- Mark Schipper
Hayden Fry Classic: North Texas Mean Green Set to Honor Legendary Head Coach against SMU Mustangs
By Mark Schipper
If he is looking down from football Valhalla, former North Texas head coach Hayden Fry will see the program he led in the middle 1970’s pull on special lime green and white Flying Worm uniforms to honor his era in Denton, Texas.
The Mean Green picked the sarcastically named Safeway Bowl— a game against reluctant Dallas-area rival SMU—to salute their former coach, and that is no coincidence. Fry, as a 31-year-old man, had served as both head football coach and athletic director at SMU for ten years before signing on to do the same job at North Texas State.
Not only did Fry win the 1966 Southwest Conference title at SMU, the first league crown since Doak Walker’s glory days in the 1940s, and the last until the Death Penalty years of the 1980s, he integrated the staunchly segregationist league, a move he had forced the SMU administration to agree to before he took the job.
“The opportunity to open the Southwest Conference door to black athletes really excited me,” Fry said in his 2001 autobiography. It remained for the rest of his life the "greatest thing" he'd ever done in football, Fry told the New York Times.
If the game continues between the public North Texas University and privately run SMU—it is currently in year seven of a twelve year home-and-home contract—there may be an opportunity to rename the rivalry the Hayden Fry Classic, or some equivalent title, after the head coach who led both programs to historic glory.
In 1972 when Fry arrived in Denton the football program was depressed and underfunded. He set to work raising money in creative ways—at one point receiving a large sum from the famous country singer Willie Nelson, who had agreed to play a benefit concert and signed over his fee to Fry and the program on the spot.
As he would do again at the University of Iowa, Fry put to work one of his fundamental psychological truths, a combination of ‘the clothes make the man,’ and ‘when you look good, you feel good,’ which, by extension, meant you’d play good, too.
With the newly raised money, Fry rebranded the Eagles with the abstract logo students nicknamed the Flying Worm, but also emphasized the Mean Green nickname, an homage to the school’s legendary defensive lineman Mean Joe Green, who was on the verge of hall of fame greatness with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Fry also switched to a lime green primary color instead of the school's traditional kelly green, suggesting a bright and bold future was ahead for the program. With just a few strategic moves Fry had erased the weight of an unremarkable past and set the stage for a glorious future.
“What you don’t know is how good you can be,” he told his players.
Stunningly, the Eagles would win the Missouri Valley Conference outright in Fry’s first season. After the following year, Fry and the administration left the conference—which emphasized basketball and had little interest in football—making North Texas an independent on a quest to join the SWC or an equivalent league. A mission they were not able to complete before Fry's tenure ended in 1978.
Along the way, Fry’s Eagles scored a mega upset in 1975 over Tennessee 21-14 inside vaunted Neyland Stadium, causing the Volunteers to buy out the contract for the return game back in Denton rather than play it. The triumph for many remains the greatest win in program history.
Fry’s high-water mark was a 10-1 finish and number sixteen national ranking in 1977, which included a throttling of his former program SMU inside Texas Stadium to finish the campaign in high style.
After a follow up 9-2 season in 1978 and being left out in the cold without a bowl invitation for the fourth straight year despite a 32-12 overall record, Fry realized the program had reached its zenith under his guidance.
When the University of Iowa offered Fry a job in the Big Ten, he took it. He would spend the next twenty years in Iowa City, a state he had never visited before signing the contract, where he again returned a proud but moribund program to glory, winning three Big Ten titles and taking the Hawkeyes to fourteen bowl games, including three Rose Bowls.
It was in Iowa City the folksy Texan Fry became a national figure and college football legend, inducted into the college football hall of fame in 2003 alongside Jerry LaVias, the player he had signed at SMU to integrate the league back in 1965.
Fry passed away last December aged 90 at his home in Dallas. A native son of Eastland, Texas, Fry’s great-great-grandfather fought under General Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto, which historians regard as the decisive fight during the 1835-1836 Texas Revolution.
Fry worked as a roughneck in the Texas oilfields as a teenager, and won a high-school state championship as quarterback at fabled Odessa High School. He went on to play the same position at Baylor University where he earned a degree in psychology, building skills he would use the rest of his life to motivate his football teams and undermine the focus of his opponents.
Fry famously painted the visiting locker rooms at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City a soft pink, something he knew had been done at psychiatric institutions to pacify and mellow aggressive patients. He believed the color would have a soothing and mollifying effect on the opposition, and famously stated that if a visiting head coach ever complained about the situation, he knew he'd given his team an edge.
Following college Fry had earned the rank of captain in the Marine Corps, where he coached six-man Marine Corps football alongside legendary Raiders owner and coach Al Davis. Fry credited those years for inspiring many of the creative offensive formations and unique plays he would later gather fame and admiration for as a head coach.