Hayden Fry, a hall of fame football coach who revived the University of Iowa’s flagging program, leading the team to three Big Ten championships and three Rose Bowls during his 20-year career there, died on Dec. 17. He was 90.
His family announced his death in a statement but did not say where he died. He had been treated for prostate cancer since the late 1990s.
Fry had been head football coach at Southern Methodist University and then North Texas University for nearly two decades when he joined Iowa before the 1979 season; he was hired by Iowa’s athletic director, Bump Elliott, who died this month. The Hawkeyes had slogged through 17 consecutive years without a winning season when Fry arrived.
Roaming the sidelines in his familiar dark sunglasses and white pants, he coached Iowa for 20 seasons, compiling a 143-89-6 record.
Fry’s greatest season at Iowa was 1985, when the Hawkeyes were No. 1 in The Associated Press’s rankings for five weeks and had the Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long at quarterback. Iowa finished the season 10-2, Big Ten champions with a conference record of 7-1, and ranked 10th in the country.
Fry’s other Big Ten championships were shared, in 1981 with Ohio State and in 1990 with the University of Illinois, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. His teams lost all three of their Rose Bowl appearances.
Fry, who earned a degree in psychology from Baylor University in Texas in 1951, did everything he could to get an edge at Iowa, like painting the visiting team’s locker room pink in the hope of sapping opponents’ confidence.
He tried to motivate his players by having Iowa’s uniforms redesigned to resemble the black and gold ones worn by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the N.F.L.’s dominant team at the time, and having the university’s avian logo retooled to give it a fiercer aspect. The university still uses that logo.
“I wanted a mean-looking hawk,” Fry told The New York Times in 1981, when Iowa had its first winning season in 20 years and made it to the Rose Bowl. “What I call a Tigerhawk.”
John Hayden Fry was born on Feb. 28, 1929, in Eastland, in central Texas, to John and Cora (Hodge) Fry. His father was a butcher and grocer. The family moved to Odessa, Texas, when he was 8, and by 14 he was working as a roughneck in the oil fields there.
Fry played quarterback for Odessa High School and then Baylor. He later returned to Odessa to coach. He became head coach at Southern Methodist in 1962 and three years later recruited Jerry LeVias, a star receiver and the first black football player to sign a scholarship with a Southwest Conference team.
“He recruited me as an athlete and talked about me as an individual,” LeVias was quoted as saying in a recent post on Iowa football’s website.
They both received death threats and calls to quit, and some people spat at LeVias. But LeVias persevered, scoring 22 touchdowns and racking up 2,275 receiving yards at Southern Methodist. Fry called recruiting LeVias “the greatest thing I ever did in football,” and LeVias expressed his appreciation.
“A lot of people talk about me, and what I had to endure,” LeVias said. “But could you imagine what he had to endure? What a strong person he was to step up and do the right thing.”
Fry went 49-66-1 in 11 seasons at Southern Methodist and then did a six-year stint at North Texas, where he went 41-22-3. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003, the same year as LeVias, with a career record of 233-177-10. (The records reflect some results that were altered by the N.C.A.A.) He took teams to 17 bowl games in all as a head coach.
At Iowa, Fry mentored 13 assistants and players who became head coaches, among them Bill Snyder (Kansas State University), Barry Alvarez (the University of Wisconsin), Bob Stoops (the University of Oklahoma), Bret Bielema (Wisconsin and the University of Arkansas) and Kirk Ferentz (who followed him at Iowa).
“Even before the Hawkeyes started winning on the field, Coach Fry was beloved by the fans and trusted by his players,” Ferentz wrote in a statement after Fry’s death. “He had a charisma and leadership style that created a championship and winning program that continues today.”
Fry retired as Iowa’s winningest coach in 1998, a distinction since surpassed by Ferentz.
His survivors include his wife, Shirley, with whom he lived in Dallas; four sons, Randy, Zach, Kelly and Adrian; a daughter, Robin; a stepson, Bryan; and a stepdaughter, Jayme.
On Monday the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, announced that its football players would remove the Tigerhawk logo from their helmets in Fry’s honor when they play the University of Southern California in the Holiday Bowl on Friday.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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