I’ll just say it right from the git go: Iowa should name its football field Hayden Fry Field. Retaining Kinnick Stadium in honor of Heisman winner and Hawkeye legend Nile Kinnick is certainly appropriate and should remain so for all time, but what better way to honor the Messiah of Iowa football than to name the field after him?

You think Messiah is too strong or even sacrilegious? Well you’re wrong. Why not name the field after current Hawk mentor Kirk Ferentz instead of Hayden? Because, while Ferentz certainly deserves a ton of credit for building and sustaining the Iowa gridiron program as one of the most consistent and respected in the nation, it was the man from Texas who came to Iowa City and led the Hawkeyes out of the dregs of football ineptitude.

No doubt Ferentz has done an outstanding job during his tenure, but it was Hayden Fry (who only recently passed away at the age of 90) who did what most thought was impossible: turn the dismal, if not embarrassing, Hawkeye program into a consistent winner that ranked among the best teams in the nation.

He may not have been able to walk on water but he could sure glide across the Kinnick Stadium turf with confidence and charm. He single-handedly turned the Hawks from a Big 10 laughing stock into one of the top football programs in America. And that tradition continues to this day.

Want proof? You got it.

When Fry came to Iowa City after the 1978 season, the Hawks were considered a sure win for any team that had the good fortune to play them. The black and gold finished 5-6 overall in Bob Commings’ final year, and prior to that, you had to go all the way back to 1961 to discover a Hawk team that actually won more games than it lost. That’s 17 years of futility, including a pathetic 0-11 record in 1973 and a 1-10 mark in 1971.

Jerry Burns, Ray Nagel, Frank Lauterbur and Commings all tried to turn things around – but to no avail. Then along came Hayden with his incredibly high football IQ and a pleasing, down-home approach to the game that Iowa fans ate up in its entirety. They were hungry for a winner, and Fry gave them what they wanted. It was a glory to behold. A modern-day football miracle? Perhaps a bit overstated, but even non-believers had to get on board the Hayden Express and they haven’t gotten off since.

Fry went 5-6 and 4-7 in his first two years at the helm (1979 and 1980), and then it happened. The 1981 squad, with Decorah’s own Lon Olejniczak in the lineup (Fry called him the best all-around athlete on the team), went 8-4 and qualified for the prestigious Rose Bowl. To almost everyone’s astonishment, the success continued until Hayden hung up his whistle following the 1998 campaign.

From 1981 through 1997, the Hawks went 8-4, 9-3, 10-3, 6-4, 5-6, 8-4, 10-1, 5-7, 6-6, 5-5, 8-4, 9-3 and 7-5. They played in numerous bowl games and went back to the Rose Bowl in 1985 and 1990. Iowa also enjoyed the No. 1 rating in the nation at some point during that remarkable turnaround. Fry’s legend was carved in stone, and will always be thus.

As a budding sports writer who spent two years in Decorah and then moved on to the Oelwein Daily Register, I was anxious and excited to cover the “big time.” Back then, after years if not decades of loss after frustrating loss, it was relatively easy to get a press pass for any Iowa home game. 

I ate like a king in the fancy-schmancy press box, and usually went down to the sidelines to shoot some photos during the second half. It was there that I saw the Hayden Fry phenomenon up close and personal.

It was 1981 and the Hawks had inexplicably found a way to beat visiting powerhouse Nebraska, 10-7, in the opening game of the season. After a stunning loss to Iowa State, 23-12 in game two, Iowa played host to mighty UCLA and famed coach Terry Donahue.

No one gave Iowa much of a chance, but Hayden just laughed and said “we’re gonna scratch where it itches,” and that’s exactly what his team did. I’ll never forget it. I can still see the faces of the UCLA offensive line midway through the third quarter.

To say the Hawkeye defense was pounding the spirit out of the Bruins is totally accurate. I was working the UCLA side of the field since the Iowa sideline was so crowded, and during a timeout Donahue did his best to fire up his stalwarts. But it was no use.

Led by all-world defensive end Andre Tippett, the Hawks completely demolished the UCLA offense and you could see it in the eyes and expressions of those mammoth Bruin linemen. They were done, beaten, demoralized and Donahue knew it. Despite his repeated efforts to rebuild the confidence of his players, it was pointless. They looked borderline scared as they came to the sideline for instructions, but nothing Donahue said could turn things around.

The Bruins were finished, and even their coach knew it. Final score: Iowa 20, UCLA 7. Let the good times roll. And they did.

I realize it probably won’t happen, but it should. Hayden Fry Field has a nice ring to it don’t you think? Thanks Coach Fry from all of us in Hawkeye land. May you rest in peace and remember to scratch where it itches.