This story appeared in the December 2005 Issue of Hawkeye Nation magazine and is representative of the feature based content you will find inside of each and every issue.
Hayden Fry spent most of his first 69 years on earth casting an image of leadership and power. In many ways, he was viewed as larger than life by many Iowa football fans.
It served to reason that something was going wrong when a weak Fry began showing up to the football complex during the 1998 season. The Hawkeye legend coached with as much energy as any of his contemporaries.
“I didn’t know what was wrong,” Fry said recently from his new home in Mesquite, Nevada. “I knew something was wrong because I just got tired very easily. I hadn’t had a physical exam in quite a few years. I finally went over to get a physical to find out what was wrong. One thing led to another, and by the time I got through, I discovered I had prostate cancer.”
The square-jawed coach and ex-Marine registered a 65 on his Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test. Researchers have discovered that results under four are considered normal.
Fry, who kept as much of his personal life as private as he could, only told his wife, Shirley, of the test results. He decided he would need to retire and shared that with no one.
“He never planned (retirement) in advance,” Shirley Fry said. “He just felt like it was the right time. He was tired. He was rundown. Things were not like they had been. He thought that it was best for the university and best for him. He didn’t share that with me prior to making that announcement. I was not surprised, but I learned when everybody else did.”
Fry, 76, had won more games (140) than any coach in Iowa history and finished with 229 victories overall, good for 10th place in the all-time Division I list. Chances were good that the hall of famer would have added to those numbers had he not been struck by the illness.
“It came as a real shock, and it was very depressing,” said Fry, who won Coach of the Year awards in the Big Ten, Southwest and Missouri Valley Conferences. “Had I not had prostate cancer, I’d probably still be coaching because I loved it so much. But I knew that it wouldn’t be fair to the players or the coaches or even myself because I just didn’t have an energy level to really be the hard charger that it takes to be a football coach on the college level.”
Fry retired shortly after the ’98 season ended, finishing his announcement with tears in his eyes and the now famous words “I’ll always be a Hawk.”
“Retirement was very easy for me, and plus, we didn’t have a good season (in ’98),” Fry said. “Certainly, that had a lot to do with it. Not knowing what the future held for me, it was a very easy decision after the last game to retire.”
Fry underwent intense therapy and the disease moved into remission to where the coach seemingly is constantly on the go. He works for charities, business boards and still stays involved in the game of football.
“I’ve got to learn how to say no,” Fry said. “I’ve been staying too busy. I don’t really have much free time. I still don’t know how to play golf or fish. I still say I’m the only guy that can hook a putter.”
Following his retirement, Fry concentrated on getting well, which included intensive medical treatment. He underwent seed implant therapy (radiation) and hormone treatment (used to reduce tumors). While it was happening, almost nobody knew outside of his doctors.
“Being a coach, you keep all of that private,” Fry said. “The sports media would just do a tremendous take off on it. There was no need to publicize anything like that. It wasn’t going to make me get healthier quicker.”
Fry credited the University of Iowa Hospital staff for allowing him to enter and exit the building through a back entrance for treatments at 5 a.m. He would be gone before most other patients showed up.
The extensive therapy took its toll on Fry. During one operation, he lost all of the muscles in his abdominal region.
“I really exercised, and I can’t get rid of it,” he said. “Being an old marine and being an athlete, I was always in pretty good shape.”
During his treatment, Fry made time to offer input on the search for his replacement at Iowa. It looked like it would be Bob Stoops, who played and coached for Fry, but he ended up at Oklahoma. Iowa landed another former Fry assistant in Kirk Ferentz.
“I was very much involved at the end of the evaluation process,” Fry said. “(Iowa Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby) and his selection committee contacted me for recommendations. Of course, I’ve always been very prejudiced in regards to coaches that worked on my staff because I was very familiar with their capabilities.
“I was prejudiced to make sure that the tradition that we had built would be carried on. When we took over, they hadn’t had a winning season in 19 years. I had had a lot of real fine coaches on my staff who were very successful.”
Ferentz was recommended by Fry, who he hired as his offensive line coach at Iowa back in 1981.
