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Catch up with Iowa legend Hayden Fry as he turns 84

[ 0 ] February 28, 2013 |

Hayden Fry’s doctor has told him that the best medicine for dealing with cancer is to get a small pet, and to keep his sense of humor.

Fry has taken both to heart.

The University of Iowa football coaching legend, who turns 84 today, has lived with wife, Shirley, along a golf course in the quiet Nevada town of Mesquite for the past 14 years. These days, it’s his Chihuahua who runs the household, said Fry, who in the face of ongoing health battles, hasn’t let slide the Texas-sized wit that endeared him to colleagues, players and fans in his two decades in Iowa City.

“I do two things every morning when I wake up and I realize I’m still on the right side of the grass,” said Fry, who retired in 1998 after leading the Hawkeyes to 14 bowl games in 20 years, including three Rose Bowls. “Number one, I thank the good Lord. Number two, I reach over and chug-a-lug a quart of WD-40.”

In a phone interview with the Press-Citizen this week, Fry opened up about living with cancer — something he rarely discusses — and looked back on the legacy he left at Iowa and with the greater college football world.

In between, he shared of few of his favorite stories, from his role in the Ford Mustang getting its name, to the time Willie Nelson shook him down for a paycheck, to swiping Bo Schembechler’s chewing gum.

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What are you enjoying most about retirement?

HF: I don’t enjoy retirement as much as I did coaching, I’ll put it that way. I had a wonderful career in coaching high school, the Marine Corps, college and a lot of all-star games, Hula Bowls, East-West Games, Japan Bowls. The associations with the players and great coaches I put together made life really enjoyable. I had to retire in 1998 following the season because I had cancer. I’ve had to battle cancer now for about 14 years, so there’s no comparison with my retirement being enjoyable as it was with all the great teams that I had.

How is the cancer battle going?

HF: I’ve had a total of nine operations. I can tell you what the doctor told me. After an operation I said, ‘What do you think, doc?’ He got this stern look on his face, walked over to me, put his hands on my shoulders and I’m thinking, ‘Uh oh, here it comes.’

He said, ‘Do you really want to know?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘Well I’ll tell you one thing: You’re too ornery to die.’ (Laughing.)

I said, ‘That’s what I wanted to hear.’

You coached after learning you had cancer that last season. Did anybody around the program know you were fighting cancer?

HF: No, nobody knew. In fact they were slipping me up the back way at the University of Iowa Hospital for radiation treatments. My defensive coordinator, Bobby Elliott, was coming through the front door for chemotherapy. I was always afraid I was going to run into him, but this was five, five-thirty in the morning. But nobody ever knew except my wife and doctor.

So Bobby Elliott didn’t even know?

HF: No, he never knew. And I never told anybody, even when I retired, I never mentioned to anybody that I had cancer.

Do folks know now that you were fighting cancer that last season?

HF: No, I don’t talk about it publicly. And you’re the first person I’ve told about all these operations. I’ve got a bladder cancer specialist right there at the University of Iowa Hospital — Doctor O’Donnell, who’s just wonderful. I go to Phoenix for treatments in the winter to keep from having to come back in the snow and the ice. I tell you I’ve been out here for 14 years after living in Iowa for 20, or 22, or however long I was there. And my rump hasn’t thawed out yet. (Laughing.)

… It started out as prostate cancer. And they think that the radiation from the prostrate cancer is what caused the bladder cancer, which keeps growing tumors. So I’ve been very fortunate to be here — I’ll going to be 84 years old here in a few days. … You know how you interpret that with 47 years of coaching and the Marine Corps? I’ve been shot at and hit a lot of times. (Laughing.) You can see I have to work on my sense of humor.

Have have you been fighting cancer continuously?

HF: I went five or six years after my first operation just fine. I had everything you can imagine done. I had radiation, the seed implant, the hormone treatment. They did so much they named the cancer research center after me there at the University of Iowa Hospital.

But anyway, after five or six years, the bladder cancer came, and I just keep having these operations. Now I’m getting injections, so they’re real hopeful these injections — I have to take them over a two-year period — will help kill the cancer cells. So I don’t know yet whether it’s going to work or not, but I’ve been taking them now for the past six or seven months.

When did you first learn you had cancer? Was it before your final season or during the season?

HF: It was before because I hadn’t had a physical — when you work at Iowa, you work around the clock — and I hadn’t had a physical since I don’t know when. I had a physical and my doctor told me I better get a PSA, and they gave me a PSA. I had a PSA of 65, and I said, ‘Sixty-five? I’m not up on medical terminology. What does that mean, doctor?’ He said, ‘Amazing, astronomical.’

