IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz’s voice started to shake when he talked about the bigness of Hayden Fry.
Maybe “bigness” can be covered with the word “showmanship.” Fry, who served as Iowa’s head coach from 1979 to 1998, changed into overalls and a cowboy hat and conducted postgame interviews after beating Minnesota one year. Iowa certainly won and won and won under Fry, 90, who died Tuesday night after a 20-plus-year battle with cancer, so maybe the “bigness” was wins. Fry won three Big Ten titles and took the Hawkeyes to three Rose Bowls.
There were so many big things during Fry’s 20-year run as Iowa’s coach.
Of course, you can’t define “bigness.” You can give it a name, and you wouldn’t be wrong if you named it “Hayden.”
“Just the way he captured this whole state was really, really impressive,” Ferentz, the Iowa head coach, said Wednesday. “Every day, he set a standard for leadership, he set a standard for excellence and he did things with character and integrity.”
Ferentz was a 25-year-old grad assistant from Pitt when he interviewed to replace Clovis Hale as Iowa’s O-line coach. This was his first real football interview. Ferentz wasn’t nervous because this was a starter kit. He didn’t think this would be the place. Fry also wouldn’t let him be nervous.
“He’s one of those people, you sat down with him and felt like you knew him for 15 years,” Ferentz said. “He makes you feel at ease. Somehow, some way, the chemistry meshed. He made it an easy day for me and I’ve always appreciated that. I’m not sure I would’ve been ready for a tough interview.”
Time stops when a loved one passes. Ferentz was supposed to be in San Diego, Calif., for a Holiday Bowl news conference. The fact that Wednesday was the beginning of the national signing period and the Hawkeyes welcomed 20 new players wasn’t enough to keep Ferentz in Iowa City.
The Fry news put him in a familiar place, the lectern in front of cameras and reporters. Exactly where no one would want to be while discussing personal loss.
And, make no mistake, this was personal. Ferentz was asked if he felt responsibility to carry on what Fry started. Ferentz offered two “Every days” and had to take a second.
“We all have mentors,” Ferentz said. “It usually starts at home with your parents. People like Joe Moore (renowned college O-line coach and Ferentz’s prep coach in Upper St. Clair, Pa., who passed away in 2003) and Hayden Fry, I mean, so yeah.”
In this moment, Ferentz started motioning toward Kinnick Stadium. All year, a banner with the famous Fry jawline and aviator sunglasses hung on the part of Kinnick that Ferentz can see from his office.
On Wednesday, both massive end zone videoboards had a picture of Fry. Mustache and aviators.
Ferentz motioned that way.
“It took me 25 years, but I’ve got a window now,” Ferentz said. “So, he’s looking at me and Rita (Foley, who has served as the secretary to the head coach for Fry and Ferentz) every day. Both of us better be on good behavior and better be moving straight ahead. That’s how you look at it.”
Ferentz said the team will do something to honor Ferentz for the Holiday Bowl. By the way, the Hawkeyes will face off with USC, which in the late 1980s, tried to hire away Fry. Ferentz said the team also will honor Fry in some way next year.
Ferentz might’ve turned to Fry for an idea on this. Ferentz knows that Fry was the idea guy.
“There are so many things he did that I wouldn’t even have begun to think about let alone actually do,” Ferentz said. He then pointed to the Tigerhawk logo on his chest, not to mention the myriad Tigerhawks in front of him, from the lectern to the backdrop. Fry brought that to Iowa.
“There was no Tigerhawk before him,” Ferentz said. “The ANF sticker, things like that, he just had such a vision and an ability to sell and convince people this is worth doing, worth thinking about. I’ve said it many times. We’re so opposite in terms of personality. He’s funny, charismatic. I’m neither. He also was a visionary and that’s not my strength by any stretch.”
Ferentz talked about the man who gave him his big break in coaching. The man who brought his wife, Mary, and their five children to Iowa City, a place Ferentz called his “Florida and Colorado getaways.” He probably could’ve gotten to the good and long stories, but there was a plane to catch.
Ferentz finally did make himself stop and resume the job that Hayden Fry had before him.
“It’s like your dad,” Ferentz said. “You know your dad isn’t going to live forever, but we all hope they do. I think that’s kind of the feeling we have now.”
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