Remembering an Iowa icon: The one and only Hayden Fry
I was probably one of the last Iowans to hear the news. It was late Tuesday night and I was only a few miles outside of Clear Lake on my drive home when I received a direct message on Twitter about the Hayden Fry obituary.
That was a long, mostly quiet drive home with nothing more than interstate and memories.
Hayden Fry, at the age of 90, had died.
If you grew up a rabid sports fan in eastern Iowa in the 1980s like I did, then you completely understand why the passing of Fry felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my heart.
This isn’t meant to be disrespectful to Iowa State and its massive fan base, but when I was a kid I didn’t even know the Cyclones existed. It was just Iowa, the Hawkeyes and their charismatic, energetic and sometimes crazy Texan coach with the white pants, the mustache, those sunglasses and that ridiculous black trucker hat with the gold wings on the bill.
I don’t remember Iowa football before Fry took over a fledgling program prior to the 1979 season. I heard the stories though; the Hawkeyes were awful, not even an afterthought on the national landscape.
But that all changed with the hiring of Fry. He took a program that was essentially nothing and made it into something that the nation had no choice but to notice. A Rose Bowl appearance in 1981, another in 1985 and yet another in 1990.
The 80s were when I reached my peak fandom and the 1985 Iowa team will always be my favorite. The day I got married, the births of my two children, and the day this past October when I sat in a hospital waiting room for eight hours while my wife underwent surgery are the only moments in my life where I was more nervous than Oct. 19, 1985 — the day second-ranked Michigan invaded Kinnick Stadium to take on No. 1 Iowa.
More than 34 years later, I can still remember that game in great detail. The emotional turmoil, the emptiness in my stomach when I convinced myself that Iowa was going to lose, and the euphoria I felt as I jumped around the living room as the Kinnick turf was flooded with fans following Rob Houghtlin’s last-second, game-winning 29-yard field goal.
And there was Fry, just as excited as any player or any fan in that stadium. The guy that, truthfully, was ahead of his time with a wide-open passing scheme, the guy that brought us the stand up tight end and the pink locker rooms, I honestly thought he could walk on water.
Fry and quarterback Chuck Long will forever be my favorite coach-player duo. And I’ll go to my grave — hopefully many, many years from now — believing that Long was robbed of the Heisman Trophy in 1985. Bo Jackson may very well be the greatest athlete of my time, but he wasn’t the best college football player that season. And if you think he was, well, you’re just wrong. It’s as simple as that.
For the generation younger than I am, it’s hard to do Fry justice in words. His southern drawl and his “aw, shucks” demeanor gave the impression that anyone could approach him and strike up a conversation. He wasn’t an intimidating figure, not publicly anyway, and that’s quite the contrast from today’s high-profile college coaches not named Kirk Ferentz or Matt Campbell.
Think Mike Leach without the arrogance or attitude, that’s the best comparison I can come up with. Fry was certainly the antithesis of someone like Nick Saban, a coach who oftentimes seems to relish the fear and intimidation he exudes.
Fry is probably most remembered for the coaching tree he developed. Guys like Ferentz, Dan McCarney, Barry Alvarez, Bob Stoops and Bill Snyder — all assistants under Fry at Iowa who went on to take over other programs and turn them into national powers.
But, for me, he’ll always be that guy who made a 9-year-old in North English, Iowa, jump for joy around his living room on that October day in 1985. He’ll always be that guy who called the perfect play — a quarterback bootleg around the right end — to beat Michigan State in the final minute during that same fall in 1985.
And that’s why, more than 20 years after he coached his final game at Iowa and probably more than a decade since I gave his greatness more than a passing thought, I drove home in mostly silence on Tuesday.
He was so much more to me than a college football coach. And after the outpouring of emotions across the state following his passing this week, it’s clear I’m not the only one to feel this way.
Hayden Fry was a true original and he will be missed.
Rest in peace, Coach. And thanks for the memories.