That’s when I found out about it, and as soon as the season was over with, as soon as I resigned, I had my first operation.

… After nine operations, it’s pretty hard to keep a secret. My ex-players are always calling and asking how I’m doing and so forth. I don’t want to lie to them, but I’ve had a tough time.

If you had not learned you had cancer, would you have continued coaching?

HF: Definitely. I loved coaching. I had done that my whole life. I don’t know if I’d still be coaching at this time or not — that was 14 years ago.

Do you still watch the Hawkeyes on Saturdays in the fall?

HF: Oh yeah, I watch everything I can — basketball, football, I stay in touch with the coaches. It’s a pretty select family.

Why did you choose to retire in Nevada rather than your home state of Texas?

HF: Well, there was a gentleman by the name of Cy Redd. He was an engineer and he lived right there on the Iowa-Illinois border. He serviced all the coin-operated machines on university campuses in the Midwest. He later developed the “one-armed bandit” that you can play blackjack and poker on. It became quite famous. He’d been following Iowa football for years and years. And when I took the job they hadn’t had a winning season in 17 years, and my third year we won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl.

So he called me and introduced himself, told me he adopted me, that he loved the Hawkeyes and since they were winning, he wanted to do something about it. He said he and Arnold Palmer and Merlin Olsen were going to build a couple of golf courses in Nevada and they wanted me to be an honorary founder. He said that I would really enjoy it as an escape, I could build a place on the golf course. … I could buy some property or I could make some money because they were going to build a lot of homes.

To make a long story short, after the season — this was about 1991, I guess — my wife and I flew out here and we just fell in love with the little town of Mesquite. It’s only 800 people, one casino and one restaurant. But the weather was great; the snow doesn’t get on the ground, it gets on the mountains around it. And it’s 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas and about 35 miles from Utah.

But anyway, when we came out here, we just fell in love with it, so I built a condo out here. And then when I retired in ’98 we decided to move out here … Beautiful weather, no more snowstorms and all that. So that’s what I did.

Bless his heart, he died here a few years ago. He was 86 years old. But he was a great guy.

And of course I got to associate with Arnold Palmer, Merlin Olsen and people like that. They were wonderful people. Arnie doesn’t come out here anymore. We had him under contract come out three times a year and make suggestions on how to improve the two golf courses. He loves to fly, and he flew his jet in and our airport is on top of the mountain. And he got his plane stopped about 200 feet from the end of the runway, where there’s about a 250, 300-foot drop.

He got off the plane, but didn’t greet us at all. (Laughing.) He just looked and says, ‘Last damn time I’m coming to Mesquite.’ And he hasn’t been back.

Is the guest bathroom in your house painted pink?

HF: (Laughing.) No, because I didn’t want to psyche them out.

Do you have any good stories about Kirk Ferentz from his time coaching under you in the ’80s?

HF: I know quite a few good stories, but I don’t want to tell them publicly. (Laughing). He’s a wonderful coach, a wonderful friend.

About the only story I can share with you is that I’d interviewed quite a few coaches for the offensive line job. He was recommended by Jimmy Johnson — he’d been on the team at Arkansas when I coached at Arkansas. I was the offensive coordinator. Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones, who owns the Cowboys and so forth, they were roommates. And the two grad assistants were Barry Switzer and Fred Akers. It was just a great staff under coach Frank Broyles. I had the difficult job of figuring out how to get the ball to a guy by the name of Lance Alworth, who’s one of the all-time greatest athletes who ever lived.

Anyway, Jimmy had recommended Kirk Ferentz as the offensive line coach. Jimmy had coached at Pittsburgh and Kirk had been a grad assistant. I thought he was the line coach. Anyway, I had interviewed some ex-NFL coaches and some other college coaches for the job. And I invited Kirk down, he came down and I interviewed him there at the University of Iowa.

He was by far the most — I don’t know how to put it into words — he was better organized than any of the other coaches. I put him at the blackboard to go over blocking schemes, and he just did a great job of communicating. He kept it simple, yet he was fundamentally sound.

I think at the time he told me he was 28 when he actually was 25, I found out later. And I also found out he was a grad assistant instead of the line coach. I was so impressed with him that I offered him the job, and he came. Of course right off the bat we win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl.

Where does breaking the color barrier by recruiting the first black player to the Southwest Conference (Jerry LeVias at Southern Methodist University in 1965) rank among your accomplishments?

HF: Right at the top. Right at the top because it opened the door to all the other fine black players in that part of the world to at least have a choice of where to go to school. Before I gave Jerry LeVias a scholarship, youngsters in that part of the world had to go to the Big Ten, UCLA, USC — some of those schools they had integrated black players. Jerry was first one.

