Hayden Fry says he was the last shoe clerk hired by a Big Ten school. He used to call shoe clerks something else, but he cleaned up his language after deciding all those shoe clerks still coaching college football wouldn't much appreciate it. People are funny about what you call them. Not long after taking over as football coach at the University of Iowa in 1979, he made the mistake of referring to women as "li'l dumplings," and he still suffers for it.

Some feminist group on campus called him a sexist pig. And it didn't seem to matter when he said he couldn't help it, he was only talking. Hayden Fry said that's what folks did out in west Texas, where he came from, they talked. He always thought it was a fine, good thing.

Then one day he put on a coat and tie, and what he calls "my investment" -- his big Rolex watch with the gold nugget band and matching gold nugget ring -- and he went to an awards banquet and addressed the crowd as "ladies and gentlemen," which was another big mistake. A woman in the crowd took offense, claiming "ladies" was the word you saw tacked over the bathroom door. Fry said, "What?" Then he said, "Yes, ma'am."

Fry says you elevate your program by saying "yes, ma'am," and "no, ma'am." So he gets his boys to say it. And he gets his boys to tuck their shirttails in their trousers. Fry would like you to believe that's one good reason why his team, at 7-0, is ranked No. 1 in every major wire service poll, the unanimous choice by both the Associated Press and United Press International, and leading the Big Ten Conference in a resurgence of power and national prominence.

Once dominated by Michigan and Ohio State, the conference, Fry says, no longer "gets tagged the Big Two and the Little Eight. Now, in the last five or six years, the weaker teams, like Iowa, really established a lot of credibility and helped close the gap . . . It's been in a cycle, and had been on the down side too long. Used to, in the '50s and '60s, it dominated, but it really went down in the '70s. Winning now, it's got a lot to do with new blood."

Fry said he and his players take great pride in knowing that the Big Ten, sometimes referred to as "those slackers" by rival conferences, is enjoying its best record against outside opposition in 25 years and challenging the Southeastern Conference for the top spot in the national nonconference rankings.

"This year the play in the Big Ten is so much better than it was last season," Hawkeyes linebacker Larry Station said. "The teams are so much better, as you can tell by their success against teams that beat 'em in the past."

Said wide receiver Scott Helverson, "You can't call us the slack conference anymore, not when you see how everybody's doing against nonconference teams. It really looked bad last year when we were the only Big Ten team to win in a bowl game. You could almost hear people start knocking us again."

According to James Van Valkenburg, the NCAA director of statistics, the Big Ten owns a 21-6 record against outside Division I-A opposition for a .778 winning percentage, its best since 1960 and third best since 1940. The SEC, at 25-5-4, boasts a .794 winning percentage against Division I-A opponents. Outstanding records against nonconference competition were not always a rarity for the Big Ten, which had only one losing record from 1940 through 1964.

Since 1974, the Big Ten's best nonconference record, 15-11, came in 1981, the year Iowa finally ended the nation's longest streak of nonwinning seasons at 19 and made it to the Rose Bowl. That was Fry's third year with the Hawkeyes.

"It's sort of like the stock market or the economy," Fry said. "It goes in a cycle. We'd been in a down cycle so long the odds were in our favor that we'd come out of it. The season I took the job, they'd had so many losing seasons I figured the better days had to be ahead of us."

Van Valkenburg credits Big Ten coaches for expanding their offenses and "finally beginning to appreciate the weapon of the forward pass" as reasons the conference has performed well against outside, Division I-A opponents.

Fry agrees. "They're out there making things happen," he said. "They're throwing the ball. No longer do you find the Woody Hayes syndrome of three yards and a cloud of dust." Definitely not at Iowa, with Chuck Long passing all over the lot.

Fry comes to the Midwest by way of North Texas State, where he coached for six years after Southern Methodist University fired him with one game remaining in the 1972 season. That year, the Mustangs finished 7-4, second in the conference. Fry says he never much cared for "the country club set" anyway, which is how he describes the SMU alumni.

