IOWA CITY, Iowa – They were three giants in the University of Iowa’s athletic history. Three men recognized on a first-name basis: Bump. Hayden. Lute.
They left a large footprint on Hawkeye sports, and opened the door to future success.
Chalmers “Bump” Elliott was Iowa’s athletic director for 21 years. Among his hires were basketball Coach Lute Olson on March 18, 1974 and football Coach Hayden Fry on December 9, 1978.
Olson, 39, signed a four-year deal worth $28,000 annually.
“As a young coach you always set certain goals,” Olson said at his introductory press conference. “The Big 10 has always been very intriguing to me. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to coach at Iowa.”
Fry, 49, signed a five-year deal worth $45,000 annually.
“If I did not believe Iowa can win in the near future I would not have left North Texas,” Fry told reporters.
Olson and Fry both inherited dormant programs and spun some black and gold magic. Olson’s touch included a piece of the Big Ten championship in 1979 and a trip to the Final Four in 1980. Fry took a program that had suffered through 17 consecutive non-winning seasons when he arrived and went to the Rose Bowl three times.
Sadly, Iowa has had to say goodbye to all three beloved figures in the last nine months. Elliott passed away on Dec. 7, 2019 at 94 years of age. Fry was 90 when he passed away 10 days later. And Olson, 85, died last Thursday.
The three collectively brought Iowa’s athletic program out of the wilderness. Elliott was tipped off to Olson by Al Schallau, a native Iowan living in California. Elliott took a look at Olson, a North Dakota native and the head coach at Long Beach State, and liked what he saw.
When Bob Commings was fired as football coach in 1978 with a season remaining on his contract, Elliott had a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He had hired Frank Lauterbur in 1971 and Commings in 1974.
Lauterbur’s three-year run was a disaster. Iowa went 4-28-1, including an 0-11 mark in 1973. Commings could do no better than a 5-6 mark in 1976 and 1977.
Elliott knew that his future likely rested on the success or failure of a third football hire.
“Any time you’re looking for a coach you feel pressure, because that’s a responsibility you can’t avoid,” Elliott said in 2015.
It wasn’t like he was a newcomer to the Big Ten. Elliott played football at both Purdue and Michigan, where he was an all-America halfback. When Forest Evashevski became Iowa’s football coach in 1952, he hired Elliott to be on his staff. Elliott later returned to Michigan and was the Wolverines’ head coach from 1959 to 1968.
Fry was one of seven candidates to interview for the job in 1978. Elliott’s brother, Pete was athletic director at Miami of Florida at the time.
“They had been in a search the year before,” Elliott recalled. “And Pete said the one person who stood out that they interviewed was Hayden Fry (of North Texas State). I had known Hayden. So I called him, he came up for a visit, and away it went.”
In between Olson and Fry, Elliott also hired Dan Gable as his head wrestling coach in 1976. Gable’s team won the first of nine NCAA titles under Elliott’s watch a year later.
It’s hard to imagine a more impressive hiring trifecta.
Olson’s task was to reboot a basketball program that had gone feast to famine under Dick Schultz in the four seasons following Ralph Miller’s departure for Oregon State.
Olson was handsome, a driven recruiter and outstanding strategist. Those elements turned him into a very popular Hawkeye.
When I transferred to the University of Iowa for the start of my junior year, I was scrambling to find a P.E. class to complete my first-semester hours. Registration was then held in Iowa Fieldhouse. I signed up for Coaching Basketball. The instructor was listed as Lute Olson.
Yea, right, I thought. But Olson was there for the first class, and many of those that followed. I remember driving to Des Moines on Dec. 3, 1974, to watch Iowa play Drake at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
Iowa won, 86-81, as Bruce “Sky’ King scored 23 points on 11 of 13 shooting. It was the first road victory of the Olson era, matching the number of road wins the season before. The next morning, I walked into my basketball class figuring there would be a substitute teacher. But Olson was there.
After the class, I walked up to him, told him I had been at the game and asked if he could diagram the press he had used the night before. He picked up a piece of chalk and went to work. It was fascinating.
A lot of victories followed. Iowa had six 20-win seasons and NCAA berths in Olson’s last seven seasons as coach.
He left for Arizona after nine seasons, turning the Wildcats into a national power. Arizona went to four Final Fours and won an NCAA title in 1997.
Fry was a colorful character and motivator with a brilliant football mind. Whether it was his sunglasses, white pants, the pink locker room or copying the Pittsburgh Steelers uniforms, he rapidly reversed the losing culture.
This headline in the Des Moines Register appeared the day after Elliott introduced his new football coach at a press conference:
CAN FRY TURN HAWKEYES AROUND?
Fry retired at Iowa as a legend for doing just that.
Two nights after he was hired, Fry made his first public appearance in Iowa Fieldhouse at an Iowa-Iowa State basketball game.
Fans greeted him with chants of “Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl,” a far-fetched request for a program that hadn’t logged a winning season since 1961.
Fry, never one to back down from the spotlight, promised the fans that night that Iowa was going to win again. Three seasons later, the Hawkeyes were 8-3 after beating Michigan State in the regular-season finale. And Ohio State’s victory over Michigan earlier that day paved the way for Iowa to go to the Rose Bowl.
Elliott was at Kinnick Stadium that day, and admitted to getting a little emotional as he watched roses being dropped from the top of the press box.
“That was a great day,” he said many years later.
Olson and Fry had beaten the odds and turned their programs into consistent winners. They also cemented Elliott’s legacy at Iowa. With an assist from Gable of course.
Elliott was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Olson was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. Fry joined Elliott in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
What a threesome.