People ask me, why did I do it? Well, it’s a very simple answer: It was the right thing to do. I had grown up with the black kids and Hispanics and lived on what they called the wrong side of the tracks when I was a youngster growing up in the little oil field town of Odessa, Texas. They were by far the best athletes. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go to our school and help us win football games.

So I made a commitment when I was about, I don’t know, ninth or tenth grade in high school, I made a commitment that if I ever got into a position where I could help them, I was going to do it. So I kept that commitment, and it’s the greatest thing in football I ever did.

SMU hadn’t fired a shot since Don Meredith played at SMU, and I became head coach there when I was 31 years old and I gave Jerry LeVias a scholarship. I had turned down the job at SMU because they wouldn’t let me recruit a black player.

We’re in pregame warmups, and I’m offensive coordinator at Arkansas and we’re going to play Alabama — coach Bear Bryant, Lee Roy Jordan and that crew — in the Sugar Bowl. It’s an amazing story. Pregame warmup at the Sugar Bowl, and this maintenance guy runs up to me and says, ‘Coach Fry, you have an emergency call. There’s a telephone right here underneath the stands if you’d like to use it.’ He didn’t even know who it was from; evidently they just told him it was an emergency. I got a couple of my grad assistants to come over and take over the drills, and I went under the stands and got on the phone.

This gentleman on the other end of the line said, ‘Coach Fry, my name is Lamar Hunt, I’m representing SMU. I know that they’ve offered you the head job at SMU and you turned it down because they wouldn’t let you recruit a black player.’ He said, ‘The 19 bishops of the Methodist Church have changed their mind. You can bring in one black player. Are you still interested in the job?’

I said, ‘Of course.’

And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to fly my plane down and pick you up as soon as the game’s over with because they want to meet you tonight. Most of them have to leave and they’d like to meet you.’ And I said. ‘Sure.’

Make a long story short, I didn’t even read the contract. I never read a contract in my life in coaching. I had the theory that if you did a good job, they’d take care of you. If you did a bad job, they’d fire you. Well I took the job, and I got my first check. I was making $13,200 at Arkansas, and I got my first check at SMU and I looked at it and said, ‘My gosh, this is not as much as I was making at Arkansas.’ I’d taken the job and I was making $13,000.

Four years later, we won the Southwest Conference, beat Texas, Arkansas and a bunch of real outstanding teams in the nation. My athletic director Matty Bell retired, I became A.D., won the Southwest Conference championship, and they raised my salary from $13,000 to $15,000. (Laughing.)

How influential was former athletics director Bump Elliott in getting you to take the job at Iowa?

HF: He was the main reason I took the job at Iowa. Plus the fact that I had four consecutive winning teams after I took over at North Texas. They hadn’t had a winning season in 12 to 14 years.

My first year we were co-champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. And then I had teams that were 10-1, 9-2, 8-3 and 7-4 that didn’t get a bowl bid. So I called the NCAA and said, ‘What’s going on?’ Back in those days, they didn’t have a rule that if you won seven games, or whatever it is today, six games, you were eligible for a bowl game. We had these great teams — we’d even upset Tennessee, who was No. 5 in the nation.

But anyway, I called the NCAA — it’s kind of a cute story. I said, ‘What’s going on? I’m having these teams winning and so forth and we don’t get a bowl bid?’

And they started laughing. I asked the gentleman on the phone, ‘What are you laughing about?’

He said, ‘Obviously, nobody wants to play you.’ That’s the other reason I went to Iowa.

Bump Elliott, I had followed his career. I had taken a rinky-dink team (at SMU) to Michigan when he was the head coach at Michigan and we had a great game. He had a real good ball club. We had several chances to win the game and didn’t

It was a real good ballgame. After the game I had crawled up on the training room table and I’m getting pretty tough with my football team because we’d blown a chance to win it. One of my assistant coaches kept coming over and pulling on my trousers, saying, ‘Hey, Coach Fry, there’s some gentlemen with some suits and ties and they want to see you.’ I said, ‘’Get out of here.’

About the third time, I think it was my doctor or my team physician, he came over and said, ‘Coach, I think you’d better come over and see these guys.’ So I crawled down off the table and went to the door and there’s about six or seven guys there in suits and ties.

The one standing next to the door introduced himself. He said, ‘Coach Fry, my name’s Lee Iacocca.’ He said, ‘I’m the general manager of Ford Motor Company.’ He said, ‘I’ve got something real important to tell you.’ He said, ‘Do you mind if I talk to the team when I’m telling you this story?’

