Hayden Fry brought the sizzle and the steak to Iowa

Hayden Fry stands outside Kinnick Stadium on Aug. 5, 2011. Fry was Iowa's football coach from the 1979 through the 1998
Hayden Fry stands outside Kinnick Stadium on Aug. 5, 2011. Fry was Iowa's football coach from the 1979 through the 1998 seasons. (Gazette photo)

His legend was built on winning, of course.

Without the three Big Ten championships and three Rose Bowl trips, without the consistent and colorful winning for most of his 20 years as the head football coach, the Hayden Fry story is just another footnote in University of Iowa sports history.

Instead, it was one of Iowa’s best all-time stories.

The whole thing almost seemed out of the movies. A down-in-the-dumps football program gets a coach no one in Iowa knew, and he enters like a west Texas whirlwind with a language and style totally alien to the locals.

In his third season, Pasadena. And away the Hawkeyes went, with their football image forever changed.

But statistics are statistics. Games come and go, seasons come and go. There were many glorious victories, and some hard-to-swallow losses. “The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s rump every day,” Fry said.

He came to a place that was desolate, football-wise, and brought an immediate pizzazz of personality followed before long by a football feast. He introduced Hawkeye players and fans to the concepts of looking like winners, thinking like winners, and ultimately, winning.

Blood and guts, Big Ten football? Well, like all good football teams, Fry’s Hawkeyes were built with fundamentals, blocking and tackling. But they threw the ball in an era in which the forward pass was still a strange and hard-to-tame thing for a lot of teams in the Big Ten. What was this entertaining, effective thing that had landed here?

It was,to use another Fryism, a high porch picnic.

Yet, I’ll maintain what the old Texan who was called “Crazy Legs” as the quarterback of Odessa High’s Texas state-championship team of 1946 did off the field was just as important and enduring here as all the triumphs.

You know that Tigerhawk logo that is omnipresent in Iowa? Fry commissioned that almost as soon as he took the Iowa job — which he got thanks to the foresight ofrecently deceased Bump Elliott, the athletics director who brought him to Iowa with the assurance he’d be given what he needed to be competitive there.

At the time, the Tigerhawk was this weird-looking thing that seemed a little kooky. That was 40 years ago. It stuck. It went on the Hawkeyes’ helmets. It went on Hawkeye fans’ hats, shirts, car bumpers, mailboxes. It even finally found its way onto the UI water tower.

It’s now called branding, but it wasn’t very common back then. Fry, a Baylor University graduate with a psychology degree, knew people needed and wanted things to cling to and call their own. The Tigerhawk has been embraced tightly for 40 years.

Every Hawkeye fan may see something different when looking at the logo, whether it was a special win, a championship season, a favorite player or coach, or maybe a get-together at a game with family or friends. But that brash bird has been the tie that binds, and the logo probably will be part of the University of Iowa as long as there is a University of Iowa.

Fry was a force of nature. His occasional blowups at what he always called “the news media” were often in-season events. He never backed down from a battle, and wasn’t averse to creating one if he thought he needed a diversion so his players would be ignored for a few days and could go about their football business.

He came here after having a sour experience years before when he coached SMU, and was determined he would be the boss in all phases that concerned him. When then-UI president Hunter Rawlings stated in 1989 that the school would abolish freshmen eligibility within three years whether or not the NCAA banned it, Fry had a beauty of a tirade. Freshmen remained eligible at Iowa.

But this man was far more about fun than flare-ups. I’ve never known a football coach who laughed as much as he did. He came out for a postgame interview session in Minneapolis wearing a red flannel shirt, a white cowboy hat, and blue bib overalls to make fun of Minnesota media that made fun of Iowa in the week leading up to the game.

If there had been a fully functional internet in Fry’s coaching era, he’d have been a global sensation.


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Hawkeye supporters were satisfied with him being an Iowa sensation. I used to hear a variation of this all the time and saw it on occasion: A fan goes to an I-Club event somewhere, meets Fry for the first time in five, even 10 years. He says the fan’s name before the fan can spit out a salutation.

Ultimately, the measure of all coaches is what his or her players say about them long after their playing days are done. In the next few days you’ll hear all sorts of Fry’s former players share their love and appreciation. If you lived in Iowa over the last four decades, you’ve already heard it.

Fry related to football players and their families in urban New Jersey and small-town Iowa. He knew presidents, he touted farmers. He was a Marine Corps captain, and then a high school teacher and coach. Lifting people up was his thing, on and off football fields.

He went north to this place he had never seen, plowed up some snakes and killed ‘em, and made a whole lot of Iowans feel good about being Iowans.

Fry’s legend was built on winning, of course. But you’ll never find a statistic that adequately captures it.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com