Like so many others, some of my favorite childhood memories are of Saturdays at Kinnick Stadium.
Most of my childhood was in the 1970s, however, so the victories I witnessed were not many. I always looked forward to a time when Iowa would be a “winner.”
I was fortunate to have a father who played and coached in Iowa’s “glory years” in the 1950s so I knew it could happen.
As I entered high school, Iowa hired a guy named Hayden Fry. Like most other Iowans, I had no idea who this man was and why he might be different.
While I didn’t know him very well yet, I saw the change in the Iowa Hawkeyes football team. In 1981, as a high school senior, I witnessed victories over No. 7 Nebraska and No. 6 UCLA (as well as No. 5 Michigan) that forever changed the possibilities for Hawkeye football.
Iowa could really compete with anybody.
Coach Fry was a well known “salesman” but he didn’t have to sell me to come to Iowa. I had already witnessed the change he was creating and I wanted to be a part of it.
I must admit when I first got to Iowa, I was a little intimidated by Coach Fry. He already was kind of a larger-than-life figure to me. I quickly found there were a lot of attributes that made Coach Fry the great man and coach that he was.
He was disciplined. Everything was always on a schedule and there were consequences if you were late. (Much to the quarterbacks’ and receivers’ chagrin, he did allow Coach Bill Snyder to keep us in our film room long over the allotted time).
He was tough. When players made mistakes he would usually take it out on his coaches for not preparing us better. Then we would hear it from our coaches. There were no shortcuts in Coach Fry’s program.
He was compassionate. How many coaches do you see going out on the field to check on injured players? It wasn’t for show, he truly hated to see his players get hurt.
He was funny. His humor always has been on display and he laughed so hard at his own jokes that you just had to laugh with him.
One time, after missing three weeks with a high ankle sprain, I returned to practice. Afterwards he gave a few of us a ride to training table and he asked how practice went for me. Knowing I was never known for my speed, I responded “I think I might have lost a step or two on my routes.” He deadpanned back, “Billy, if you were any slower you’d be walking.”
He was inspirational. It wasn’t so much the words he said ... and we heard many of the same stories again and again. By the time you get to your senior year you have heard most of them several times and they often get a new twist. He was inspirational because you knew how much he cared for his players, coaches, the University of Iowa and, quite frankly, the state of Iowa.
He inspired most of us to attain goals that we didn’t even think were attainable.
He was confident. He always used to say “if you done it, it ain’t bragging.” And because he was confident, his teams were confident. From the outside, Iowa wasn’t supposed to compete with Ohio State and Michigan. But he never took a team in to any of those games where we weren’t confident we would win.
Coach Fry was all those things, but I believe he would say his most important attribute is what he left us with at his retirement announcement — ”I’ll always be a Hawk!”
Last spring, more than 40 of his former players and coaches traveled to Dallas to share an afternoon with Coach and celebrate his 90th birthday. He couldn’t believe all these guys would come down to see him ... and we couldn’t miss the chance to thank him one more time for all that he has done for all of us.
Love you Coach.
Bill Happel was a wide receiver at Iowa from 1982 to 1985. He played in 46 games, catching 112 passes for 1,685 yards and 10 touchdowns. In his last two seasons, he caught 103 of those passes for 1,533 of those yards and all 10 TDs. His father, Bill, was a three-year letterwinner in football at Iowa, including a trip to the 1957 Rose Bowl. Father and son both scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl.