IOWA CITY, Iowa — Hayden Fry’s coaching tree stretches from his West Texas roots to the solid oaks that stand tall in Eastern Iowa.
Fry hired winners as assistants, many of whom became top coaches over the last generation. But it’s Fry’s 1983 staff that stands out as his best — and perhaps the greatest assembled staff in college football history.
His offensive coordinator was Bill Snyder, the architect of the sport’s greatest turnaround at Kansas State. Fry’s linebackers coach was Barry Alvarez, who achieved similar success at Wisconsin. Both are in the College Football Hall of Fame, as is Fry.
Joining them someday will be 1983 graduate assistant Bob Stoops, who was 190-48 in 18 seasons at Oklahoma with 10 Big 12 championships and a national title. Offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz, whose 143 wins equal Fry in Iowa history, has five national top-10 finishes in 19 seasons.
Defensive line coach Dan McCarney ranks No. 1 in wins at Iowa State. Tight ends coach Don Patterson led Western Illinois for 11 seasons. Defensive coordinator Bill Brashier never left Iowa, but Snyder said in 2006 he was the staff’s best assistant. Running backs coach Carl Jackson and defensive ends coach Bernie Wyatt were among the best recruiters in the game.
Nearly every member of this legendary coaching staff will reunite at the 10th FryFest, which takes place Aug. 31 at the Iowa River Landing area in Coralville, Iowa. Named after legendary football coach Hayden Fry, FryFest is labeled as “a celebration of all that is a Hawkeye.”
Traditionally, there’s a theme associated with FryFest, ranging from traveling trophies to Dan Gable’s wrestling prowess to Fry’s quarterbacks. This edition commemorates the 35th anniversary of that coaching staff. They will meet for a private celebration and then sit together for a panel discussion at FryFest.
The event has become a must-stop for Iowa fans over the years, but no previous FryFest compares to this one. Intertwined with Fry’s legacy of rising the Hawkeyes from the ashes was how he developed assistants into successful head coaches.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a while now,” said event originator Josh Schamberger, who also is president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I know how famous that photo is and the lineage of coaches that came and the championships that came out of that.
“As we looked around and we go, ‘OK, Coach Stoops is now retired, Coach McCarney is available, Coach Patterson.’ I’m like, ‘This could be the perfect year.’ Also, they’re not getting any younger. Coach Brashier and Coach Fry are 89, so age is kind of catching up. This truly could be one of the last times that group is all able to get together.”
With help from his cradle of assistants, Fry turned Iowa from a football wasteland into an oasis. The Hawkeyes went 19 consecutive seasons without a winning record before tying for the Big Ten title in 1981 and earning a Rose Bowl berth. Iowa won three Big Ten titles from 1981-90 and had several other strong teams. The 1983 version was perhaps Fry’s second-best team behind the 1985 squad.
The Hawkeyes finished 9-2 in the regular season with a win against Ohio State, which finished 8-3. The Fiesta Bowl still picked the Buckeyes over Iowa. The Cotton Bowl was a strong possibility against unbeaten Texas, but Patterson said Longhorns coach Fred Akers vetoed that choice.
“They got to pick their opponent,” Patterson said. “Fred Akers said, ‘No, it’s not going to be Iowa.’ It’s a harder game to win — that’s what he was thinking. He chose Georgia. They lost to Georgia because they muffed a punt on the minus-10-yard line and Georgia had a 10-yard touchdown drive to win the game [10-9].
“He was right; they’d have a better chance to beat Georgia that day than us. Funny aspect of that is one year later, who do we play in a bowl game, but the University of Texas — and it turned out Fred Akers was right.”
Iowa beat Texas 55-17 in the 1984 Freedom Bowl.
Fry was known for cultivating a culture conducive for building head coaches. With a military background, Fry was organized and deliberate. He wanted his coaches to perform their duties his way, but he also demanded honest feedback.
“Coach Fry would say, ‘If I had one particular skill, it was probably my ability to judge who to hire,’ ” Patterson said. “He always famously said, ‘I won’t hire coaches who don’t have an interest in being head coaches.’ That wasn’t always true. Bill Brashier had opportunities to be a head coach and passed them up to stay at Iowa. I think it generally was true.
“Another way to say it was [he wanted] coaches who were highly motivated to do their job really, really well. He one time mentioned to the whole staff, ‘I don’t know if you guys understand, I think Donnie understands, I think Bill Brashier understands because they were both in the military, but when I ask you do something, it’s the same thing as a lawful order. I’m trying to be nice by asking you, but understand it’s something that has to be done. It has to be done on a certain schedule.’ ”
Fry’s tree continued to extend well beyond that season. Former Iowa players Chuck Long, Mike Stoops, Mark Stoops, Bret Bielema and Bob Diaco became head coaches, as did former graduate assistants Jim Leavitt and Bo Pelini. But it’s that 1983 staff that stands alone as the coaching community’s gold standard.