“Kirk definitely came to mind pretty quick,” Fry said. “I knew that he and his family loved Iowa City, and he was very interested in the job. He did an outstanding job for me. I hired Kirk ahead of even retired professional football coaches that applied for the job. I ranked Kirk ahead of all of those guys because he was so impressive.”
Fry finally started feeling better in the late spring and early summer of ’99, but it still took some time adjust to not being a coach for the first time in 47 years.
“The first year was kind of difficult,” Shirley said. “He was finding his way. He never had much free time. It was always work. Even when we were off to dinner and things like that, it was still part of the job.
“So, that first year, he wasn’t in that good of health, and then he needed to find what he wanted to do in his golden years.”
One of the first things Fry focused on was helping in the fight against the disease that attacked him. In conjunction with the University of Iowa Department of Urology and the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at The University of Iowa, it has been announced that a $10 million campaign to fund the J. Hayden Fry Center for Prostate Cancer Research has begun. The Center will be devoted to the research and clinical treatment of prostate cancer.
“I tell people that I don’t recommend they go through what I did with all the treatment just to get their name on the side of a research center,” Fry said. “I’m very honored to be associated with them and have been able to help because they saved my life.”
Fry returned to Iowa Hospitals Sept. 24 for one of his frequent talks. This speech was given to chairmen of urology departments from around the country attending a seminar hosted by Richard D. Williams, who heads Iowa’s urology department.
Doctors still see Fry at least once every three months to check his PSA. He also is given various prescriptions to keep the illness in remission.
“If you have a PSA of 65, your longevity is not predicted to be very long,” Fry said. “I don’t know what it is, five years or whatever. Our research people in cancer are making a lot of strides, but it varies from person to person. It’s your own personal chemistry that has a lot to do with your survival rate. Fortunately, I’ve been one of the survivors. You do what the doctors tell you and hope and pray that everything goes well.”
In addition to speaking at UI Hospitals, Fry travels the country to visit patients stricken with cancer, speaking with people that can help and assisting in fund raising effort for research.
“I did a speech for cancer research in Naples, Fla.,” Fry said. “We had over 300 people there. Most of them were from the state of Iowa. We raised a big sum of money for cancer research.”
Fry takes special care when reaching out to people that have the disease.
“I probably emphasize more than anything to keep the hope and the prayers that help is on the way,” he said. “The research is becoming better and better. If they don’t find a cure, at this point they are finding ways to make life more enjoyable and not as painful. I try to give the patients hope; just keep the faith.”
Football or other sports analogies come into play when Fry speaks with patients. He talked about Iowa getting beat, 31-6, at Ohio State Sept. 24 before bouncing back to win its next two games, meaning better days are ahead.
“Most patients really love sports,” Fry said. “You can relate a few sports stories to them; kicking a field goal on the last play of the game to win when it looks like it’s all over with. You get a turnover down on the end of the field and then score when everybody else is leaving the stadium thinking you’re beat. There’s always a chance, an opportunity that things are going to turn out OK.”
Fry also urges younger people to undergo yearly physicals and have their PSA checked at that time. He speaks from experience.
“If they find something wrong early enough, they can definitely help,” Fry said. “Me, I went 20 years without a physical. People get so tied up in their work and their problems and different things that are going on, that they forget about themselves. They forget that that that’s an injustice to themselves and their families and their loved ones because if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be around to enjoy retirement.”
To often, that message is ignored, Fry said. Younger people feel like their invincible.
“Athletes, they’re the worst ones because they’ve been big and strong all of their life and then they don’t take care of themselves once they get out of playing ball,” Fry said. “That’s one reason why I had prostate cancer and didn’t know it. You go to work at 5, 5:30 in the morning and you normally get home at midnight.”
When the season ended, Fry would get more involved with recruiting which led up to the I-Club circuit with bumped into spring football.
“I’ve been shot at and hit a lot of times in my 38 years as a head coach,” Fry said.
“I enjoyed every minute of it, but it’s extremely demanding. You really have to be in good health.”
