Hayden Fry forever changed the mindset of Iowa football fans

Former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry autographs a helmet for a fan at the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame on
Former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry autographs a helmet for a fan at the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday, Oct. 6, 2006, in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

The larger the legend, the more difficult it becomes to completely capture that person’s legacy.

Such is the case with Hayden Fry.

This will not be a reiteration of his accomplishments. So many members of the media in the days since his death have done a magnificent job of doing just that, and more.

As I scanned my list of possible angles for this piece, I landed on not only how he changed the culture of Iowa football, but specifically how he changed the thoughts and habits of the Hawkeye fan. Keep in mind, it would not have been possible had Fry not won.

Iowa was in throes of 17 straight non-winning seasons, a period that spanned five head coaches. During this dreadful time in Iowa football history, there were certainly loyal fans. But it was largely a mediocre product. Tickets were easy to come by. I knew a man who got into the stadium by using a matchbook cover to give his friend, a ticket taker.

Athletics director Bump Elliott already had hired two coaches, Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings. Elliott was deep in the count as he stepped to the plate in 1978. He needed a home run and not just a ball in play.



Enter Fry.

Fry didn’t know Iowa (he had never been here) and Iowa didn’t know him. But he rapidly changed the Iowa Fan in many ways, foremost among them by winning. But it also was his wit and one-liners, his personality and availability to all, the Hawkeye marketing group, and more. Not long after he arrived, Kinnick Stadium became a tough ticket. Fans showed up there and elsewhere in gear adorned with the new logo. They soon were saving their money for bowl trips as much as for college savings accounts.

Saturdays at Kinnick became an event and all-day commitment, not an afterthought. And Fry had the Iowa Fan in his back pocket.

Fry’s relationship with media largely was good, but there were times it became contentious — often for his own benefit, I believed. During the 1988 season, I unwantingly found myself in his cross hairs.

The Hawkeyes were 5-3-2 (ties to Michigan State and Michigan) when Ohio State visited for the next-to-last game of the regular season. Iowa was driving for a potential winning touchdown, but the effort stalled. With 16 seconds remaining, Fry elected to have Jeff Skillett kick a 40-yard field goal to tie the game, 24-24. Iowa failed on an onside kick and it became the third tie of the season.

I followed Fry closely off the field and clearly heard boos and catcalls from a minority of fans, not approving of the tie. I asked Fry about the fan reaction in the postgame and he brushed it off.

I wrote about what I saw and heard in my Sunday column. I even reread it this week and still believe it was true and accurate. But at the Tuesday news conference, Fry was upset. He didn’t like or appreciate the column.

“It’s like somebody’s out to get me or my team,” he said. “We’ve got a few writers who’ve got that poison pen.”

That night, a local television station led off its newscast with the exchange between Fry and me, which was largely one-sided. No matter the station didn’t make an effort to get my side.

The next day, my phone didn’t stop ringing, call after call from fans — 95 percent of them in Fry’s corner. One of the calls was from a woman who asked how I could possibly question the coach’s motive. And she closed by saying, “You know that picture of you in the paper? Your nose looks the beak of a duck!” Click.

My point here is not to make this personal but to give yet another example of how Fry could galvanize the fan base. He had the fans’ support on almost everything, sometimes no matter the facts.

To Fry’s credit, the following Tuesday after the blowup, he treated me as if nothing ever happened. And we had a good relationship apart from that run-in, one of mutual respect.

Hayden Fry was a wonderful football coach. But more than that, he had a Hall of Fame mind, one that changed the behavior of the Iowa football fan forever.

Mark Dukes worked at The Gazette from 1973 to 1998, not only as the Iowa football beat writer but also sports editor for several years.