My Brush with Hayden

Legendary Iowa football coach Hayden Fry passed away December 17 at the age of ninety. You’ve heard tributes to Hayden Fry from fellow coaches, former players, and sports experts.

This is not one of those. But my Hayden story might give you a little insight to the man behind the legend, and how he looked out for someone when he didn’t have to.

For those who don’t follow college football, in addition to turning an Iowa team that had the losing-est record in the NCAA into a national power, Fry also ran something of a “coaching college.” All eleven of his assistant coaches from the ear
ly 80’s went on to become head coaches in their own right, including his successor Kirk Ferentz. At last count, Hayden’s “Class of 1983” has garnered a staggering 722 victories, including 32 bowl wins and 15 conference titles.

But this story isn’t about that. It’s about a chance encounter the coach had early in his Iowa tenure with a wet-behind-the-ears broadcaster that has stayed with me for nearly four decades.

The year was 1980, Coach Fry’s second year as Iowa’s coach. I was a sophomore at the University of Iowa, working my first radio job, a part-time Dj and producer at KXIC radio in Iowa City. One of my duties was to help with the football broadcasts. This entailed producing a weeknight call-in show that featured Coach Fry answering questions posed by KXIC play-by-play guy Gene Clausen and the sports directors of the other stations in our small network, from tiny Iowa burgs like Burlington and Muscatine.

Gene and Hayden broadcast out of a room down the hall from me, wearing headphones so they could hear the questions posed by the other sports directors, whose voices were piped in so that all the participants could hear each other and interact.

One night, there was an equipment glitch in the conference room. None of the microphones worked. So Hayden and Gene had to come into the tiny production studio with me.

To fully understand the story, you need to know just a little about how radio studios are designed. In an audio production room, speakers are always automatically muted when the microphone is turned on, to eliminate feedback. This is why you always see DJs wearing headphones when they’re talking.

So here’s the scene. Hayden and Gene are squeezed into two chairs in front of the control board, sharing the studio’s only microphone. I am perched on the edge of the counter, because there isn’t room for another chair. I have the only available set of headphones, so my job is to keep the mic off so Hayden can hear the question, then quickly flip the switch on so he can answer. And that was how it went for nearly the full hour of the show:

Mic off: Hayden listens.

Mic on: Hayden answers.

Mic off: Hayden listens.

Mic on: Hayden answers.

Mic off: Hayden listens.

But somehow, after about forty-five minutes of this on/off switching, I lost the rhythm.

I turned the mic ON while the away sports director was speaking, and clicked it off just in time for the three of us to hear: “..at do you think about that Hayden?”

Oh, crap. I have just screwed up Hayden’s call-in show. My career is over. 

Hayden, Gene, and I all stared at each other for a beat, then Hayden signaled for me to turn the mic back on, and in his unmistakable Texas twang, calmly drawled:

“Y’all mind repeating the question? I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

The guy repeated his question, a little annoyed, but we managed to survive the show. Neither Gene nor Hayden mentioned my gaffe.

Hayden could have blamed technical problems, or the idiot kid who didn’t know how to do his job. But he took it on himself. It was a little thing, but it was taking care of the little things that made him a great coach and a good person. Also, it was the kind of quick thinking that I imagined served him very well in those down-to-the-wire games.

Hayden Fry would go on to become one of college football’s most legendary figures, whose impact continues today, more than two decades after his retirement.

But I will always remember the coach who took the blame for an error made by a young producer whose name he didn’t even know.