Hayden Fry

Hayden Fry was more than a coach. He was an Iowa 'cultural icon'

Former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry acknowledges the crowd after an attempt to set a world record for the most people
Former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry acknowledges the crowd after an attempt to set a world record for the most people doing the "Hokey Pokey" Friday, Sept. 3, 2010 during FRYfest at the Iowa River Landing district in Coralville. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Throughout his career as assistant athletics director for trademark and marketing at the University of Iowa, Dale Arens has seen several iterations of the same shirt.

It’s simple enough — commander hat, aviator glasses and a mustache. No other features. No text.

“There was no doubt who that was,” Arens said. “It doesn’t say, ‘Hayden’ on it. It shouts ‘Hayden.’”

Hayden Fry, who died Tuesday at age 90, wasn’t just a football coach at Iowa. He was a popular costume on gamedays and during Halloween, a T-shirt logo, the inspiration behind the name of a famous TV football coach and an icon.

Fry was a part of Iowa’s cultural fabric.

Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there are few people in Iowa’s history as instantly recognizable as Fry.

“The white pants, the aviators, the commander cap ... if you sit and try and think back, maybe there’s (Olympian and former Iowa men’s wrestling coach Dan) Gable. Terry Branstad probably is one, too,” Schamberger said. “It’s been 40 years and there’s still people showing up at every game in white pants, mustaches and hats.”

The convention and visitors bureau created FRYfest in 2009 as way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his retirement from coaching and co-naming First Avenue in Coralville Hayden Fry Way. It wasn’t expected to be a huge deal, Schamberger recalls.

“That first year, 25,000 people showed up and it was insane,” he said, noting that without Fry as a draw, the party wouldn’t have had the same appeal. “We knew this had to carry on. It became FRYfest — a celebration of all that is Hawkeye. Coach Fry, he’s Hawk One in my book ... it deserves to have his name behind it.”

Arens, who has worked in university athletics for 33 years and enjoyed a close relationship with Fry, said Fry was a “cultural icon” in Iowa. That started at the very beginning of his career in Iowa City, Arens said.

“Hayden comes from West Texas, he’s got that Texas drawl in his voice,” Arens said. “He’s sort of a bigger than life person ... he has a style about him.”

But, both Schamberger and Arens agree Fry also endeared himself to everyone who knew him or had a chance to meet him. Schamberger recalls it would “take forever to get from point A to point B” at FRYfest because Fry would pose for selfies and chat up every person he came across.

“When you are talking to Coach Fry ... you instantly felt like you were the only person in the room he was talking to,” Schamberger said.

Fans of the ABC sitcom “Coach” might recall the series’ main character had a name — Hayden Fox — that was similar to Fry’s. That was no coincidence. The show’s creator and producer, Barry Kemp, graduated from the UI’s Theatre Arts program in 1971 and named Fox after Fry.

“I loved the rhythm of the name Hayden Fry,” said Kemp, who is quick to note Hayden Fox as a character was not modeled after Fry.

Kemp said when “Coach” first debuted, Fry was unaware the show — which also featured outdoor shots of the UI campus — existed, but later became a fan.

“The funny part was early on when the show came on, people were not telling him about it,” Kemp said. “His coaches, they were all watching it, but they weren’t necessarily telling him about it ... Then some recruits started asking him about it and he was asking, ‘What is this show about?’”

Kemp said Fry invited him to campus to show off the football team’s facilities, including the then-new indoor practice facility. The two formed a “nice relationship” that lasted throughout the show’s run. Kemp said he would occasionally bounce ideas for episodes off Fry to make sure they were accurately depicted on the show.

“We did a phone call or two occasionally,” he said. “If there was something I was just not sure would play or would be realistic or accurate, I’d check it with him. I felt like we had a connection. I felt like I could pick up the phone and call.”

While players are often closely identified with certain teams — Michael Jordan and the Bulls or Derek Jeter with the Yankees, for example — there are fewer examples of coaches who transcend leading a team and become a part of its mythology. Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears. Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers. Bear Bryant and the University of Alabama.

Schamberger and Arens put Fry in that same conversation.

“Coach Fry and his brand and the love that this Hawkeye nation has for that man is incredible and unmatched,” Schamberger said.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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