Working for cancer research takes up a good deal of Fry’s time but the coach also spends many other hours in various capacities. He sits on investment boards, real estate boards, insurance boards and alumni boards. He also helps various charities, like the Salvation Army, raise money, works to fight other disease and injury related causes and gives time to groups like the Boy Scouts.
The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo recently named Fry an honorary chairman. Five Sullivan brothers were killed on the same ship during World War II, leading the Navy to design a rule stating brothers can not serve on the same vessel.
“He definitely accepts more commitments than he really has time for, but they’re all for good causes,” Shirley Fry said. “He enjoys the interaction. He has done a lot of fund raisers for different charities.”
Fry sold his Iowa City house and is still trying to reduce his business interests in Iowa as Nevada is now his full-time home. He remains on the cancer foundation board and the alumni board at the University of Iowa and also sits on the board of Berthel Fisher & Company Financial Services in Cedar Rapids.
“I come back there for board meetings from time to time,” Fry said. “I still have some investments there in Iowa City. I’ve got to look into getting rid of those, kind of pull up my wings a little bit. I’m trying to reduce the activity as much as possible.”
Fry just finished writing the forward for a book being put out by the American Football Coaches Association called “The Evolution of Offensive Football.” He also has been given numerous football honors like the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award. In August, the Houston Touchdown Club named him the winner of its Touchdowner of the Year Award, which is given annually "for extraordinary contributions and outstanding achievements reflecting honor and sportsmanship to football over a lengthy period of time."
“If they keep doing all these nice things for me, I have to attend,” Fry said with a chuckle.
Fry also speaks at lot of charity golf tournaments.
“Sometimes, if I’ve got enough nerve, I’ll play in them,” he joked.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Fry’s retirement is his continued connection with college football. He built a theatre in his house with three big screen TVs.
“I watch three games at a time,” Fry said. “As soon as those games are over with, I look at three more. When that’s over with, I look at three more. And then I get DVDs on the 25 top teams, plus five others that look like they might move into the Top 25.
“It’s real good because they cut out all of the commercials and the timeouts. It only takes me a little over 50 minutes on each game to go through and analyze the players and evaluate their offense, defense and kicking game. Then, when I get ready to cast my vote on the Top 25, I’m a lot more knowledgeable than somebody that maybe never wore a jockstrap trying to pick them.”
Fry also helps select the players for the Hula Bowl, one of the top college all-star games. He also is a member of the Master Coaches Survey, which is comprised of 16 retired coaches (11 of which are hall of famers) that each week select their own College Football Top 25.
In addition to Fry, legends like Bo Schembechler, John Robinson, LaVell Edwards, Frank Kush, Gene Stallings, Pat Dye, Vince Dooley, R.C. Slocum and Don James are taking part in the survey, which began this year.
“We are going to hopefully straighten out selecting the Top 25 college football teams so we don’t have a foul-up like we did last year on the bowl situation,” Fry said.
Fry said that it’s tough for active coaches and media to vote on polls because usually they only see their teams play.
“The coaches are so involved in preparing for their next opponent and correcting the mistakes of the previous game,” he said. “You’ve got to look at the film of the last game and analyze; what you did good and what you did badly and then look at the films of the upcoming opponent and get your game plan together on how you’re going to attack their defense and how you’re going to defend their offense.”
In December of 2002, Fry almost got involved in doing all of those things again. His alma mater, Baylor, was searching for a head coach and contacted the then 73-year old.
The Bears had been struggling for years, and Fry already had a proven track record for rebuilding programs at SMU, North Texas and Iowa.
“Baylor really wanted me to come out of retirement and turn the program around,” Fry said. “After three or four years of getting the thing going real good, well then, I could turn it over to one of my outstanding (assistant) coaches. That is probably one of the only places where I would have done it because they gave me a scholarship.”
Being an alumnus, Fry followed the trials and tribulations of Baylor football and wanted to see a turnaround.
“Baylor was really down, so the president and his selection committee knew that I had the knowledge and thought I could probably unite the alumni and the players and the other people that would really get behind turning the program around,” Fry said.
