With the death of former football coach Hayden Fry, a University of Iowa alumna and staff writer revisits the words she wrote after the Hawkeye legend announced his retirement in 1998.
Editor’s note

This essay was originally written for a UI alumni publication in 1998 by Sara Epstein Moninger, a 1993 UI graduate who was born and raised in Iowa City and currently is employed by the UI Office of Strategic Communication. It has been updated to reflect Fry’s passing.

I remember well the year Hayden Fry took over the helm of the Hawkeye football squad. I was in the third grade at Shimek Elementary School in Iowa City, and, honestly, I did not have too much interest in college sports or, for that matter, any sporting events beyond the games of dodgeball and four-square that I regularly participated in during recess. In fact, I was blissfully ignorant of the shortcomings suffered in previous years by Iowa’s ironmen, that is, until the first day of school that fall when Hayden’s stepdaughter, Jayme, was introduced as a new student from Texas.

The boys in my class were in disbelief.

“Hayden Fry is your father?” they cried incredulously.

I was clueless. Who the heck was this Hayden Fry anyway? What was the big deal?

A brief consultation that night with my father answered the questions I had about Hayden’s identity, but I was still unfazed by the man and the promise that he brought to Iowa. I was more interested in forming a friendship with a girl whose mouth spouted off words like “y’all.” Soon we were having sleepovers and discussing who we thought to be the cutest boys in school.

Remembering Coach Fry

The University of Iowa Department of Intercollegiate Athletics pays tribute to the beloved coach who returned the Hawkeye football program to national prominence.

It wasn’t long, however, before the excitement of the game piqued my interest and, to my great pleasure, I was recruited by my uncle to help sell his handcrafted Tigerhawk mirrors amid the black and gold masses outside Kinnick Stadium on game days. Feeding off the buzz I encountered there, it was only a matter of time before I ventured past the gates of the stadium and attended my first football game.

The bug bit me hard. I think it bit everyone here in those days. Yes, Hayden turned around an ailing ball club, but there was something more to it than football. He instilled in Iowans a sense of pride that will never be taken away.

By the time we entered high school in the mid-1980s, Jayme and I had acquired many new friends and I didn’t spend as much time with her, however my Hawkeye spirit continued to grow. On the lapel of my jacket was a cluster of dime-sized embroidered emblems including a peach, an alligator, and a couple of roses. In addition to these emblems, which represented how the Hawks had been spending their holiday vacations, I had acquired scads of buttons and other Hawkeye paraphernalia.

Hayden was responsible for spreading Hawkeye Fever. He endeared himself to fans not only through his obvious gridiron talents but also through his Southern drawl and his warm humor. He made it fun to be a Hawkeye.

Hayden Fry at the unveiling of a statue in his honor
Hayden Fry, seen here at a statue unveiling during FryFest in 2016 in Coralville, Iowa, coached three Iowa teams in the Rose Bowl and was a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year (1981, 1990, 1991).

How many football coaches can say they’ve had a popular sitcom based on their career? Only Hayden Fry can. Well, even if the show Coach was only loosely based on the life of one of Iowa’s winningest football coaches, Hayden was the inspiration for the title character, Coach Hayden Fox, played by Craig T. Nelson. Viewers in Hawkeye country were thrilled to see shots of the UI campus between scenes.

Hayden had long been known as a “player’s coach,” and his recruits will tell you that he cared more about their personal well-being than their Saturday performances. Fans can also testify to his kind and respectful demeanor. In fact, he motivated hundreds of fans to wake up in the predawn hours to attend the I-Club breakfasts on Fridays before each home game.

Hayden’s influence didn’t escape me. Though I don’t remember much interaction with him as a guest in his house, I do recall that he was very polite and took the time to find out what we kids were up to. How many men could inspire me to purchase a pair of black and gold legwarmers? I almost hesitate to admit that I truly anticipated wearing those bulky things each week along with my black and gold workout suit and my Tigerhawk earrings. And, I might add, it did not have to be game day to prompt me to dress this way. Need I say that I made my parents stock six-packs of Hawkeye Gold?

After enjoying a string of Hawkeye bowl-game appearances on television, I was lucky enough to score tickets to the January 1991 Rose Bowl. Though Iowa lost the contest, my father and I did not leave disappointed. The effort had been respectable, and, as any Hawkeye fan attending an Iowa bowl game can attest, there’s nothing quite like cruising the streets of a large metropolitan area and seeing people proudly dressed like bumblebees.

The day Hayden announced his retirement in 1998, I felt like a young child whose favorite toy had been taken away. With so many changes occurring in my native Iowa City, it seemed like some of my childhood memories were slowly eroding. Hayden was at least one tangible presence dating back to my youth, but “Fry-days” were over. While I knew the retirement was imminent, I hadn’t really given it much thought. I guess I figured he’d always be here, sort of a mainstay at the University of Iowa.

Hayden passed away Dec. 17, 2019. Though he hadn’t been Iowa’s coach for more than two decades, his legacy will continue for generations to come. When announcing his retirement, Hayden said, “I’ll always be a Hawk.”

So will I, Hayden. Thank you.

Produced by the University of Iowa Office of Strategic Communication
Sara Epstein Moninger
University of Iowa Department of Intercollegiate Athletics and Tim Schoon