I said, ‘Come on in.’ That rascal, he comes into the training into the training room with all his buddies. He said, ‘By the way, these are my engineers at Ford Motor Company.’

He crawls up on the training table and starts his speech. He said, ‘You SMU Mustangs, we want you to know we ’made a big decision in the stands today.’ He said, ‘We’ve got a brand new sports car and we’ve got four or five animal names that we’re considering naming it. It’s lightning fast just like the SMU Mustangs. And it’s got great acceleration like the Mustangs.’

He went on telling all of these things. He said, ‘We’ve decided to name our new sports car the Mustang.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Coach Fry, you’ll get the first one off the assembly line.’ He said, ‘Of course I’ll have to charge you a buck to stay square with Uncle Sam.’

A month and a half later, I get the first Mustang off the assembly line. They had painted it red and blue — our colors. (laughing).

The reason I’m telling you this story is that here I lost the ballgame and Bump Elliott won it, and he didn’t get anything and I got the first Mustang.

What happened to the Mustang?

I gave it to relatives after about 3,000 miles. I sure wish I had it because you can’t believe how many calls I get every year from automobile dealers trying to tell me how much that thing’s worth today, and I don’t even know where it is. (Laughing.)

If you could pick the musical entertainment for Fry Fest (Coralville’s annual festival named after the coach), what would it be?

HF: No question I’d get Willie Nelson. … Willie and I became real good friends. He did a benefit show for me at North Texas. After the big show, we had a reception out on the ranch, and a lot of my coaching staff, the (school) president and so forth, different people, were there.

Willie walks up to me and says, ‘Aren’t you the coach?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Who’s got my damn check’” And I said, ‘The athletic director.’ And he said, ‘Where is that S.O.B?’ And I said, ‘Well I’m the athletic director, too.’ And he said, ‘Well give me my damn check.’

I had it made out, at that time … back in the ’70s, I can’t remember the exact year, the check was for 40 thousand bucks. And I handed it to him.

He said, ‘You’ve got a pen?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Give it to me.’ I gave it to him. He endorsed it right back to the North Texas Athletic Department and handed it to me, winked at me, said ‘enjoy’ and walked away.

That’s back when he had the reputation that he was smoking pot and all those bad things about him. And here he was, did the show for zip and handed me back the check. He’s a great musician, a great person and that’s who’d I’d recommend. We tried to get him one year, for the Fry Fest, but his schedule was filled.

What team was the greatest you ever coached against while at Iowa?

HF: Some of the coaches who didn’t have the win-loss records or the reputation probably did as good a job as anybody because they were underdogs. As a football coach I found out — of course I got my masters in psychology — I found out the most difficult preparation for a football team is when you’re playing a team you’re ranked to beat. Because the youngsters at that age — 18, 19, 20, 21 years of age — they think when they’re favored, all they have to do when they’re favored is walk on the field and the other team will roll over and play dead. And it’s just the opposite. That other team is motivated because they are underdogs.

That’s one of the reasons the three colleges I took over as a head coach became very successful — because they were hungry. They wanted to win. They had their tail kicked and told they were losers. And that’s a great motivation to establish a winning attitude. And that’s the reason I turned three programs around as a head coach in college and also won a championship in the Marine Corps, is because when people look down their nose at you, if you use the right psychology, you can get the kids to play over their heads and become like a family. They’re real close, they really enjoy playing football and they become tough. And I use the Marine Corps discipline.

Normally you would say that Bo Schembechler or Joe Paterno or someone like that were the greatest coaches. Well they were great coaches, but some of those unheralded coaches at programs that didn’t have the personnel or the coaching staff or the money to pay the coaches and so forth were just as good as coaches, but they never got the recognition.

Better coach: Mustached Hayden Fry, or non-mustached Hayden Fry?

HF: You know what? I’ve developed the most remarkable memory in the world: I can remember every game we won, but I can’t remember one we lost. (Laughs.) So I can’t remember which games I had the mustache and which ones I didn’t.

You were known for your trick plays; did you have a favorite “exotic?”

HF: Yeah, the ones that worked. (Laughs.) You have to have those to keep the interest, and if the timing’s right, you can execute them. I did so many crazy things.

Like I say, all the hay was in the barn after your Friday workout, so in pregame warm-ups I pulled a lot of tricks the news media didn’t even know about. One year (1985) we’re ranked No. 1 in the nation, and we’re playing Michigan, and they’re ranked No. 2.

In pregame warm-up, I had my centers and guards change positions. So the guards are snapping the ball deep to the punters, bouncing them on the ground, over their heads, the whole thing. Bo Schembechler sees that, he comes down and is standing there watching that. And I’m standing over to the side trying to keep a straight face.

