Hayden Fry, 1929-2019

By Patrick Vint on December 17, 2019 at 9:20 pm
The legend
Hayden Fry

Legendary Iowa football coach Hayden Fry passed away Tuesday night at the age of 90.  Fry took over a moribund Iowa football program in 1979, broke the Michigan-Ohio State duopoly, led the Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl by his third season, and built the program we know out of nothing.  He mentored Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops, Barry Alvarez and Kirk Ferentz, among dozens of other former assistants.  Prior to that, Fry was the first coach to offer a scholarship to an African American player in the Southwest Conference while head coach at SMU.  To say he is a legend feels too small.  

John Hayden Fry was born and raised in West Texas.  A child of the Great Depression, Fry made his name as a football player in Odessa, winning the Texas state championship, and was a career backup quarterback at Baylor.  As a Marine in the mid-fifties, Fry coached a six-man football team.  He spent the next forty-six years doing just that.

After becoming the head coach at his alma mater high school at age 26 and spending three years there, Fry joined the staff at Baylor.  After stints with the Bears and Arkansas, Fry was named head coach at SMU in 1962.  He was 32 years old.  Fry would only agree to take the job with the assurance from SMU that he would be allowed to recruit African-American players.  In 1965, he recruited and signed Jerry LeVias, breaking the color barrier in the Southwest Conference.

In the first game of his second season at SMU, Fry lost to Michigan, coached by Bump Elliott, and that fact should bring a smile to your face tonight.  Fry struggled at SMU, though, winning a single SWC title in eleven seasons.  He was fired after the 1972 season, and immediately hired at North Texas State.  He won the Missouri Valley Conference in his first season, posted a 10-1 record in his fourth, and won 40 games over six years.  

After a nine-win season in 1978, Fry and his coaches -- including offensive coordinator Bill Snyder and defensive coordinator Bill Brashier -- had a number of offers from major programs.  They chose to go to Iowa, famously, because Bill Snyder saw a tape of a home game, watched the fans cheer for a first down, and told Fry, "Imagine what they would do if they ever scored a touchdown."  When Fry arrived in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes were coming off a 2-9 campaign and hadn't posted a winning record in eighteen years. 

Common knowledge was that a passing offense wouldn't work in the Big Ten.  Fry upended the common wisdom within three years.  With Fry and Snyder innovating college offense on the fly, Iowa won the Big Ten title in 1981 and went to the Rose Bowl, the first non-Michigan, non-Ohio State representative of the Big Ten since 1968.  His team was AP no. 1 for five weeks in 1985.  He spent twenty years with the Hawkeyes, winning a then-program record 143 games, three Big Ten titles, six bowl games and a Game of the Century against Michigan in 1985.  He took Iowa to fourteen bowl games; prior to his arrival, the program had been to two.  He created the Tiger Hawk logo.  He first used the Pittsburgh Steelers-style uniforms that Iowa still uses today.  He built the first indoor practice facility on campus.  He was the inspiration for the main character in the TV series Coach.  It is in no way hyperbole to say that Hayden Fry built Iowa football as we now know it.

Fry's coaching tree is quite possibly the most decorated of all time.  He hired and trained a panoply of future head coaches, including Snyder, Ferentz, Stoops, Alvarez, Dan McCarney, Bret Bielema, Mike Stoops, Chuck Long, Jim Leavitt, Bo Pelini, Bob Diaco, and Don Patterson.

In 1998, Fry was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and coached the season while undergoing radiation treatment.  Following the season, he announced his retirement.  Fry moved to Nevada, making increasingly sporadic appearances in Iowa City in the following twenty years.  He fought ongoing battles with cancer and other illnesses during that stretch, but the breadth and fullness of his life cannot be understated.  We are often too quick to throw around the term "legend," but in Fry, we really had one.

We are children of 80s and 90s Iowa Football, and we are heartbroken tonight.  Rest easy, Coach.  There will never be another one like you.

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