IOWA CITY, Iowa – We were reminded of Hayden Fry’s impact again on Tuesday when the Associated Press released its top 100 college football programs.
Iowa came in at No. 25, which I thought was incredible, considering how miserable the program was throughout the entire 1970s and for most of the 1940s and 1960s.
The AP rankings were based on 1,103 polls over 80 years. The scoring system also awarded bonus points for No. 1 rankings (which Iowa has held seven times) and national championships.
Ohio State was ranked first overall, followed Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Alabama and Southern California.
Current Big Ten Conference programs hold down seven spots in the Top 25, with Ohio State, Nebraska (sixth), Michigan (seventh), Penn State (12th), Michigan State (19th), Wisconsin (24th) and Iowa (25th).
Iowa cracked the top-25 despite never being ranked during the 1970s and despite having 19 consecutive non-winning seasons from 1962 to 1980.
Iowa had a three-year stretch from 1965-67 where it compiled a 4-25-1 record and was held scoreless in nine of the 30 games.
The long-overdue resurgence under Fry, who now lives in Mesquite, Nev., changed the course of history for Iowa football. It healed old wounds and re-energized the fans.
Kirk Ferentz had to rebuild the program when he succeeded Fry in 1999, but Ferentz didn’t have to change the culture.
He didn’t have to erase two decades of hopelessness and futility, as Fry did.
Ferentz also didn’t have to save his athletic director’s job in addition to rebuilding the football program.
And he didn’t have to break free from the stranglehold of dominance by Ohio State and Michigan that lasted throughout the 1960 and 1970s, causing the Big Ten to be called the Big Two and Little Eight in football.
I’m old enough to remember that many had started to believe in the mid-1970s that losing was just an unavoidable fact of life for the Iowa football team. Some fans had become desensitized to the losing to where they almost accepted it.
That’s about as low and as scary as it gets.
Bump Elliott was nearing the end of his first decade as the Iowa Athletics Director when he hired Fry away from North Texas State in Dec. 1978.
It’s no secret that Elliott’s job was on the line when he hired Fry. Elliott’s two previous hires for football – Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings – both had been failures and the pressure was mounting.
Elliott acknowledged the circumstances when he hired Fry, telling the UI Athletics Board that Fry would be the last coach he hired at Iowa.
Fry wrote in his autobiography, “Hayden Fry, A High Porch Picnic” that he was puzzled after being told what Elliott said to the board. He then asked Elliott for an explanation.
“Simple,” Elliott said. “I don’t think they’ll give me another chance to hire another coach. So if you don’t make it, neither will I.”
How is that for pressure?
That same pressure now helps to fuel Fry’s legend because he didn’t just rebuild a football program, he rebuilt careers at Iowa.
Fry also helped to launch careers while at Iowa, and now at the age of 87, he has one the greatest coaching trees in the history of college football with branches named after Ferentz, Bill Snyder, Bret Bielema, Bob Stoops and Dan McCarney among others.
Imagine the stress that was removed from Elliott’s life after Fry had ended the misery in football. Elliott is now considered a legend in his own right, arguably the greatest athletic director in the history of the Iowa program.
Upon seeing that the AP had Iowa ranked at No. 25, I immediately thought of Fry and how Iowa football could be divided into two eras – before and after Fry; or BF and AF.
We’re getting ready to honor Fry’s success at the annual FryFest event on Sept. 2 in Coralville. It has been nearly four decades since he accepted Elliott’s challenge to do what many thought was impossible.
The AP poll dates back 80 years to 1936. That’s almost half before and half after Fry being hired at Iowa.
Nothing I wrote in this column about Fry is new, but his rags-to-riches story is always worth repeating.
Iowa fans can proudly say that they support a top-25 program, because according to the AP polls, they do.
Fry was hardly a solo act because the Hawkeyes wouldn’t have cracked the top-25 without Ferentz’s success and without Forest Evashevski’s dominance in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Fry was the marquee act, though, because he did what was considered impossible under the toughest of circumstances. He made Iowa relevant again.
IOWA CITY, Iowa –
1. Ohio State
3. Notre Dame
5. Southern California
9. Florida State
12. Penn State
13. Miami (Fl.)
18. Texas A&M
19. Michigan State