There is just enough of the country bumpkin in Hayden Fry to keep the world wondering. It's difficult to tell where the corn pone ends and the manipulation begins.
He favors cowboy boots, tools around in a four-wheel drive vehicle and spouts an endless stream of Texas colloquialisms. He uses the term "sodey pop" to mean anything from a carbonated beverage to cocaine.
He's funny, slick, dictatorial, savvy and at 57, hip enough to express a desire to keep growing and changing, which probably sounds too much like California for some folks in his sphere of influence.
He has some strong liberal convictions. He is proud of having been the first coach in the Southwest Conference to award a scholarship to a black athlete. He is apprehensive about the use of drug testing to clean up college athletics, fearing that an individual could be smeared through a breach of confidentiality.
At heart, though, he seems more the traditional football conservative. Fry, who leads Iowa against San Diego State in the Holiday Bow next Tuesday, exercises nearly total control over every aspect of his players' lives, from where they live and eat, to what they wear and how they cut their hair. He remains the final arbiter.
He teaches a course that isn't listed in the university curriculum. It deals with how to win. He draws upon the lives of great statesmen, from Washington to Churchill.
Sample: Abe Lincoln lost 16 elections before becoming president.
Moral: Hang in there through the tough times. Games aren't decided until the fourth quarter.
Fry said he isn't sure of the smartest thing he does, but he lists a couple of possibilities. After his private course on winning, he allows players to set their own rules governing the conduct of their lives. Nine of 10 times, the players are harder on themselves than he would be, Fry said.
"A happy player plays harder," he said. "That's one of the secrets of turning a dilapidated program into a winner. I involve the players. It's like if you come in and tell your kid to empty the trash while he's watching his favorite TV show. He'll do it if you order him, but if you say it's OK to wait until the show is over, he'll respect you and be happier. It's simple, really. I've always preferred a simple, horse sense approach."
It sounds a lot like brainwashing. When a reporter used that word, Fry leaned forward in his director's chair, smiled thinly, and said in his most winsome drawl, "Well, I prefer to think of it as education."
Fry can be charming and open, not afraid to make himself sound a bit silly, or at least human. He admitted he didn't even know where the University of Iowa was when he was offered the job over the phone in 1979. He almost turned it down because the schedule scared him, with a string of opening games that included the likes of Penn State and Nebraska.
He seems psychologically attracted to the idea of being the underdog. He has taken three football programs that were losers--North Texas State, SMU and Iowa--and transformed them into winners. He said he has never stayed anywhere long enough to truly enough the fruits of success, and he declined to promise he would remain at Iowa for the rest of his career.
He talks of his desire to make as much money as he can, but dodged a question of how much it would take to make him happy, or whether he thinks coaches such as Don Shula and Bill Walsh are overpaid at about $1 million a year.
He is reluctant to divulge the names of injured players or permit reporters to watch his practices. He thinks such matters will wind up the subject of coffee talk and hurt his chances of winning.
Though he limits access to his players, he loves to sit and chat, bringing smiles with his down-home phrases and raised eyebrows with an insightful remark. He leads you into laughing with him, but defies you to laugh at him.
Something of an outdoorsman, he describes his fondness for hunting. "I like the tracking and working downwind and getting him in my sights and knowing I could squeeze off a shot," he said. Quickly, he added he doesn't shoot wildlife anymore.
Near the projector in his spacious office there's an aquarium. Asked about the identify of the fish,--Fry said he didn't know, but launched into a recruiting tale about some kid up in Minnesota who showed him fingers that had been nibbled by pet piranha.
Recruiting does not bother Fry. He said he doesn't object to traveling or visiting with parents to help persuade them to the attractions of football in Iowa City.
If there is one topic that seems to truly engage him, it is race relations.
"I was raised poor (in Odessa, Tex.)," he said. "Some of my friends were black, and I remember how they had to sit in the back of the bus or in the balcony when we went to movies. They were clean, good, decent people, and I made a pledge to myself to help if I ever got the chance. I'm prouder of getting a scholarship for Jerry Levias (the first black in the Southwest Conference) than of any game I ever won."
Although the state of Iowa is only 2% black, Fry said there is no problem with recruiting black athletes. He told the story of a recruiting a black player from New Jersey and asking him why he decided to enroll at Iowa.
"I sat him down here in my office, and he told me how, after he visited with some players and saw our facilities, he slipped off downtown for a look around," Fry said. " 'Coach,' he said to me, 'I went in two or three stores, and I never was watched.' He couldn't believe it. Back in New Jersey, they would have been suspicious of a black his age, fearing he might try to steal some clothing or something. He was real impressed with that."
That story reflects Fry's own attraction to Iowa.
"We may be isolated," he said, "but we have a lot of freedom and clean air, and there's no Mafia. . . . I think we've brought a little ray of success to Iowa. Our program is wholesome and pure, and the people can identify with it."