Hayden Fry, the coach whose name has become synonymous with Hawkeye football, died on Tuesday, his family announced in a written statement. He was 90.
“With our family at his side, Hayden Fry, beloved husband, father, and grandfather, passed away following a lengthy battle with cancer,” his family said.
Fry spent 20 seasons as the University of Iowa’s head football coach, and during that time transformed the team. When Fry started his career at Iowa in 1979, the Hawkeyes weren’t considered a serious competitor by anyone other than their most die-hard fans.
The team hadn’t had a winning season in 17 years, and had only had 13 winning seasons since 1933. Under Fry, things began to change almost immediately.
In 1981, Iowa captured a share of the Big Ten championship for the first time in 21 years, and went to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958. With Fry as their coach, the Hawkeyes would tie for the Big Ten title three more times and go to 14 bowl games. Fry’s teams were known for their aggressive offense, and he compiled a record of 143-89-6 at Iowa.
Fry was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1981, 1990 and 1991. Five years after he retired in 1998, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
“Hayden Fry is a college football icon and an Iowa legend. His Hall of Fame career is well known, but personally, he will always be the man who took a chance on me at the start of my coaching career,” said current Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz in a statement. Ferentz served as an assistant coach under Fry in 1980s. “I was proud to coach with him and honored to succeed him when he retired. He’s been a great mentor and a true friend. I am forever grateful to him.”
Fry was born John Hayden Fry on Feb. 28, 1939, in Eastland, Texas. He grew up in the West Texas town of Odessa, where he was an outstanding high school quarterback. He received a football scholarship to Baylor University, a private college in Waco, Texas. He played quarterback for the Baylor Bears and earned a degree in psychology.
After graduating in 1952, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years, reaching the rank of captain. Following his discharge, he returned to Odessa, where he coached high school football. In 1959, he joined the college ranks as an assistant football coach, first at Baylor, then at the University of Arkansas.
Fry was hired as head football coach by Southern Methodist University in 1962. This was a period of major changes in Jim Crow states like Texas, and college football was part of those changes.
In 1957, North Texas State College became the first Texas college to have black players on its varsity football team, with Abner Hayes and Leon King. North Texas State was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, while SMU, like most Texas schools, belonged to the now-defunct Southwest Conference (SWC). The schools that made up the SWC had a long-standing “gentleman’s agreement” not to recruit black players. Three years into his a decade-long career at SMU, Fry broke that agreement.
Fry began planning his move when he came to SMU.
“With the approval of SMU President Willis Tate, Fry began laying the groundwork, talking with players, assistant coaches, faculty and alumni about getting a young man who could not only help the Mustangs win football games but take the pressure of being the first black player in the storied Southwest Conference,” Richard Pennington, author of Breaking the Ice: The Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football, wrote.
In 1965, Fry recruited Jerry LaVias, a standout high school halfback from Beaumont, Texas. LaVias received more than 100 scholarships from out-of-state schools, but chose to accept Fry’s offer.
The transition was not an easy one.
“In his first scrimmage with the freshman team, several varsity players came over to watch, and he put on a show, making a series of spectacular catches and scoring repeatedly,” according to Pennington. “But then a frustrated defender — a teammate, remember — blindsided him and caused three broken ribs.”
LaVias went onto a very successful college career. When he joined the varsity team in 1966, LaVias helped lead the Mustangs to a winning season and their first Cotton Bowl appearance in almost 20 years.
(Although LaVias was the first black football player recruited and offered a scholarship by a SWC school, he was not the first black player in the SWC. John Hill Westbrook, a walk-on player at Baylor, played in a 1966 game, before LaVias played his first game.)
Fry, however, wasn’t always so progressive-minded as he was at SMU.
Despite occasional protests from UI students, alumni and faculty, the locker room is still pink.
In 1979, Fry ordered the visiting teams locker room at Kinnick Stadium to be painted a powdery pink. Fry claimed in his 1999 memoir, A High Porch Picnic, he didn’t choose pink for sexist or homophobic reasons, but for reasons of sports psychology.
“It’s a passive color, and we hoped it would put our opponents in a passive mood,” Fry wrote. He then went on to explain, “Also, pink is often found in girls’ bedrooms, and because of that some consider it a sissy color.”
Fry’s career at SMU came to end when he was fired following the 1972 season, after the Mustangs failed to get a bowl bid following a 7-4 season.
He was hired by North Texas State as both head football coach and athletic director, where he achieved a successful record. Following the 1978 season, Fry was hired as Iowa’s 25th head football coach.
Fry’s career record as head coach at the three schools was 232–178–10. While at Iowa, Fry helped rebrand the Hawkeyes, including modeling their uniforms after the then-premiere NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and commissioning a logo for the team: the Tigerhawk, still widely used today on University of Iowa sports jerseys, promotional materials and merchandise.
Fry also helped found America Needs Farmers, or ANF, as a way to raise funds for the Iowa Farm Bureau and awareness for the state’s embattled farmers during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.
He not only helped revitalize Iowa’s football program, but other schools’ as well: Fry’s coaching tree included Bob Stoops (a former Hawkeye defensive back and later assistant coach), Bill Snyder (Fry’s offensive coordinator for a decade), Dan McCarney (Fry’s defensive line coach for a decade) and Barry Alvarez (LB coach from ’79-’86), who went on to record-breaking careers as the head football coaches at the University of Oklahoma, Kansas State University, Iowa State University and the University of Wisconsin, respectively.
Fry moved to Mesquite, Nevada after retiring from UI, but his presence was still strongly felt in the Iowa City area. In 2009, the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, UI Athletics and the City of Coralville launched FRYfest as an annual event to celebrate the beginning of the college football season. Coralville has also added the honorary name “Hayden Fry Way” to 1st Avenue, and a statue of Fry was unveiled at Iowa River Landing in 2016.
In their statement, Fry’s family said, “Though Hayden was born in Texas and moved there more recently to be closer to our family, his love for the University of Iowa, his players and coaches, the people of Iowa, and the state of Iowa, is well known. Hayden often shared, ‘I’ll Always Be a Hawkeye.’”
Details regarding memorial services for Fry have not yet been announced.
Today I lost my Coach. Passing at the age of 90, Hayden Fry changed my life. Much of what I have accomplished in life is because what he saw in me, that young kid from Madison Wisconsin. I keep his picture in my locker. I am so grateful he was my coach. Rest In Peace Coach. pic.twitter.com/PgYW7o9WJ8
— Jay Norvell (@CoachJayNorvell) December 18, 2019
This man gave me an opportunity to walk on and join the Hawkeye Family. He gave me a scholarship, my first coaching job, and the coaching DNA for life. I love you Coach Fry. #Hawkeyes #MyCoach pic.twitter.com/3niQ53q04Y
— Bret Bielema (@BretBielema) December 18, 2019