By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – We all knew this sad day would come, probably sooner than later.
We knew that Hayden Fry finally would succumb to time because that was the one thing he couldn’t defeat or rebuild.
We knew that Fry would pass from living legend to legend, but that still doesn’t make his death any easier.
Life just feels emptier without Hayden Fry, who died on Tuesday in his home state of Texas at the age of 90.
I say that as both a journalist who had the privilege of covering Fry for eight seasons, and as a person whose family was touched by Fry’s love and respect for his players.
Fry was so much more than just a head football coach, and I know that from first-hand experience.
In addition to breaking the color barrier in the Southwest Conference during the volatile 1960s, Fry also rebuilt three college football programs during his career, which spanned five decades.
His success at Southern Methodist University and at North Texas State made Fry a highly respected head coach, but his success at Iowa made him a legend.
Fry did what many thought was impossible by ending nearly two decades of misery for the Iowa football program, which had become a laughingstock in the Big Ten in the 1970s.
Nobody was laughing after Fry took over, though, unless it was in response to one of his many one-liners or his colorful catch phrases such as "scratch where it itches," which Fry used to described his approach to coaching.
Fry retired after the 1998 season, and was battling cancer at the time, although, that had been kept private.
I remember standing near him on the sideline in the Metrodome as Minnesota put the finishing touches on a 49-7 beat down in the Fry's last game as head coach. He looked tired and weak, but only a select few knew that he was battling cancer.
It was a sad ending to a legendary career, but the sting from that loss would soon fade as Fry continued to beat cancer during more than two decades of retirement, much of it living near a golf course in Mesquite, Nev.
Fry's legend is on display in the Iowa City area with a street named after him, with a statute on display, and with the annual season kickoff event, FryFest, held in his honor.
Nobody enjoyed having a good time or telling a joke more than Hayden Fry did.
But when it was time to be serious, nobody was more serious than Hayden Fry.
Of course, he loved winning, but he loved turning losers into winners even more.
Fry noticed right away after taking over at Iowa that the players were beyond just being frustrated about losing. They were angry and fed up with losing, especially the players on defense.
Fry fed that anger during the early years, using some of what he had learned as a psychology major, and as a Marine, to inspire his players.
By year three, Iowa was in the Rose Bowl and Fry was well on his way to becoming a living legend, and one of the most popular and powerful persons in state history.
He created and marketed the tiger hawk logo.
He brought the stand-up tight end to the Big Ten and broke the stranglehold that Michigan and Ohio State both had on the conference during the 1970s.
He led Iowa to three Big Ten titles and to three Rose Bowl appearances.
Fry also built arguably the greatest coaching tree in the history of college football whose branches have produced the likes of Kirk Ferentz, Barry Alvarez, Bob Stoops, Bill Snyder, Dan McCarney and Don Patterson.
And it's probably fair to say that Fry saved Bump Elliott's job as the Iowa Athletic Director.
Elliott, who passed away last week at the age of 94, already had hired two head football coaches at Iowa who had failed, and it was widely assumed that he had one more chance to get it right.
And he sure did with Fry.
But for me, Fry’s legacy is felt more on a personal front because of something he did away from the playing field.
My older brother, Frank Harty, was a member of Bob Commings’ final recruiting class as the Iowa head coach in 1978, a class that also included an undersized defensive back from Ohio named Bob Stoops. Frank was redshirted as a true freshman in 1978, which was Commings’ final season as head coach.
Fry replaced Commings as head coach shortly after the 1978 season.
I still to this day remember my brother telling my father how different the vibe felt under Fry.
My brother respected Commings as a coach and liked him as a person. Commings was easy to like according to those who played for him.
They wanted him so badly to succeed at his alma mater, but it just didn’t happen as Commings was fired after five consecutive losing seasons.
My brother said Fry demanded respect just from his powerful presence alone. He described Fry as being sort of like John Wayne, in that you respected and admired him, but also feared him a little bit, too.
Sadly, my brother never had the chance to play linebacker for Fry, but he did have a chance to experience a side of Fry that showed how special he was as a person.
My brother had what was considered minor surgery to remove a bone chip in his knee prior to his redshirt freshman season in 1979.
But instead of it being just a routine recovery, my brother’s knee became ravaged by staph infection, ending his playing career and leaving him with a noticeable limp to this day.
He also just recently had knee replacement surgery, and has dealt with severe back pain for years because of having to compensate for his bad knee.
