By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Hayden Fry didn’t always do the most popular thing, but he always tried to do the right thing.
That’s why he broke the color barrier during the volatile 1960s by recruiting Jerry LeVias to Southern Methodist University, because it was the right thing to do.
Sure, it helped that LeVias was an exceptional talent, but he was more than just a star player to Fry. He was a symbol of hope, freedom and progress.
LeVias was a black man living in a white man’s world, and his opportunities were few and far between in his home state of Texas where segregation was a way of life.
It took courageous pioneers such as Hayden Fry, who died on Tuesday at the age of 90, to confront the injustice and that’s what Fry did by recruiting LeVias, and together, they broke the color barrier in the Southwest Conference in 1966 and then remained close friends.
"This is like losing a parent," the 73-year old LeVias told the Houston Chronicle on Wednsday. "He taught me so much, and we went through so much together.
"I'm sad. But God has his ways and he puts us in each other's lives."
The coaches in the Southwest Conference had a gentlemen’s agreement at the time to not recruit black players, but Fry said the hell with that and welcomed LeVias to his team because Fry was a good and decent man who judged people by their character and not by the color of their skin.
LeVias would go on to become an All-America receiver under Fry, but not without suffering from discrimination, isolation and just pure hate and abuse.
He nearly quit the team several times, only to have Fry convince him to stay and be a part of something that was bigger than himself.
LeVias told the Houston Chronicle in a 2013 article that he once was sitting outside Fry’s office and overheard a prominent alumnus warning the coach he would "no longer back the university if you continue to play that so-and-so."
Opposing players tried to injure him and called him names, and his own teammate often treated him harshly.
But through it all, LeVias had Fry’s unwavering support, and Fry paid a price for that because some resented what he did and held a grudge.
Fry would go on to coach at North Texas State and then for 20 seasons at Iowa, turning a program that had struggled for nearly two decades into a three-time Big Ten champion and a regular bowl game participant.
Fry stood tall as a head coach, and as a leader of young men, but it was his courage and his willingness to do the right thing in the case of Jerry LeVias that was his crowning achievement.
LeVias had dozens of scholarship offers from out of state schools, but he chose SMU because he and his family trusted Fry.
And while LeVias succeeded in breaking the color barrier, it was a constant struggle for him to fit in and to withstand the hate and loneliness that was so much a part of each day in college.
Fry was like a ray of sunshine in a world filled with bitterness and hate.
He watched over LeVias, gave him advice and emphasized the importance of staying composed when confronted by hate and prejudice.
When LeVias was a sophomore, Dr. Martin Luther King came to the SMU campus to give a speech. They met privately, according to the Houston Chronicle article. King told him "to always keep my emotions under control."
Fry would tell LeVias the same thing, but Fry, who grew up in west Texas, had his own unique way with words.
"He'd tell me, 'Levi, they can't get your goat if you don't let them know where it is,' " LeVias said in the Houston Chronicle article.
Fry’s list of accomplishments as a head coach, is staggering. He was a master motivator and strategist. He was a Marine with a degree in psychology and he used all of his experiences to mold and motivate his players.
His players loved him and believed in him, and now they cherish his memory.
The stability within the Iowa football program can be traced directly to Fry because he hired Kirk Ferentz as an assistant coach in 1981, and then Kirk succeeded Hayden as head coach in 1999.
Two head coaches in 41 years truly is a spectacular story that is unique to Iowa.
Fry was ahead of his time, both on and off the field.
He ended the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality in the Big Ten by throwing downfield, and he created and then marketed the tiger hawk logo that is now synonymous with Hawkeye sports.
He also had the visitor’s locker room painted pink at Kinnick Stadium for a psychological edge.
And he built a winner, and did so in stunning fashion by leading Iowa to the first of three Rose Bowl appearances under Fry in just year three.
But to me, the greatest thing Hayden Fry did was break the color barrier in the Southwest Conference because that transcended sports and helped pave the way for more black athletes to flourish.
Fry was willing to take a chance, and was willing to take the heat and suffer the consequences because he believed in equality and fairness, and because he refused to be intimidated.
He was a tough Texan with a softer side.
There was a kindness to Hayden Fry that inspired him to change countless lives for the better.
My older brother, Frank Harty, was fortunate to have been touched by Fry’s kindness as a former Iowa player, and his response when told that Fry had passed away was so telling.
“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."
You are so right big brother.