Finally he says, ‘Fry, you’re not going to let that guy snap during the game, are you?’

I didn’t even look at him. I just said, ‘Coach Schembechler, we don’t plan on punting tonight.’ And I walked off.

He chased me down the field, offering me a piece of his sugarless gum — he’d been having some health problems. And I grabbed the whole package and took off. (Laughs.) And I kept that package of gum on my desk all the time I was at Iowa to remind me of how hard you have to prepare to play a team like Michigan.

Do you have a favorite memory of your time in Iowa City?

HF: Yeah, I guess when I took the job. I wasn’t too happy when I left because I had cancer my last season. Nobody knew about it. I was able to keep it a secret, but I had so many wonderful times there and so many wonderful coaches.

I don’t know how many of them coached for me at Iowa, I never did take a count. But I’ve had 22 assistants become head coaches in college or the NFL. Quite a few of them came from Iowa, some of them from SMU and some of them from when I was at North Texas. Those are things I take great pride in — turning three losing programs into winners and having all those assistant coaches become head coaches.

One of the best coaches I ever had turned down three head jobs. He was my defensive coordinator for 23 years counting North Texas and Iowa. Coach Bill Brashier and his wife, Ann, still live in Iowa City. He turned down three jobs because he loved being the defensive coordinator at Iowa.

One of the big topics in football these days is concussions. Are you at all worried about the future of the sport given these issues?

HF: That’s hard to predict. It’s a contact sport; it always has been and always will be. They just have to keep improving on the rules and on the equipment, which they’ve done. Back when I played ball, there wasn’t any such thing as the face mask and you didn’t wear anything to protect your teeth.

They’ve made a lot of progress and so forth, but obviously the players are bigger and stronger today than they used to be. The impact is greater. There’s going to be more and more injuries, and it really worries me because I hate to see anyone hurt. Football is supposed to be a fun game, a game to be enjoyed, and I hate to see anyone get hurt. Obviously when you tackle someone or are running with the ball and hit someone or when you block someone, it’s pretty difficult to keep your head from being involved. That’s when you get the concussions and the head injuries. It’s a dangerous game, no question about it.

One of the big topics these days around Iowa is the news that wrestling may be cut as an Olympic sport? What are your thoughts on that given the time you spent in Iowa City?

HF: I think that’s one of the worst decisions I’ve ever heard of. It’s a clean sport. It’s something that Iowa has been extremely successful at — coach Dan Gable and the coaches following him have done a wonderful job. Kids grow up in Iowa wanting to be wrestlers. I’d hate to see them take it away from the Olympic games. It’s a great sport.

Were you afraid of coach Gable?

HF: (Laughs.) Other than on the wrestling mat, he was one of the nicest guys in the world. And since I didn’t have to wrestle him, we got along fine. He’s one of my heroes.

Do you have a game at Iowa that was the most memorable?

HF: Gosh, there’s so many. We had so many close games and games that if we won we’d go to a bowl game or win the Big Ten. When you pull it off, that leaves a great, great memory, and of the players who contributed to winning. I just couldn’t pick one game because there were so many great games in 20 years when I was there. They hadn’t had a winning season in 17 years when I went there, and my third year we won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl. We had so many great games and great bowl games.

I know the worst thing that ever happened to me was going to a couple of Rose Bowl games and we didn’t have indoor workout facilities and working out in the ice and snow and having poor practices. One year we went out there two weeks early and we averaged gaining nine pounds per man because we had a buffet service at the hotel we stayed at. That was a bad experience — it was great to be champions of the Big Ten, but we weren’t prepared.

Does it still gnaw at you, those Rose Bowls, and to think what might have been?

HF: Oh yeah. But I was honored — they put me in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame a few years back. I got to visit with a lot of people, they’re great people out there. We just lost to better teams, but we had real good teams. When you win the Big Ten, you have to have a good football team.

You don’t have to look far in Iowa to see your legacy here, with Hayden Fry Way in Coralville named after you. There are even parents naming their kids after you. What do you make of that?

HF: In fact a couple of years ago, they had a lot of those people come in that named some of their children after me. They did a survey — there were 42 boys named Hayden, 27 girls named Hayden and an unknown number of dogs and cats. (Laughing.)

What would you hope the legacy is that you’ve left at the University of Iowa?

HF: Well the first thing I think of is I turned a loser into a winner, me and my coaching staff. And the loyal fans — we just had unbelievable support. When I first went there, if we’d even make a first down, everybody at Kinnick Stadium would stand up and applaud. And I’m standing on the sideline thinking, ‘I wonder what they’d do if we scored a touchdown?’

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