So yes, my brother was dealt a tough hand, but his situation could have been much worse if not for Fry’s compassion, decency and awareness.
Fry kept my brother on scholarship until he graduated in 1981, and my brother did Fry a favor by graduating from Iowa in just three years on his way to becoming an attorney.
Fry also stayed in touch with my brother throughout my brother’s time at Iowa. Fry didn’t just keep my brother on scholarship and then forget about him.
My brother spent most of the 1979 fall semester in the hospital and Fry made it a point to visit him, including one time when my brother was sleeping.
Fry instead left my brother a note, saying that he and Bill Snyder had just stopped by his room to visit. Snyder was Iowa's offensive coordinator at the time.
“Frank, coach Snyder and I came by to see you. Sorry, we couldn’t for you were sleeping so good. We didn’t want to awaken you. You are in our payers each day, Get well soon. If we can help, please call Rita.” Coach Fry and Snyder.
The Rita to whom Fry referred is long-time secretary Rita Foley, who still has that position today under Kirk Ferentz.
Fry wrote my brother several notes of encouragement and each one had a huge impact. In one note, Fry thanked my brother for helping with the weight training program after his playing days had ended.
“Frank, really proud of you. And the work you did with our players in the weight program. Thanks for being such a class person. I will always remember your courage and determination.” Sincerely, Hayden Fry.
The following note is my favorite from Fry to my brother because it’s the one in which Fry told my brother he loved him.
“Frank, I am thinking of you and the inspiration you have given to all of us. You’re a great person and I love you.” Hayden Fry
It’s amazing what one or two sentences scribbled on a piece of paper can do for a person’s outlook on life.
The notes that Fry gave my brother show that Fry was so much more than just a football coach. He was a leader, a mentor and a friend who cared deeply about his players.
His words of encouragement helped my brother get through some dark times.
My brother sent me this text message shortly after learning that Fry had passed away.
"People up here associate Hayden Fry with the resurgence of Iowa football, but I guarantee you he was thinking of breaking the color barrier with Jerry LeVias when he passed, and that's what the saints will be singing about as he marches home."
Fry knew I was Frank’s younger brother when I started covering the Iowa football team for the Iowa City Press-Citizen in 1992.
He never showed me favoritism, but was quick to forgive me after I had written a column in which I questioned whether Fry had been completely honest about the status of one of his players.
I was wrong to have questioned Fry’s integrity and he let me know it during his weekly press conference, and deservedly, so because I had crossed the line, and being young, naïve and stupid didn’t excuse that.
I’ll never forget Fry saying, “Pat, where’s Pat?” at the start of his press conference.
I had been warned that Mount Hayden might erupt at my expense so I planned accordingly by hiding in the back of the room instead of taking my usual seat near the front.
I slowly raised my hand and said something like, “back here coach,” and then Fry laid into me, saying he wouldn’t tolerate anyone questioning his integrity.
Needless to say, I was crushed after leaving the press conference because I felt that I had disappointed both Hayden and my brother, and I also wondered if Hayden would forgive me.
My answer came the next time I was in Hayden’s presence in that it was business as usual, no hard feelings and no grudge.
He never brought it up again, and I have to think that being the younger brother of one of his former players helped me in this case.
Hayden Fry was like a force of nature, who came to Iowa somewhat late in his coaching career, considering he was 50 years old when he coached his first game at Iowa.
He brought hope when there was very little, but he also brought a plan and the right people to turn hope into results.
And he stayed at Iowa despite several chances to leave.
USC reportedly wanted Fry, as did Texas at one time.
But there was something about Iowa that made Hayden Fry stay, and to me, it was the Hawkeye spirit that raced through his veins, coupled with who he was as a person, loyal and true.
Hayden and the Hawkeyes were a perfect fit and together they accomplished great things.
Hayden’s influence still is noticeable today with Kirk Ferentz now the longest-tenured coach in school history, and the longest-tenured active coach.
Because without Hayden Fry, they’re almost certainly wouldn’t have been a Kirk Ferentz at Iowa since Fry hired him.
Fry took a chance on Ferentz when Ferentz was a mostly unproven 25-year old graduate assistant, and that chance would change the course of Ferentz’s life and Hawkeye football forever.
Hayden Fry, more than anything, changed lives for the better.
He won a lot of football games, and was the ultimate competitor.
But he was even a better person as I saw up close and personal.
RIP Hayden, and thank you.