By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Wednesday’s zoom conference with new Iowa running backs coach Ladell Betts almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without the power and influence of Hayden Fry.
Betts was a heralded running back recruit from Blue Springs, Missouri and a member of Fry’s next to last recruiting class at Iowa in 1997. After redshirting as a true freshman, Betts would go on to become Iowa’s second-all-time leading rusher, while playing his first season under Fry in 1998 and his final three seasons under Kirk Ferentz.
Betts helped lay the foundation under Ferentz, but it wasn’t easy as Iowa combined to finish just 14-32 overall during his four seasons as a Hawkeye.
Betts was one of the more highly acclaimed recruits to sign with Iowa under Fry, and the fact that he played for both Fry and Ferentz makes him uniquely qualified for his new role.
It isn’t often that somebody goes from coaching high school football to coaching at a Power Five school, as is the case with Betts.
But in this case, it makes sense for Kirk Ferentz to have hired Betts because Betts represents so much of what is good about Hawkeye football.
Hayden Fry passed away on Dec. 17, 2019 at the age of of 90, but his legacy will live on forever, both as a head coach and as a leader for racial equality.
Fry broke the color barrier in the Southwest Conference by recruiting Jerry LeVias to Southern Methodist University in the mid-1960s, and some say Fry’s his willingness to stand up against racism at a time when most head coaches wouldn’t is more important than his success in rebuilding downtrodden football programs, including Iowa.
“One thing I’ve learned is a lot of this business is about relationships, especially when you talk about college football,” Betts said. “I’m sure everyone knows coach Fry was very charismatic. He made it easy for you to want to come play for him. He had jokes for you.
“So he was definitely a relationship guy. He would light up a room when he walked in. That’s one of the things I remember about coach Fry and one of the things I take with me. It’s a relationship business and you have to get to know your players to be able to connect with your players.”
Betts returns to Iowa at a time when the program is trying to move forward following a tumultuous 2020 summer in which multiple former Iowa back players accused the program of racial disparities and bullying.
But sometimes, the best way to move forward is to connect with your past, and that’s why hiring Betts, despite his lack of experience, made so much sense.
Betts was asked Wednesday what he thought from afar after the allegations of racism were made public and what his thoughts are now after returning to Iowa.
“It’s a bit unfair of me to speculate about things that happened or transpired when I wasn’t here, but I’ll say this; I definitely had an invested interest of what was being said and what was being talked about,” Betts said. “And I will assure you this; I would not be standing here before you if I didn’t believe in the direction of the program, and I wouldn’t be standing here before you if I didn’t believe in coach Ferentz’s leadership of the program.”
That answer is an example of why having Betts in the program under these unique and delicate circumstances is so beneficial because his connection to Fry is what Iowa needs right now.
Recruiting will be a significant part of Betts’ new job, and recruiting is all about building relationships.
And building relationships is all about building trust and respect.
Recruits will be impressed with Betts having rushed for 3,686 yards as a Hawkeye, and for helping to rebuild the program under Kirk Ferentz, who is now the longest tenured college head coach in the country with 22 seasons under his belt at Iowa, and for having played nine seasons in the NFL.
And, of course, it helps that Betts is black because so many of the running backs in big-time college football are black.
But Betts also can talk with recruits about who recruited him to Iowa, and about what Hayden Fry stood for, and what he represented. Nearly a quarter century has passed since Fry retired as the Iowa head coach in 1998, but his legacy withstands the test of time.
Kirk Ferentz admitted last summer to having a blind spot with regard to the racial issues.
But the 65-year old Ferentz also spent nine seasons as Fry’s offensive line coach from 1981-89, and that’s a connection that Ferentz needs to use in recruiting.
The accusations of racial disparities is now part of Kirk Ferentz’s legacy forever, but so is the time he spent coaching and learning under Fry.
Iowa has to change its culture, but that doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a year or two.
It takes time to change feelings and perceptions, and it takes good people to help do it, people like Ladell Betts, whose connection to Hayden Fry makes him the perfect fit right now.