At SMU, he was responsible for bringing in the Southwest Conference's first black coach and first black athlete, Jerry LeVias. Fry was much criticized for integrating the team, but LeVias made all-America and his coach was heard to say, "Every time he scored a touchdown, all my good friends thought he became whiter and whiter."

Fry won big at North Texas State in Denton, about 30 miles north of Dallas, but was still frustrated. "We'd go 10-1, 9-2, and we not only couldn't get on TV or into a bowl game, we couldn't even get on the radio," he said. "And my coaches, they said, 'If we work this hard and go this far, let's go where they'll reward us.' Here, you win your games and you go to the Rose Bowl."

When the Iowa job came up, he said he didn't mind visiting the place, but he had no idea where it was. "Where is Iowa City, Iowa?" he asked around. All he knew was that the football program was sick, and he liked going to work on sick football teams. "When you take over a sick program, you have to destroy everything you can that reminds you of losing," was his philosophy.

He also liked knowing "it was a University of. I'd coached against a lot of those teams. Alabama. Texas. Arkansas. Oklahoma. And I wanted my own University of, and it would be Iowa . . . I would've gone to the University of Iowa-Jima."

Right off, he decided he'd dress the place up. He called the equipment manager for the Pittsburgh Steelers and asked for a bit of information. He wanted to know the width of the stripes on the shirt sleeves and down the sides of the pants. He said he figured the Hawkeyes may not be winners, not like the Steelers, who had won the Super Bowl the year before, but at least they would look good. The next day, Fry received Terry Bradshaw's uniform in the mail.

And he hired two men to help promote the Hawkeyes. One, he called "the panhandler. The other was my commercial artist, and he's the fellow I told to paint the meanest-looking hawk you could find. We had a jillion hawks around here. When people look at it they don't know what kind of bird that is, then it dawns on 'em. Hey, that's an Iowa hawk. That ain't no Penn State hawk.

"We like to call it a Tiger Hawk, though I don't think there's such a thing."

Fry knows what his football team means to the people of the state. He knows about the depressed farm economy, and says "the farmers, bless their hearts, haven't had just one bad day, they've had three years of bad days. These are Czechs and Norwegians, Irish and Germans, and they've got tremendous pride. You know they're hurtin'. Now, so many of them are just hanging on."

Fry says he knows football is a "tonic" for the farmers, "who grow their rows of corn real straight. You don't see any sloppy rows. You come to Iowa, you don't farm, you landscape."

But some of the most ardent followers of Iowa football have long wondered at the intentions of their coach. His first year, Fry established the Hawkeye Marketing Group, "my own tiny li'l company" which sold, he said, 62 items in J.C. Penney stores throughout the state. He wanted everybody who loved the Hawkeyes to wear the black and gold.

He wanted to watch them flick cigarette ashes into black and gold ashtrays and drink their wholesome, Grade A milk from black and gold glasses. He wanted to see them throw down one royal flush after another at their friendly games of poker and know this glory and damned good luck came from the black and gold Tiger Hawk dressing the back of the cards.

Some people claimed Fry should remember he was there to coach football, not peddle black and gold knick-knacks. They also became upset last year when Fry threatened to quit if the university did not use $3.5 million of the athletic department's money to construct an indoor practice facility. What were his priorities? some wailed. What about the farmers? Why was he so concerned about making money when nobody had any?

"I asked for (the indoor facility) three times," he said. "The last time I said, 'You don't want to build it, that's fine. I'll pack my bags and go.' It was a threat and I didn't want to do it."

The storm passed, the building went up and the people kept paying good money for black and gold T-shirts. Last year, the athletic department received about $3 million in contributions, a Big Ten record. And through it all, Hayden Fry claims to have had "just the best time. We have it made because we don't have the pros to compete with. We're the only dance in town. And even the ladies know their football."