Hayden Fry, who inherited a struggling University of Iowa football program and returned it to national prominence during his 20 seasons as head coach, died Tuesday at 90 years of age.
The Hawkeyes struggled through 17 consecutive non-winning seasons when Director of Athletics Bump Elliott hired Fry from North Texas to replace Bob Commings following the 1978 season.
It took the native Texan just three seasons to engineer one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college football history. In 1981, Iowa won a share of the school’s first Big Ten title since 1960 and earned its first Rose Bowl berth since the 1958 season. The 8-4 record marked the Hawkeyes’ first winning season since 1961. Iowa finished the year ranked for the first time since 1960, landing 18th in the final Associated Press poll.
That was just the beginning of the success for Fry at Iowa. In his final 18 seasons, his teams posted 13 winning records. To put that in perspective, the Hawkeyes had enjoyed just 13 winning seasons since 1933 before he arrived.
Fry’s teams went to 14 bowl games, won a share of three Big Ten championships and finished 10 of those seasons ranked. Fourteen of his teams finished in the first division of the Big Ten.
Fry’s 1985 team, led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long and All-America linebacker Larry Station, spent five weeks ranked No. 1, never left the Top 10, and won the school’s first outright league crown since 1960.
Fry coached three teams in the Rose Bowl and was a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year (1981, 1990, 1991).
Fry’s 1990 team also won a share of the Big Ten title. Three times, his teams enjoyed 10-win seasons — 1985 (10-2), 1987 (10-3), and 1991 (10-1-1).
The Hawkeyes were ranked in the AP poll for at least two weeks in 14 different seasons under Fry. Eight of those teams spent time in the Top 10. Overall, Fry’s teams spent 133 weeks in the AP poll, including 39 weeks in the Top 10.
Coaching with a “scratch where it itches” philosophy that played to his team’s strengths and took advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses, Fry retired after the 1998 season as Iowa’s winningest coach and the dean of Big Ten coaches. He was 143-89-6 at Iowa, including a 96-61-5 mark in the Big Ten. Fry, who coached previously at SMU and North Texas, was 233-177-10 overall. He ranks 16th all-time in victories among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) coaches.
Elected to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in 2003, Fry is one of seven men to hold a head coaching job in the Big Ten for at least 20 years. That elite list includes Amos Alonzo Stagg (Chicago, 37 years), Bob Zuppke (Illinois, 29 years), Woody Hayes (Ohio State, 28 years), Henry Williams, Minnesota (22 years), Bo Schembechler (Michigan, 21 years), and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (1999-present).
Fry is sixth all-time in victories at a Big Ten school, and fifth in Big Ten victories. His six bowl victories ties for third among all Big Ten coaches.
The growth of Iowa football under Fry was seeded by improved facilities, a top-notch coaching staff, a fast-paced offense, rock-solid defense, and a new look. Fry changed the uniforms to a style similar to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he introduced the Tigerhawk that is now one of the most recognizable logos in college sports. One reason for the popularity was Fry’s success on the field and the exposure it generated. Fifty-three games in his final six seasons were televised.
Born in Eastland, Texas, Fry’s family moved to Odessa when he was 8-years old. He quarterbacked Odessa High School to a state title in 1946. He was also a quarterback at Baylor (1947-50), and earned a degree in psychology in 1951.
Known as a master psychologist and motivator, Fry was named to the Baylor Wall of Honor in 2003. He went on to be a player-coach with the Quantico Marines, and reached the rank of captain. He was a head coach in his hometown of Odessa from 1956-1959, then was a college assistant at Baylor (1960) and Arkansas (1961) before becoming the head coach at SMU. During his time there (1962-1972), Fry was best known for signing Jerry LeVias, who became the first African-American football player in the Southwest Conference. Fry was a four-time SWC Coach of the Year.
He took over as football coach and director of athletics at North Texas in 1973, and was there until Elliott hired him as Iowa’s 25th football coach in December, 1978.
Fry had his team take the field together in what has become known as the Swarm, a unified tradition that continues today. He turned the Hawkeyes into a Big Ten contender with the help of a coaching staff that included legendary defensive coordinator Bill Brashier and assistant Carl Jackson, and future Division I head coaches Bill Snyder (Kansas State), Ferentz (Iowa), Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin), Dan McCarney (Iowa State, North Texas), Don Patterson (Western Illinois), and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma).
Eighteen of Fry’s former assistants or players became college football head coaches, forming what is reportedly the largest coaching tree in the history of college football. Another former player, Bo Porter, became a major league baseball manager with the Houston Astros.
Fry coached eight consensus All-Americans at Iowa — Andre Tippett (1981), Reggie Roby (1981), Station (1984, 1985), Long (1985), Marv Cook (1988), LeRoy Smith (1991), Tim Dwight (1997), and Jared DeVries (1998). He also had 62 different players earn first-team All-Big Ten laurels during their careers.
Fry’s resume includes a long list of other prestigious awards. They include the Amos Alonzo Stagg Lifetime Achievement Award (1996), the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame (2004), the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame (2010), the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame (2011), and the American Heart Association Paul Bear Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award (2012). He also was awarded the Robert R. Neyland Memorial Trophy, the Johnny Vaught Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Grant Teaff Lifetime Achievement Award.
Fry was the father of four sons — Randy, Zach, Kelly and Adrian — and a daughter, Robin. Randy, Zach and Kelly played for him at North Texas. His wife, Shirley, has two children, Bryan and Jayme.