FRY fest Week: Hayden Fry on "roughneck" Odessa

People would bet horses, cows, mules, houses ... and wives!

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Marc Morehouse of the Gazette gave me a good idea Monday. He said that with Fry fest coming up Friday in Coralville, I should recount a few good Hayden Fry stories.

One that came to mind immediately was from 1990. H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger had written a best-seller about high school football in Fry's hometown, Odessa, Texas. It was "Friday Night Lights," and it endures as one of the best sports books we've known.

But Fry grew up in Odessa four decades before Bissinger spent a football season there. After one of his weekly press conferences, I asked Fry about the Odessa he knew as a boy. I knew I'd get a column out of it. Here are some of his comments:

"What the guy alludes to and everything has changed like daylight to dark when I was there as far as the racism, and drugs, and the win-at-all cost that the man paints.

"As far as top-notch football and the enthusiasm of the community and the players, that's always been there. When we won the (1946) state championship before 46,000 people in the state final against Kyle Rote and his team from San Antonio, there was only one class of ball. Our population was only about 9,000. To beat big-city schools, man, we got our motors revved up real good."

The fervor for football in Odessa has been a constant, dating back to Fry's day as a quarterback for Odessa High.

"The people would actually come two nights before the tickets went on sale and camp out to buy tickets. Our home stadium would only hold 13 or 14 thousand, but we might have 20 or 25 thousand for a game. I mean, they'd be on the light poles, they'd be on top of the press box, they'd bring ladders to see over the fence.

"You just have to know that environment out there. Real, hard-nose, roughneck oil field people.

"And then 20 miles away was Midland, which per capita, had more millionaires than any town in the world. At one time, they didn't have 10,000 people, but they knowingly had 340 millionaires that lived there. It was incredible, because some of the old ranchers and farmers hit oil on their property and so forth."

Odessa now has 100,000 people of its own. But it's still isolated in west Texas, and still worships high school football.

"Of course, Odessa is a lot more sophisticated now," Fry said back in 1990. "They used to have homes made out of pasteboard boxes, or they split oil cans and things, and wired them together.

"They'd have like 12 honky-tonks, one next to the other. The guys would just walk out of one with their beer or their drink and their gal, and they'd walk into the next one. And when the midnight shift would change in the oil field, you knew the shift was changing because all women that were in the honky-tonks would go home because their husbands were going home. But you only had to wait about 30 minutes until here came a new batch of them, because their husbands were going to work."

It was a time without television, so the only football most people in Odessa saw was played by the high school teams of the area.

"That's all they had," said Fry. "A game out there, that's their life. Guys not only bet their horses, and their cows, and their mules, and their houses, they'd bet their wives on ballgames.

"That's always existed, but the bad elements of drugs, that was nonexistent. You had a sody-pop (Fry's euphemism for alcoholic beverages) during the season, the coach ran you on a thousand-yard piggy-back."

Fry got heat in Dallas when he coached SMU, and there occasional dust-ups when he was coached Iowa. But being in his 20s and coming home to coach Odessa High in 1956, now that was pressure.

"It taught me a great lesson going back to my hometown to coach. Everybody's your friend, and if you've got a friend, then they feel like they can tell you what to do, whether it's school board members, buddies I grew up with, and so forth."

When Baylor University gave Fry a chance to return to his college alma mater to be an assistant football coach, "I bailed out of there," Fry said with a laugh. "But they've been good to me since then."

(I'll be the moderator for a panel discussion at FRY fest, Friday at 3:15 p.m. Several former Iowa players are scheduled to be on the panel, including former Fry players Larry Station, Hap Peterson and Bill Happel.)


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