Iowa State Icon Johnny Orr Passes Away at 86
By Mike Hlas, Reporter
AMES, Iowa - There are coaches who have won stacks of conference-championships, who won national-titles, who were and are genuine national household names.
None of them had a thing on Johnny Orr, who died Tuesday at age 86. A vast number of Iowans and others were both saddened by the news and smiled at their memories of him.
Orr did what so few others do. He induced unconditional love from Iowa State fans. Everybody loves winners, but this wasn’t that. Everyone in the Cyclone camp was delighted with Orr having good and entertaining basketball teams in his 14 seasons as ISU’s coach, but they loved the person.
He was a spitfire who would go to war with officials and an occasional opposing coach on behalf of his team, and who always made Cyclone fans feel like they mattered.
One of the grandest things I’ve seen in covering sports was when Iowa State’s pep band would play the old Tonight Show theme and Orr would come bounding out into the Hilton Coliseum arena, pumping his fists at the fans while clapping his hands, and grinning.
How many points a game was that moment alone always worth, revving up 14,000 Cyclones and setting the tone for two hours of emotional fun?
When ISU hired Orr, Cyclone basketball had a snazzy arena that was still close to brand-new. But Hilton was all dressed up with nowhere to go. ISU hoops was nothing. The arena was over half-empty for Cyclone games, and a half-empty Hilton may as well be completely vacant.
In a move that came out of nowhere, Iowa State Athletic Director Lou McCullough hired away Michigan’s coach. Orr had done big things, coaching the Wolverines to two Big Ten titles and an appearance in the 1976 national-title game and two other NCAA regional finals.
But he wasn’t the darling there, and Michigan was a football school through and through. Bo Schembechler’s shadow covered Ann Arbor and the state.
So ISU Athletic Director Lou McCullough, wanting to make a splash in basketball, offered Orr the job and he bit. It blew a lot of minds around the country.
The signing came the day after Iowa had lost the third-place game in the 1980 Final Four. It was the day when Iowa State announced it was going to have big-time basketball, too.
It got a lot more.
Orr came to a place that not only wanted him, but adored him for treating Iowa State like a destination job. Then, quickly, the fans loved him for a better reason. They were enthralled with his personality and passion.
“People have been great to me here,” Orr said on the 1994 day he announced his retirement. “I never dreamed that when I got here. I don’t know how it happened.
“Anywhere I’d go, the restaurant, the laundry, no matter. People were always the same."
But he knew what caused the genesis of the love affair. His leaving Michigan for Iowa State was a reversal of football coaches who had made their bones at ISU and left to become really big deals elsewhere.
“What that did was give these people hope that they had a chance to compete,” Orr said. “Johnny Majors left, and Earle Bruce left. Here I was, and I wasn’t gonna go anywhere else.
“I think people liked that.”
It took him four seasons just to have a winning record at ISU, but the change in direction was clear well before that. Orr was recruiting Michigan and elsewhere for athletes/ballplayers, and was putting a more-entertaining product on the court.
In Year 5, ISU got to the NCAA tourney. In Year 6, they beat none other than Big Ten champion Michigan in a second-round NCAA game in Minneapolis.
Iowa State returned to the NCAAs four more times under Orr, but never went that deep into the tournament again. Heck, they never had a better record than 9-5 in the Big Eight Conference, and were just 218-200 overall and 79-117 in the league under him.
But how many games did Orr’s teams win in Hilton Coliseum to cement the phrase “Hilton Magic” into Iowa’s lexicon? A lot.
“Larry Brown was my first coach with the Pacers,” Fred Hoiberg said when he became Iowa State’s coach in 2010. “He said that Hilton Coliseum was the hardest arena he ever had to coach in, and Larry Brown’s been coaching since the last turn of the century.”
Brown coached Kansas for five years and won a national-title there. He was 0-5 against Orr in Hilton.
Orr was an excitable, funny, often-profane person who had no filter. He always said what he thought in his own raspy voice, which made him a rare bird in major-college sports.
If he didn’t like someone or something, he didn’t pretend otherwise. If he thought the officials had jobbed his team, he didn’t couch his words. If he was giddy about a win, he wasn’t going to go into some even-keel pose. He celebrated good times, like everyone should.
Perhaps everyone who met Orr has their own stories they remember fondly. He gave me many in the time I covered him, but one I’ll share was off-duty in a highly unlikely scenario.
This was back when commercial airliners would sometimes make multiple stops. I had covered an Iowa State football game at Colorado, and got on a plane in Denver that would make stops in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The flight originated in Los Angeles.
Orr was on the outside seat of my row as I boarded the jet. He was returning home from a basketball camp in southern California. It was the fastest two-hour flight I’ve ever experienced. He had me laughing and learning things all the way to Des Moines, where he departed.
“I was at (former NBA player) John Block’s camp. He’s one of those born-agains,” Orr said in seriousness.
Then he paused before adding, “But he’s not a bad guy!”
I probably had tears in my eyes from laughing. The young woman who sat between us grimaced. He wasn’t trying to amuse or offend either of us. That was just what he thought.
Orr was the coach who called everyone else “Coach.” I’ve known ISU employees and fans who have the same thing for decades now, either consciously or subconsciously picking up the habit from Orr.
But he was never “Coach.” He was Johnny. He got Iowa State to slay a lot of giants over 14 years, and turned a stately arena into a basketball funhouse.
There’s a statue of Orr inside Hilton now. There should be. The arena opened nine years before Orr came to Ames. But for all practical purposes, it’s The House That Johnny Built.
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