“They were very interested in me. I had a lot of ex-players and coaches that wanted me to do it, so I was a good listener. But they found a real good man (Guy Morriss) at the University of Kentucky. That was great for me because I had already located in Mesquite, Nevada; built a new home. I think my wife would have shot me.”
Fry still speaks with many of his ex-assistant coaches now running programs around the country. The list includes Ferentz, Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Dan McCarney (Iowa State), Mike Stoops (Arizona), Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) and Bill Snyder (Kansas State). Former Houston Oilers Head Coach Bum Phillips also worked under Fry at SMU.
“I talked to Bum the other day,” Fry said “He just had triple bypass surgery. He’s already up and driving his Caterpillar and starting to ride his cutting horses again. But he’s 82 or 83 years old.”
Fry relates to the stress his former assistants are under as head coaches. The media is more invasive than when he roamed the sidelines.
“Creating a good relationship with the media takes a period of time,” Fry said. “If you lose a ballgame, they want to know why. As a coach, you can’t tell them that this guy has got a real bad ankle or this guy’s got a real bad knee. If you do, the other team reads that and will take advantage of it. It’s a give and take thing.
“They had a job to do, and I respected the news media. These days, I have to turn the television off sometimes because everybody is an expert. And it’s always after it happened.”
Fry, a master story teller, said he had his share of second guessers while at Iowa. And they didn’t always come from the journalist group.
“I used to have this old farmer,” Fry said. “He was about 6-4, 300 pounds. He wore bib overalls and a straw hat and he was located about 20 rows up behind my bench at Kinnick Stadium. Well, I’d call a play, and it didn’t work. The farmer would stand up, cup his hands over his mouth and holler, “Fry, you dummy.” I’d turn around and just stare at him. I’m thinking to myself, “Now, here’s a guy telling me what I should do after the play is over and that sucker never had a jockstrap on in his life.”
“That’s typical. As a coach, you learn how to live with that because they want to be involved. They want to win. They want to do things right. I appreciated that. At the time that it happens, you don’t necessarily like it. But you know that it’s well meant.”
The Fry’s also try to relax when they can. They travel to Texas to see their children, play a lot of golf or sometimes just get in the car and go.
“We just hit the road with our golf clubs and our clothes,” Shirley said. “We don’t really plan ahead where we were going. We toured Utah, Northern Nevada and Idaho. We do family history research also. If we’re in the neighborhood of an ancestor, where we know where they’re buried or their homestead was, we’ll go by and take pictures and find out what we can.”
Fry doesn’t look at his illness as pushing him out of coaching. Instead, he views it as being his time to move on to his next life in retirement. And overall, the cowboy from Odessa, Texas has an awful lot for which to be thankful.
“I’m the kind of guy that I enjoy everything,” Fry said. “I was born poor. I was just raised to enjoy people, love people, my players, my coaches, my friends. That’s why I’m so active. I try to help all of these different charities and do things that people ask me to do. That book that George Wine and I wrote, my biography, is called “A High Porch Picnic.” If you translate that in talk of a West Texan, it means living the great life.”
THE FRY FILE
Name: John Hayden Fry
High School: Odessa High
Hometown: Odessa, Texas
College: Baylor (1951)
Head Coaching Career: SMU (1962-72), North Texas (‘73-78), Iowa (‘79-98)
Record: 232-178-10 (10th most wins all-time Division I), College Football Hall of Fame (’03).
Achievements: Ranks 10th all-time on the Division I coaching victory list…inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003…Iowa’s all-time leader in coaching wins with 140…led the Hawkeyes to 14 bowl games in 20 years as head coach…quarterbacked Odessa High to the Texas state championship in 1946…Groomed some of college footballs top coaches when they worked for him as assistants, such as Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Dan McCarney (Iowa State), Mike Stoops (Arizona), Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) and Bill Snider (Kansas State)… Fry integrated the Southwest Conference when as coach at SMU he started wide receiver Jerry LeVias at a game against the University of Illinois. LeVias was the first black athlete to receive an athletic scholarship at a Southwest Conference school…served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War…named coach of the year in three different conferences – The Big Ten, Southwest and Missouri Valley.