Fry, LeVias again make history together

Originally Published: December 9, 2003
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Over 37 seasons at SMU, North Texas and Iowa, Hayden Fry won 232 games and four conference championships with a combination of folksy Texas charm, the eye for detail that all winning coaches possess, and a nose for talent, both on the field and on his sideline.

Fry's staff with the Hawkeyes in the early 1980s included five current Division I head coaches, including Bill Snyder of Kansas State, Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin, and Kirk Ferentz, Fry's successor at Iowa.

But as Fry goes into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday night, the coaching achievement for which he will most be remembered is going into the Hall of Fame alongside him.

Hayden Fry
Hayden Fry was beloved at Iowa, SMU and North Texas.
Jerry LeVias, the wide receiver who broke the color line in the Southwest Conference when Fry brought him to SMU in 1965, is an inductee as a player.

"The best thing I did was giving Jerry LeVias a scholarship," Fry said. "That opened the door for all of the African-Americans in that part of the world to have a choice of where they went to school."

LeVias would become an All-American in 1968 under Fry. He grew up in Beaumont, Texas, in a region that produced an inordinate number of NFL players, among them Bubba Smith, and the Farr brothers, Mel and Miller.

"We played sandlot games," LeVias said Tuesday, "and I was the smallest. But the Farrs would always pick me because I was their cousin."

Using speed and guile, LeVias set six SWC records as a receiver, seven if you include enduring the abuse he took as a black player in a white league. But LeVias knew what he was getting into when he told Fry he would come play for him.

"They had just shot the president in Dallas in 1963," LeVias said. "You can imagine what John Kennedy meant to black people. And to go to the town where he had been shot?"

Fry said he and his staff looked two years for the right player to break the color line.

"We knew the kid had to be a fine academic student," Fry said. "He had to have a minimum of 1,000 on his SAT. He had to be a player. He couldn't be sitting on the bench. He had to be an exceptional person. Jerry fit the criteria 100 percent. He had a lot of faith in God. That was the only thing that pulled him through."

"I came from a very religious family," LeVias said. "When things started happening to me, I would call my grandmother. She would tell me, 'Bless them, for they know not what they do.'

"I would tell her, 'But they do know.'

"I look back now and it's funny. But I have drawn strength from what I went through as a young man. It was definitely my faith in God and in people that got me through."

Fry didn't do it merely out of the goodness of his heart. He had to deal with Texas and Arkansas in the SWC. Seeing players like Smith go north to Michigan State "just killed me," Fry said. That changed.

"As long as LeVias was on the field," Fry said, "I always knew we had a chance to win."

LeVias had the speed and quickness that Fry loved. Early in his career at SMU, where he became the head coach at age 29 in 1962, Fry took the Mustangs to play Michigan, where Ford executive Lee Iacocca and his engineers watched the game.

"After the game they came into the locker room, and told me, 'We've got this new sports car,'" Fry said. "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.'

"I didn't put but 3,000 miles on it," Fry said, before he got rid of the car. "Can you imagine what that thing would be worth today?"

Coaches always remember the great ones that got away. But Fry's eye for talent extended to assistant coaches, as well. No coach since Bear Bryant has produced as many head coaches off of one staff as Fry. In addition to Ferentz, Snyder and Alvarez, his staff in the early 1980s at Iowa included Dan McCarney, the coach at Iowa State, and Don Patterson, who just led Western Illinois to the I-AA quarterfinals. Among the players on those teams were Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who won the 2000 national championship, and his brother, incoming Arizona coach Mike Stoops.

"I'll tell you what I did," Fry said. "When I interviewed a coach for a position, if I didn't feel very strongly that they were motivated and wanted to be a head coach, I wouldn't offer them a job. I wanted them to listen to players, be good teachers and they personally had to be good people. That was my criteria. If you surround yourself with winners, you can win."

That last line is straight out of the Bryant coaching handbook. Fry remembered the first time he met Bryant, more than 40 years ago.

"My first year as a head coach, I was just in awe of Coach Bryant and John McKay, and I was seated right between the two of them at a meeting," Fry said. "I asked him, 'Coach Bryant, how did you win?' He looked at me and said, 'Son, just remember one thing. If the other team can't score, you can't come out worse than a tie.'"

Fry developed one more legendary coach -- Hayden Fox, the title character in the long-running sitcom "Coach." Iowa graduate Barry Kemp developed the show, and offered Fry a royalty. On the advice of the university administration, Fry refused it. "Real smart decision," Fry said with a laugh.

The self-deprecation ended the minute the meeting door closed.

"Hayden is dumb like a fox," Alvarez said the other day. "He did things differently. He took a lot of pride in doing things differently. He gave you the loosey-goosey attitude on the outside. He ran a very strict program on the inside with coaches and players. He was a stickler for all the little things. It was very militaristic. We had meetings. You start a meeting at such and such a time. If a meeting was scheduled for two hours, you stayed for two hours."

Fry painted the opponents' locker room at Kinnick Stadium pink. He refused to let other staffs come into Iowa City and study the Hawkeyes in the offseason.

"He would say, 'We don't want anybody else to know what we are doing. They'll beat our ass,'" Alvarez said in the best high-pitched twang he could muster. The assistants stayed, though.

"I think that staff had a lot of respect for one another, through Hayden's leadership," Alvarez said. "There was never anyone trying to step on anyone else's toes. Everyone knew their responsibility well and respected everybody else. It's very unusual. From 1981 to 1986 there was no movement (off the staff)."

Fry retired from Iowa in 1998. He has battled prostate cancer and won. His career culminates on Tuesday night with LeVias on the same dais.

"We started this journey together," LeVias said Tuesday, "and it concludes tonight. It means everything to be in the same class with him."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com