Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 1989 | Features


By Carol Harker

Win or lose, Hayden Fry, head coach of the football Hawkeyes since 1979, is likely to have something memorable to say. When he came to Iowa, the coach promised fans that "we'll take what the other team gives us. We'll scratch where it itches."

Hayden Fry in 1989 1989: Hayden Fry poses in front of Nile Kinnick memorabilia.

After the Buckeyes slammed Iowa in a 34-7 contest that first season, Hayden told the media: "Welcome to the Salvation Army. I've never been associated with an offense so nice about giving the ball away."

Fry's premier seasons at Iowa weren't easy. Though the team suffered some real shellackings during the first two years, reasons to celebrate began to multiply in 1981. As Hayden told fans after Iowa beat Nebraska, 10-7, on September 12: "If you stay with this game long enough, the worm is bound to turn."

Listening to Hayden talk during his years at Iowa, sportswriters have gathered some colorful copy—some plowed-up snakes, more than one high-porch picnic, and several yaaaa-hoooos! But with his record standing tall behind him, it's clear that Hayden Fry is no rube.

Though he hails from Odessa in a part of Texas that's mighty close to the back country, the winningest coach in Iowa football—a psychology graduate from Baylor University—is as wily as they come, and just as adept at deflecting a reporter's questioning as the slickest Washington politician.

Since he accepted the head coaching job and the challenge of pulling the Hawks up by their bootstraps after 17 losing seasons, Hayden has become a household name in Iowa. Everyone knows him, listens to his country boy humor, tries to predict how he'll call the plays for the big game.

And, if the Hawkeyes lose, there will be growling and grumbling and all manner of second-guessing of the coach who's perched so high on a pedestal that he's an easy target for anyone with a pea-shooter and an opinion.

Fortunately, the criticism rarely turns mean. When the team loses, Hayden's detractors are sort of like the family of a kid gone astray. They lash into him on a tirade, but stalwartly refute any outsider who has a critical word to say.

In Iowa—not just on the team and not only on campus or among alumni—Hayden is a hero.

Fry with Players Fry made it clear from day one that he wanted his Hawkeyes to look like winners. From the way they dressed to the way they ran on the field, members of the Iowa team began to look like the strong and united force that would be invited to 14 bowl games during the coach's 20-year tenure in Iowa City.

During the first ten years of Fry's regime, the Hawkeyes have won more games (77) than Iowa won in the previous 21 seasons (75). Iowa has captured two Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl berths; played in eight consecutive bowl games; and averaged 8.5 wins over each of the last eight years. The 1985 and 1987 clubs both won a school-record ten times.

No wonder fans love Hayden. In his new book called Big Ten Country, Bob Wood calls Fry the resurrector of Iowa football. He's turned the program at Iowa so completely around that he's changed the conference. It's no longer the Big Two and Little Eight.

"When I came to Iowa, we had to change everything that was associated with a long-held losing mentality," Fry said. "We had to change the total environment—from the players' conduct downtown, from their record of class attendance, from their way of dealing with people. We had to work with the total individual athlete and reconstruct his values and image."

The psychologist in Fry went to work. No more food fights at the training table. The new coach wouldn't tolerate losing behavior.

Tiger Hawk

Knowing how clothes can make the man, he got permission from the Pittsburgh Steelers—who had been to the Super Bowl three out of the past five years and whose colors just happened to be black and gold—to copy their uniforms. "We changed our image," Fry said. "At least when we ran out on the field or broke the huddle, we would look like winners."

Having ensured that his team would look good, the coach turned to the fans, those stalwart Hawkeyes he admired so much for persisting in following the team through a score of bad years. Wanting a sea of black and gold in the stadium, Fry formed a marketing company to change the environment of Kinnick Stadium. He got over 60 J.C. Penney stores across the state to open up Hawkeye apparel departments.

Within a few years, the tiger hawk he'd introduced on the football helmets was emblazoned across Iowa, spray painted on silos and rooftops. The hoopla launched many mom and pop businesses in a new cottage industry for the state, as well as the UI licensing program and the popular Hawk Shop. With more and more television coverage for a winning program, the nation began to notice.

"Sports is such a great vehicle to promote and bring recognition to not only the whole university, but the state," Fry told us this summer.

In 1985, the coach adorned the Hawkeye helmets with another symbol, a simple gold circle declaring America Needs Farmers. "The thing I'm most proud of here at Iowa is putting the ANF on our headgear," Fry said. "We had had one of the biggest economic droughts that the midlands had ever seen and the farmers needed help. It didn't cost anything much to put the decals on the helmets, but it did a lot of good in directing publicity to the problem. There were stories in many national newspapers and sports magazines."

Fry at his desk Coach Fry at his desk.

Fry doesn't do much of anything without a reason. Totally dedicated to his teams and giving his players every opportunity to succeed, he had the visitors' locker room painted pink to intimidate the opposition. It bothers Michigan's Bo Schembechler so much that he orders his assistants to cover the walls with paper before the Wolverines walk through the door.

Fry isn't willing to divulge many of the tricks of his trade yet, but fans can bet he's using everything legal that's at his disposal to give the Hawkeyes a winning edge. Did anyone notice that many of the Oregon Ducks had to lower their heads as they exited the locker room to march out on the field for Iowa's season opener this fall? Iowa may have been out-hustled on the field that day, but the Ducks had to bow to get there.

Any bets that this remodeling of Kinnick Stadium—with a cut-off door and five additional rows of bricks above it—happened during Hayden's tenure?

Speaking about the psychology of winning, Fry knows that "the more down-to-earth things can help a lot." He introduced the "Swarm" to Iowa football, a simple way to give the players the extra security of the group. "I wanted the players to feel like they were part of a family, to be conscious of that controlled togetherness as they made that slow entrance onto the field," Fry said. "It had a great psychological effect on the opposing team, too. They'd never seen anything like it. Black is a color of power and strength and to see all those players, with the captains linking their arms in front—it's a powerful picture."

There's a good measure of psychology in the way a coach can inspire a team. Fry credits his college education for his own success as a coach. "The preparation I had in college was the most valuable," Fry admitted. "You can't control people. You must understand them. You have to know where they're coming from, their beliefs and values, what turns them off, what they're against. We probably spend more time talking about individual players in our coaching sessions than anything else."

With the record he's tallied at Iowa, Fry could go almost anywhere. The pros have approached him with job offers at least three times, but Hayden isn't about to leave the Hawkeye state, where "we're the only dance in town. We don't compete with any professional teams for the entertainment dollar."

He cited other reasons he has no interest in coaching a pro team: "The players' union, for one. How can a coach have any influence over a player that's making over five times more than he is? The drug problem. The 16-game schedule. But the biggest problem is management," Fry asserted.

"To me the people who run a university are far more qualified and intelligent in handling people than someone who inherited his money and used it to buy a pro team. They all want to win, but they don't want to do what's right."

Fry himself is motivated very much by what he considers right. Football is at the top of his list. "I've felt sorry for young people who didn't have an opportunity to play football, because I know what the game can offer," he said. "It's so demanding. In football, like in life, you must learn to play within the rules of the game. We're going to foul up once in awhile, but people need to know we don't do it on purpose. Playing the game with integrity—that's what it's all about."