The Kirk Ferentz Era was born on second base, even if Iowa football by the late 1990s looked less like Willie Mays of the New York Giants and more like Willie Mays of the New York Mets, huffing to leg out what used to be automatic.
Hayden Fry had the heavier lifting, especially at the start. The Hawkeyes were on a run of 17 seasons — a generation — without a winning record when Fry was hired away from North Texas before the 1979 season. Scorched earth needed to be made fertile again, and everybody had to be pulling on the same rope to get the ox cart out of the ditch.
“If you look at [Iowa’s] record for the 20 years prior, I think it’s harder to go in and to do something that hasn’t been done for 35 or 40 years or whatever,” former Iowa State football coach-turned-radio host Jim Walden told Land of 10 recently. “To get that off the ground is so much harder than with Kirk. He can look back to 10 years ago when we were doing this, or five years ago. He had a basis [for success].”
Ferentz has given the locals 20 years of steak, even if some seasons came off overly burnt or chewy.
Fry brought the sizzle.
He brought a logo. An ethos. A Tigerhawk that said that anything was possible, including Pasadena. That Iowa City would be a place where tight ends stood and giants fell. Fry made Kinnick Stadium a place that got inside everybody’s head — Michigan’s Bo Schembechler waged battle after battle against the pink visitors’ locker room — and stayed there before they’d even taken a snap. Wherever it itched, he scratched.
“Hayden Fry, I thought, will always go down as one of the best, the all-time top 10 coaches,” Walden said of the Hawkeyes’ coach from 1979-98, who in a few months is expected to be passed by Ferentz, his former assistant and successor, for the most wins in Iowa history. “You’re putting something in Iowa — the thing that people need to remember is, there are not enough football players in that state to fill out both [FBS] programs.
“When you live in Alabama and LSU, if you didn’t pick another guy from anywhere other than the state you live in, you’d be a top-20 program. You can’t do that at Iowa. So, he’s got to cross to other states and find 22-25 guys [each year] that other people want.”
Wisconsin doesn’t have to share linemen or running backs with any other in-state FBS program. Neither does Minnesota. Or Nebraska, now that you mention it.
“If you list the 10 [greatest coaches], six of them would be at Bama or Notre Dame or LSU or Michigan or Ohio State,” Walden continued. “How many good football players are there [in those states]? I just think, in my opinion, Hayden Fry did a marvelous job getting the program [back].”
Walden’s Cyclones went 0-8 against Fry from 1987-94, although the two got on like gangbusters privately, a couple of Southern wits who never found a leg they couldn’t pull. Iowa State would eventually replace Walden with Dan McCarney, a former Hawkeyes lineman and assistant for Fry and for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin.
Alvarez and McCarney had coached the linebackers and defensive line, respectively, under Fry in 1983, linchpins on one of the greatest football staffs ever assembled. The Hawkeyes’ collective of assistants that season also included Bill Snyder (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Ferentz (offensive line) and a graduate assistant by the name of Bob Stoops.
“I’d talk to Barry on the road, and he liked Fry,” noted former Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, who’d witnessed Iowa’s pre-Hayden dark ages up close as a Wisconsin assistant from 1970-76.
“Hayden was a big push toward how [Alvarez] got the Wisconsin [coaching] job in the first place, and I have a lot of respect for what Barry says.”
Fry tipped sacred cows and tweaked the landscape forever. The Big Ten of 1979 was Michigan, Ohio State and a yawning chasm before you landed on anybody else. Some three decades later, the league still finds the Buckeyes and Wolverines and Penn State at the top of the food chain, but the chasms are smaller now, the distances tenable. Fry was one of the revolutionaries on that front, shortening the gaps through shrewd hires and dogged work, the kind of impact that leaves ripples to this day.
“I used to say [Hawkeyes fans] were the most cantankerous fans to not understand how hard it is for those guys to win 8-9 games,” Walden laughed. “I don’t want to say they’re bad. It’s just a sense of perspective of how hard it is for coaches where they don’t have a wealth of talent.”
The greatest staff ever assembled would get cherry-picked by peers, the family tree that never stopped giving. Alvarez flipped the Badgers from sleeping to giant; Snyder single-handedly turned Kansas State into a football school; Stoops returned Oklahoma to glory.
Fry, now 89 and in the winter of his days, eventually became a victim of the monster he’d built, as Wisconsin and Northwestern found religion, invested in football, and went from automatic victories to recurring migraines. From 1969-81, the Big Ten sent only two programs — Michigan or Ohio State — to the Rose Bowl. From 1982 to 2001, nine different schools wound up representing the conference in Pasadena, including Iowa — under Fry — in 1982, 1986 and 1991.
“Hayden found a crippled football program, got it back up to snuff to a level that Iowans probably never dreamed it could be,” Walden said. “And unfortunately, he left it to Kirk about like he found it. He found a bad program, took it all the way to stars. In the end it fell off, which put a lot of stress on Kirk, so he had to do the same thing.”
It takes a giant to meet the bar.
It takes a legend to raise it.