Six years ago, a tall Texan came riding out of the Southwest promising to stampede the Iowa Hawkeyes to the top of the Big Ten Conference.
Even the most loyal Iowa fans, however, were less than optimistic that this football coach would be any more successful than previous coaches in rounding up victories.
Today, Hayden Fry rules the range, at least between Council Bluffs and Davenport. He has lived up to his promises and beefed up the program to a point where it is in the conference’s elite.
Fry, 56, was successful where coaches like Bob Cummings and Frank Lauterbur failed. The reason? Even Fry isn’t 100% sure.
“When I came here, there was a nucleus to build. Two years after I came, we went to the Rose Bowl with players that were already here that I didn’t recruit,” recalls Fry.
But what Fry may not have brought instantly in terms of players he brought with style and substance. A former assistant at Baylor and Arkansas, he learned a tough, disciplined style of football while serving as head coach at SMU for seven years, then six at North Texas State.
He marched his players out to the field before games in short, grunting steps. He preached a “no prisoners taken” attitude in practice.
While he was telling fans and the media that poor Iowa had a losing tradition for 20 years and wouldn’t turn things around overnight, he kept telling his players they could be winners in a conference that was then known as the Big two (Ohio State and Michigan) and little eight. And Iowa was near the bottom of the eight.
Gradually, he was able to play competitively, going from 9-13 in his first two years to 8-4 in 1981. It was Iowa’s first winning season in two decades and fans finally were able to stop calling for Forest Evashevski’s return to Iowa football.
It was Evashevski who led Iowa to back-to-back Rose Bowl wins in the late 1950s. He had built an institution, a legend, that other coaches could not rebuild. Until Fry.
“The Iowa fans, well I tell you something partner, there isn’t anything like them in the whole world,” Fry says. “When we go on the road, they are there. When we go to a bowl game, literally the entire state goes.”
Bowl games? Iowa? After Evashevski, the two never were spoken in the same breath until Fry came riding in from Texas.
Since 1981, his clubs have gone to four straight bowl games. The Hawkeyes’ 55-17 win over Texas in the Freedom Bowl last winter was the Big Ten’s only post-season win in six games.
This year, Fry figures to have his best-ever Iowa club. Not only are they talking about a return trip to Pasadena in Iowa City, but even the lofty goals of a national championship can be heard along the Coralville strip.
“We’ve got some holes to fill and we’ve lost some good players,” said Fry, now 42-28-1 at Iowa. “We lost Owen Gill to the Seattle Seahawks and that’s going to be a problem for us to fill.”
But few coaches have much sympathy for Fry’s plight. He does return Chuck Long, an outstanding quarterback, who decided to stay with Fry even though the signal-caller was eligible for the pros.
“If Chuck Long had gone to the pros, we’d be talking about him the way we were talking about Doug Flutie,” says Michigan State coach George Perles, a former assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, teams have had talented players before but not won regularly. Fry has clearly learned the secret of transforming talent into victories.