-ey, sooooo-ey!”

The photos are even better:

Wait, actually, my favorite Hayden Fry story was from the 1985 Iowa-Michigan Game of the Century.  Iowa was No. 1 in the country by early October.  Michigan was No. 2.  Tensions were high during the pregame, as one would expect.  So Hayden, being Hayden, decided it was the perfect time to play a prank on Bo Schembechler.

Hayden told his long snapper and guard to change positions during pregame punt team warmups, so that his guard was long snapping to the punter.  The guard is chucking snaps all over the field, into the stands, off the band, et cetera (Hayden would want it spelled out and spoken in West Texas twang).  To hear him tell it, he could hardly keep a straight face while standing at midfield as Schembechler approached.

"Fry!" Schembechler shouted.  "Fry!  You're not going to let that boy snap the ball tonight?"

"Well, Coach," Fry replied.  "We don't plan on puntin' tonight."

Fry walked off.  Schembechler chased him down and tried to offer him a piece of gum.  Fry, not breaking stride, took the whole pack out of Bo's hand.

If you haven't ever watched Big Fish, this is the week to do it.  It's a movie about a son who has heard his father's tall tales for his entire life and believed them all to be false, among them tales of befriending giants and famous people, of robbing banks and skydiving into North Korea on a secret mission.  As his father nears death, the son learns that, while the stories are certainly embellished, there is a truth behind them.  His father had indeed befriended giants and famous people, had saved a small town from death, and had been a loyal husband and father.  He just liked to tell stories.

Hayden Fry's life, as told by Hayden Fry, sounds like a tall tale.  To hear him tell it, he helped George and Barbara Bush find their first apartmentHe taught Roy Orbison how to sing.  He started his coaching career teaching six-man football to Marines; future Raiders owner Al Davis was coaching the rival six-man Marine football team.  His team inspired the name of the Ford Mustang.

And if there's a theme from the last few hours since his death, it's that everyone has a Hayden Fry story:

But behind all the storytelling, the showmanship, the fudging of details in service of a good story, there was a great man.  Fry was instrumental in desegregating the Southwest Conference.  He resurrected two football programs from the cellar.  He tried to use his celebrity and success to draw attention to farmers in crisis.  He was loyal to his players and coaches, and he helped them advance their careers in ways never seen before or since.  Yes, Hayden Fry was a bullshitter.  But he was the best kind of bullshitter.

This is truly my favorite Hayden Fry story.

Back in 2013, I was in Las Vegas with my dad and brother for the NCAA Tournament.  We were staying at the Orleans Casino.  On the flight out, my dad had mentioned that the last time he'd stayed at the Orleans, he'd met Hayden Fry.

It was the Wednesday before the tournament began, and Iowa was playing Indiana State in the NIT.  We were watching the game in a bar at the casino.  At halftime, I left to play craps for a few minutes.  I'm standing near an aisle, and I look up to see Hayden Bleeping Fry in a green Hawaiian shirt and loose khakis walking toward me.  I'm not certain what to do, but he makes eye contact with me, and I blurt out "Hey Coach."

Fry stops.  He looks me up and down, trying to figure out if he knows me.  I help out by saying, "I'm from Iowa, and I'm an Iowa grad, and I'm just a big fan."  And he grins, and shakes my hand, and bullshits the hell out of me for fifteen minutes.  We talk about his health -- "well, y'know, I've had cancer about seventeen times now" -- and his life in Nevada.  He asks about my time at Iowa, and what I do, and what I'm doing at the Orleans Casino on a Wednesday night.  When I mention that I'm there with my dad, he turns to the random guy next to me and asks if it's my dad, which is when I realize that the guy standing next to me has figured out who it is and is waiting for his turn with Fry.

Now, I grew up in a small town in western Iowa that didn't produce many Division I football recruits, but late in Fry's tenure, one guy from my high school walked on at Iowa.  By his fifth year, he was a rotational defensive end and mainstay on punt returns, blocking for Tim Dwight.  In the 1996 Alamo Bowl, he stopped a potential Dwight punt return touchdown when, having nobody left to block, he turned around and directly into an onrushing Dwight.  And so, when Fry asked where I was from, I said, "Treynor."  And I began to mention he had a player from Treynor in 1996.

"Yeah, Chambers.  He was good."  Fry had remembered the name of a walk-on from 17 years ago, unprompted, based solely on his hometown being named by a random stranger who had cornered him in a Las Vegas casino.

And then Fry took a step back, and looked me up and down (I'm 6'7" and was about 250 pounds at the time).  "Damn, I should have gotten out there to recruit more often," he said.  "You could have played for me."  It is both the nicest thing that anyone's ever said to me and a damning indictment of his recruiting in the late 1990s.

"Coach," I said, "I was 165 pounds when I graduated high school."

And Hayden laughed that laugh that every Iowa fan knows, that drawly belly laugh that only came out when something was really funny to him. 

"Yeeeeeeeah," he drawled.  "I like beer too."  And then he shook my hand, shook the hand of the guy next to me, and left.

I have told that story a thousand times since.  Everyone who knows me, who has even met me for a second, has heard me tell that story.  And because it's a Hayden Fry story, I've always embellished it just slightly around the edges.  If you're going to tell a story about a bullshitter like Hayden, you'd better be capable of bullshitting.

But the one part I don't embellish is the part about him knowing Chambers.  That happened exactly as described, and it's the most important part of the story.  Because when you peel back the tall tales about Jesse Ventura and Lou Holtz, about Ford Motors and Roy Orbison, the fact at the heart of all of this is that Hayden Fry was the kind of man who remembered the name of a walk-on special teams guy from Treynor, Iowa, seventeen years after that player's career ended, prompted only by a mention of his hometown.  It's the same truth that is found in this photo shared by Paul Burmeister last night:

It's the same truth that lies at the heart of that coaching tree, where Hayden was not only loyal to his assistants but actively working to make them better and help them move up in their shared profession.  It's the same truth that lies at the heart of every story he ever told. 

Sure, Hayden Fry was a bullshitter, but damn if he wasn't the kind of bullshitter we all can love.  More importantly, he was the kind of bullshitter who would love you back.

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