Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, devoted to keeping tabs on former college football and basketball players and other bits of nostalgia. Today he tracks down former Iowa coach Hayden Fry for the origins of Iowa's pink locker rooms, on display Saturday against Ohio State.
For over three decades, opponents entering the locker room at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium have felt like they just walked into a dollhouse. The space is coated floor to ceiling in bubblegum pink, even in the bathrooms, from pink sinks to lockers that look better suited for Barbies than 300-pound linemen.
What is a program decked in black and gold doing with a pink locker room? As the familiar legend has it, former Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry, a psychology major, ordered the makeover when he took over in 1978 in an effort to create a soothing effect on opponents. Jails have employed the same technique.
But the psychological edge is only part of the reason.
Whatever the motivation, the motifs have become a cherished part of Iowa tradition and a constant annoyance for opponents. Former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler hated it so much he had his assistants put paper over the walls to cover it.
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The Iowa athletic department took things to a new level in 2005 when, as part of an $89 million renovation to the stadium, it added pink to just about everything else left in the locker room – shower floors, carpet, sinks, toilets, down to the urinals.
Not everyone was laughing. A visiting law professor at the school set off a media firestorm when she said the over-the-top makeover was offensive because it promoted sexism and homophobia by attempting to emasculate opponents. Suddenly, seven years after retiring from coaching, Fry found himself caught in the middle of a dispute in which he wanted no part. Supporters pointing out that sexism and homophobia had nothing to do with why Fry originally painted the locker room pink. Critics said that didn’t matter because sexism and homophobia were implied.
It came to a head when the coach ended up on a radio station with the irate head of a lesbian organization.
"This lady started in on me saying a lot of bad things about the pink locker room," said Fry, never short on knee-slapping stories in his Texas drawl. "And I finally had to interrupt her and I said, 'Lady, I don’t care how bad you have to go to the bathroom, I wouldn’t let you use my pink locker room.' And I hung up. And the radio station called me back and said, ‘Coach, you can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘I just did.’ And I hung up on him."
Five years later, the debate has died down and the pink locker room remains, with its legend only growing.
"I honestly don’t know anything about Iowa, the state or just anything to be honest,” Ohio State kicker Devin Barclay told the OSU student newspaper, The Lantern, ahead of Ohio State's visit to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. “I know that they have a pink locker room, that’s about it."
Sadly, Fry’s health has been an issue in recent years. He retired from coaching in 1998 because of prostate cancer and has had an ongoing battle with the disease since. Fry, 81, says if it weren’t for cancer, he'd still be coaching alongside Penn State's Joe Paterno, who turns 84 next month.
But cancer certainly hasn’t stripped the coach of the quirky sense of humor that sparked the pink locker room, player sing-alongs during practice, stand-up comedy routines prior to games and, occasionally, a team-wide rendition of the Hokey Pokey after big wins.
“I’ll give you my secret formula,” Fry said of his health. “Every morning when I wake up and realize I’m still on the right side of the grass, I do two things. I thank the good Lord, that’s number one. And number two, I reach over and chug a quart of WD-40 that keeps my metal knees lubricated."
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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present, and a frequent contributor to Yahoo! Sports Blogs.
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