CORALVILLE, Iowa — In Iowa sports history, wrestling legend Dan Gable stands as the best coach. But Hayden Fry unquestionably ranks as the most important in school history.
Fry’s bronze image was unveiled on Friday with a 6-foot statue at FryFest (named after him) near Coralville’s First Avenue, the primary artery renamed Hayden Fry Way eight years ago. Fry, 87, smiled, waved and spoke before a crowd of about 800. Nobody’s better with a quip, and Fry offered one of his best before they disrobed his likeness.
“The main thing is, be sure you put me high enough on the foundation that the dogs can’t urinate on my shoes,” Fry said to laughs.
Homespun with a west Texas accent, Fry dished numerous folksy cliches over the years, perhaps none more recited than “scratch where it itches.” Fry did that his whole life, from joining the Marines to playing quarterback at Baylor to leading SMU to the Cotton Bowl to restoring and elevating the Iowa football program.
At SMU, Fry integrated the Southwest Conference by bringing in running back Jerry LeVias. Many times, Fry has recalled death threats during the mid-1960s in Texas. Eventually, Fry led the Mustangs to a SWC championship.
Almost a Forrest Gump character, Fry developed friendships as a youngster with Roy Orbison and President George H. W. Bush and later with John Wayne and Lee Iacocca, the Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. CEO. Legend has it (through Fry, of course) that Iacocca was so impressed with SMU’s hard-fought loss to Michigan that he named Ford’s popular vehicle “the Mustang.”
At Iowa, Fry changed the uniforms to look like the Pittsburgh Steelers, designed the Tiger-Hawk logo and placed the “ANF” (America Needs Farmers) decal on helmets in 1985 when Iowa was hit with a massive farming crisis.
“I’m not sure there’s another person alive who could come in and accomplish what he did in terms of turning things around, changing attitudes,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who joined the Iowa staff as offensive line coach in 1981. “The impact he had, not just on the program, but the entire state was just unbelievable.”
On the field, perhaps no coach changed the complexion of a program and conference quite like Fry at Iowa. The Hawkeyes had 20 consecutive non-winning seasons from 1961 through 1980, including Fry’s first two seasons at Iowa. Then in 1981, the Hawkeyes cracked through the Ohio State-Michigan Big Ten headlock to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. It was the first time since 1967 that neither the Buckeyes nor the Wolverines represented the conference in Pasadena.
“That really changed the course of history in our conference,” Ferentz said. “I think it had great historical impact. Everyone in our conference knows they have a realistic chance to get to the winner’s circle.
“Coach Fry probably doesn’t get enough credit for just the impact he had on this entire conference, let alone our program.”
From 1981 through 1997, the Hawkeyes advanced to 14 bowl games, including three Rose Bowls. He became a Hall of Fame coach, won 232 games and claimed three Big Ten titles. He ranks fourth in Big Ten history with 96 league wins, behind only Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Amos Alonzo Stagg. Fry’s 143 wins at Iowa still rank No. 1, while Ferentz is closing in with 127. Fry retired in 1998.
Fry’s coaching tree ranks as his lasting legacy. Former assistants Bill Snyder (Kansas State), Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin), Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) and Ferentz either are in the Hall of Fame or likely to reach it. Former defensive line coach Dan McCarney is Iowa State’s winningest head coach. Current head coaches Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Bret Bielema (Arkansas) and Bob Diaco (Connecticut) played for Fry. Bo Pelini and Jim Leavitt were graduate assistants. Chuck Long, Mike Stoops, Don Patterson and John Austin were, Fry’s assistants, are former head coaches.
As he shuffled to the podium for a few brief remarks, Fry was visibly weathered by his advanced age. He’s had 10 surgeries for cancer with his first treatments beginning with his final season in 1998. He still plays to the crowd with smiles and waves. But with his statue, he was humbled.
“This possibly could be my last trip back,” Fry said. “I really had a difficult time. I wanted to thank everyone responsible, not only the athletic department but the University of Iowa. It’s a great university, a great medical school. When I come back for treatment, I don’t tell anyone. Because when you have cancer, you don’t really feel like associating a whole lot. So I apologize.”
There’s no need to apologize, Hayden. Your career speaks for itself.