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Iowa Football: Hawkeyes Honor Hayden Fry in the Holiday Bowl, and Beyond

Iowa Football: Hawkeyes Honor Hayden Fry in the Holiday Bowl, and Beyond

Iowa Football: Hawkeyes Honor Hayden Fry in the Holiday Bowl, and Beyond

SAN DIEGO — Iowa's 49-24 Holiday Bowl rout of USC could only end in one way that truly fit the occasion: the Hokey Pokey.

Hawkeyes players broke into the traditional children's song in their locker room at SDCCU Stadium, one final moment dedicated on the night to the late Hayden Fry.

"I didn't queue them up on that one. Somebody else may have," said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. "Robin [Fry's daughter] actually asked me about that 10 days ago, if that was going to happen. That was one of Coach Fry's signatures, one of many actually. Nice tribute to him."

One could not have scripted a more perfect finish to a game emblematic of Fry's many signatures still evident on Iowa football.

Playing USC — a "brand name" opponent, as several Hawkeyes players and Ferentz called it — in a virtual road game, Iowa dominated in every phase. The Hawkeyes rolled up a season-high 49 points, scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams, and never once trailed.

And they did it all wearing helmets to honor Fry.

The Holiday Bowl romp, which sealed Iowa's sixth 10-win campaign of Ferentz's tenure, marked Iowa's first game since the Dec. 17 death of the Hall of Fame coach. The Hawkeyes donned black helmets sans the Tigerhawk logo, a gesture made just twice previously since the icon was first added to Iowa's caps.

But honoring Fry isn't a one-time deal for Iowa football. The Hawkeyes intrinsically continue the coach's legacy, more than two decades after his retirement and amid an ever-evolving college football landscape.

"The legacy he left on the University of Iowa is unmatched by anybody," said defensive end A.J. Epenesa. "You think of Iowa, you think of Hayden Fry and Dan Gable and people like that. To be able to have a man like that just touch a program so much in that way, it makes you feel good to be part of a program like this, and to be a part of a team coached by coach Ferentz."

No program at the Football Bowl Subdivision level has the stability of Iowa over the past 40 years. This season marked the 20th anniversary of Fry handing the reins to Ferentz, a move made 20 years after Bump Elliott brought Fry in from North Texas.

Elliott — a name spoken with the same reverential tone as Fry's or legendary wrestling coach Gable's — died on Dec. 7. The Hawkeyes' Holiday Bowl helmets included a sticker commemorating him, as well.

Iowa had not played in a bowl game since the 1959 Rose Bowl prior to Fry's arrival. The Hawkeyes reached 14 in his tenure, including three Holiday Bowls and three Rose Bowl Games. Ferentz was there for the formative stretch of the Fry era as an assistant from 1981, when the bowl drought ended, through 1989.

This season's Holiday Bowl marked the 17th postseason of the Ferentz era, and Iowa's seventh straight. USC is the third consecutive bowl opponent the Hawkeyes beat, and representative of the third different Power 5 conference they've knocked off in that time.

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By reaching 10 wins in 2019, Iowa's redshirt seniors exit with 47 wins in their careers. That's the best five-year stretch in program history.

The Iowa formula is working in the current era, and the Iowa formula of today bears plenty of similarities to when Ferentz joined Fry's staff in 1981.

"The first day we come in, [Ferentz] tells us what the program is all about," wide receiver Brandon Smith said. "It's about toughness, being smart, being physical. We knew what to expect when we came to Iowa, and nothing changed."

Likewise, some things from the Fry era to a new decade are unchanged. That first bowl team of his tenure in 1981 held opponents to 13.1 points per game; the 2019 Hawkeyes allowed just 14 points per.

Offensively, Iowa has remained "hard-minded, hard-nosed," as Smith described it. The Holiday Bowl showed some prime examples, like offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz calling a series of quarterback sneaks for Nate Stanley in the red zone and simply daring USC to do something against Iowa's offensive line.

"They do things right here, down to the smallest detail," said Alaric Jackson, the star of that offensive line. "KF, coach Brian Ferentz, [strength and conditioning] coach [Chris] Doyle hammer away at every detail."

Sometimes, details beat star power.

"Iowa isn't known for 5-star [recruits]," Smith said, before pausing and adding with a laugh: "Well, except maybe A.J."

After all, a team does need elite-level talent to compete in this era. But Iowa recruiting classes don't wow on National Signing Day in the same way as a name-brand program like USC, which routinely finished ranked in the top 10 for recruiting before this season, or Iowa's Big Ten Conference counterpart Ohio State.

And yet, the Hawkeyes have victories of 25 and 31 points over those two programs in the last three years.

For all its success over the last four decades, Iowa has not lost touch with the motivation Fry instilled in the program when it was riding a two decade-plus bowl-less skid. Fry may be gone, but the attitude the Hawkeyes carry ensures his ideals live on.

"[Ferentz] said coach Fry would have loved to coach our team, and would have been proud of us," offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs said. "That's special."

As special as a rendition of the Hokey Pokey on a Friday night in San Diego.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

(Top photo by Brian Ray, courtesy of