Why a coach succeeds on one campus and not another is a mystery, an elusive formula of time, place and personality. The death of Hayden Fry on Tuesday at age 90 is a reminder that no one ever quite explained how Fry, a native Texan who spent 17 years at SMU (1962-72) and North Texas State (1973-78), winning exactly as many games as he lost (89-89-3), somehow found his niche hundreds of miles north of home at the University of Iowa.
When Fry arrived in Iowa City in 1979, the Hawkeyes had gone 21 years since their last Big Ten Conference championship. Forget that -- it had been 18 years since Iowa had a winning record. In three years, Fry took Iowa to the Rose Bowl. He won three Big Ten championships over a 10-year period (1981, '85, '90) and went 143-89-6 in 20 seasons at Iowa.
The sum of Fry's career is greater than his winning percentage of .564, well below the modern threshold of .600 necessary to qualify for the Hall of Fame.
Fry is the trunk of the biggest coaching tree in modern college football. His staff at Iowa included two fellow College Football Hall of Fame inductees, Barry Alvarez and Bill Snyder, as well as future Hall of Famer Kirk Ferentz, Fry's successor.
Bob Stoops, another future Hall of Famer, his brothers Mike and Mark, and Bret Bielema played for Fry before coaching for him at Iowa. In all, 13 assistants or former players for Fry became FBS head coaches.
Fry long maintained he would hire as assistants only those who desired to become head coaches, which makes it all the more remarkable that, from 1981 through 1986, he didn't have a single assistant coach leave his Hawkeyes staff. It is likely no coincidence that the two assistants who enjoyed the greatest success, Alvarez and Snyder, executed turnarounds at Wisconsin and Kansas State, respectively, of programs as dire as was Iowa when Fry arrived in 1979.
It's difficult to measure the boost Fry gave the state of Iowa during the 1980s, an era when the failure of family farms became an epidemic. "For a lot of people," Fry told Sports Illustrated in 1985, "this program is the only positive thing in their lives."
For all of his success at Iowa, Fry identified "the best thing I ever did" as giving a scholarship to Jerry LeVias in 1965 to break the color line, not only at SMU, but in the Southwest Conference.
It also proved to be a smart football decision -- LeVias, an electrifying receiver and kick returner, entered the College Football Hall of Fame with Fry in 2003.
It also began to slow the flow of outstanding African American football talent from Texas into northern schools. Michigan State won a share of the 1965 national championship thanks to players such as defensive lineman Bubba Smith of Beaumont and wide receiver Gene Washington of La Porte.
LeVias helped Fry and SMU win the Southwest Conference championship in 1966, when the Mustangs went 8-2 before losing to Georgia, 24-10, in the Cotton Bowl. But in those days, when Darrell Royal at Texas and Frank Broyles at Arkansas could hand out scholarships as if they were Halloween candy, life at an SMU proved difficult. The university fired Fry in 1972 and he moved immediately to North Texas State, as it was then known, where he turned the Mean Green into a 10-win team by 1977.
Two years later, Fry arrived in Iowa City, where his folksy humor masked an almost military discipline in how he ran the program. No coach enjoyed psychological chicanery more than Fry, who had the visiting locker room at Kinnick Stadium painted pink. He particularly liked to gig Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
In 1985, before the No. 1 Hawkeyes played the No. 2 Wolverines, Fry wanted to keep his team loose. During pregame work, he had his guards take turns trying -- and failing -- to long-snap to his punter. Schembechler, watching his opponents warm up, looking for any advantage, walked over and asked, "Fry, you're not going to have those guys snap for you in the game, are you?
Fry replied, "Coach Schembechler, we're not planning on punting tonight," and walked away. That game, a bruising defensive battle, will be remembered in Iowa for as long as the Hawkeyes play football. Place-kicker Rob Houghtlin made four field goals, the last from 29 yards as time expired, to give Iowa a 12-10 victory.
Fry grew up in Odessa, in west Texas, during the Depression. He worked as a caddy at Odessa Country Club; as an 11-year-old in 1940, he once looped three rounds for a young pro from Fort Worth named Ben Hogan. Fry wrote in his book "Beyond X's and O's" that Hogan gave him a $20 bill for the three rounds and Fry went straight home to show his parents.
"We hadn't seen many twenty-dollar bills," Fry said.
If you coach for college football for 40 years in this country, you are bound to meet national celebrities, if not become one yourself. But Fry had a knack for collecting people.
He quarterbacked Odessa High to the state championship in 1946, played at Baylor, where his position coach was Broyles, and returned as an assistant coach to his alma mater in 1951, when he helped a young oilman named George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, find an apartment.
After a stint in the Marines, where he coached against future Raiders owner Al Davis, Fry returned to Odessa High as head coach and history teacher. It was there where he taught future rock star Roy Orbison. Fry ascended the coaching ladder as if he were running late; Broyles hired him at Arkansas in 1961 and one year later, at age 33, he became head coach at SMU.
The Mustangs opened the 1963 season at Michigan with a 27-16 loss, but Fry's smaller, faster team made an impact on some Ford executives in the stands, including a brash marketing man named Lee Iacocca.
"After the game they came into the locker room, and told me, 'We've got this new sports car,'" Fry told me in 2003. "Compared to Michigan, we were quicker and had mobility. Iacocca said they were throwing around four names. He told me, 'We made a decision up in the stands. We're going to call it a Mustang, and I wanted you to be the first to know. I'm going to ship you the first one and paint it red and blue [SMU colors].'"
Fry loved the story, except for the ending.
"I didn't put but 3,000 miles on it," he said, before he got rid of it. "Can you imagine what that thing would be worth today?"