Every Night Was “The Tonight Show” in Ames: Johnny Orr (1927-2013)

Johnny Orr walking out with Fred Hoiberg to a raucous crowd prior to the Cyclones’ game against Michigan in November. (David Purdy/Getty Images North America)

If there was one lasting image, albeit a fitting one, this picture above said it best. Before the tip-off of Iowa State’s game versus Michigan, head coach Fred Hoiberg surprised many by walking out of the tunnel…with Johnny Orr by his side. For 14 seasons, Orr walked out of that same tunnel, pumps his fist to the melody of “The Tonight Show” and Cyclones fans went wild.

On that Sunday afternoon last month, everything became full circle for Johnny. The two teams he coached faced each other, one of his star players patrolling the sidelines, and the television analyst that prompted Johnny to utter the infamous and hilarious “..and we kicked your ass!” line to him, Dick Vitale, was on hand to call his first game ever at Hilton Coliseum.

How ironic it was. The stars were aligned that afternoon.

And how bittersweet it is this morning.

Johnny Orr left us this morning at age 86.

Orr was more than the man and the architect of making Iowa State a formidable foe in the Big 8 and now Big 12 Conference. Johnny was more than the face of Cyclones Country and an endearing and wildly popular icon, 19 years after he retired as head coach.

Johnny Orr, to me, is part of a special group of unforgettable individuals that we were damn blessed and lucky to have. He was a character…with character, quick to turn a scowl at a ref to glee after a big play, and even when fans of the opposing team couldn’t stand him, they couldn’t help but to privately smile and fall for his charms.

Johnny (43) as a star player for the Taylorville (IL) Tornadoes. He led Taylorville to the first undefeated season in Illinois prep basketball history. MGoBlog has a great feature on Johnny here. (MGoBlog)

Johnny started his coaching career at Dubuque Senior in the 50’s, where he took two squads to the state tournament. Before that, he played for the Waterloo Hawks, who then became the St. Louis (and now Atlanta) Hawks in the early days of the NBA. Johnny had already planted the seeds of his lore here in Iowa. After a few stops at Wisconsin (as an assistant), and UMass (as head coach), he landed in Ann Arbor. Michigan wasn’t just a football school. The Wolverines had great tradition in basketball as well (Cazzie Russell, Rudy Tomjanovich, etc).

Johnny took the Wolverines to 2 NIT appearances, a first-round NCAA trip, two Elite Eight appearances, and finishing as runner-ups to national champion Indiana in 1976. Indiana remains the last team to go undefeated and win a title. Orr is the winningest coach in Michigan basketball history with 209 wins.

Think about this: Orr was the winningest and longest-serving coach at two schools in two power conferences: the Big 10 and the Big 8 (12).

Iowa State athletic director Lou McCullough was looking for anyone to coach the Cyclones.

Anyone.

He got in touch with Johnny to ask him a few questions about possible candidates. The next thing McCullough knew, Johnny showed interest in the job. Former Des Moines Register sports columnist Marc Hansen picks up the story here.

After a few lean years and patience (which in today’s college sports world, no one seems to have when it comes to building, or rebuilding, programs), Johnny kept his recruiting connection to Detroit by bringing in some guys named Grayer and Stevens, took a chance on a skinny guard named Hornacek, and assembled a few more players, and Ames no longer became an easy place to grab a win and dinner take out from the Hickory House.

Picture of the 1984-85 Cyclones men’s basketball team. (Visions: Iowa State Alum Magazine)

When the Cyclones made the NCAA tournament in 1985, it was euphoria. But, Johnny had a few more tricks up his sleeve. The Cyclones faced Michigan, his old team in the first round of the 1986 NCAA tournament. I think you know the outcome of that game. One of the biggest wins in school history at that point. That wasn’t enough for the Cardinal and Gold.

The Lafester Rhodes game, where former Hawkeyes assistant coach Gary Close and Orr nearly came to blows at the end of the game; Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri visiting Hilton; and Big Monday. The Iowa Hawkeyes were no longer the biggest show in the state. With Johnny and the Cyclones, every night was “The Tonight Show” in Ames.

I saw Johnny in person only once. It was several years ago at a golf outing to benefit the American Diabetes Association, in which I currently serve on the board for. Per my nature, when I see VIPs like Johnny, Tom Harkin, or someone like Barry Griswell and Keith Murphy, I give them their space. I don’t need to walk up to them and chat them up or get an autograph. Observing and watching them from afar is enough for me.

I am reminded of a quote that was written in May that rings ever so true today.

It’s going to take a while to wrap my mind around the fact Jim Zabel has died, even though he was 91 years old.

That was written by Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Mike Hlas in May, after Jim Zabel’s passing. It’s going to take a while for all of us to wrap our minds around the fact that two of the most iconic faces of Iowa sports are now silent. There is also something to add: the era of colorful, charismatic and personable coaches are nearing an end.

Today, we are inundated with “coach-speak”, CEO-like processes and mindset in sports, branding is everything, and the influx of constant interaction and media. Back then, coaches like Johnny, Knight, Wimp Sanderson, and even Bill Raftery were the same people off the court as they were on it, for the most part. For good (Orr) and for bad (Knight).

Orr’s passing today is symbolic, along with Zabel’s passing in May: a special era of unforgettable  individuals who gave this state an identity and a sense of pride in our teams, will forever live in memory.

“The Tonight Show” theme was and will always be Johnny Orr’s intro as he walked out on the court. In the second-to-last Tonight Show for Johnny Carson, Bette Midler was Carson’s last guest. She performed two songs, which were Carson’s favorite. “One More For My Baby” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” were the selections.

As we pay tribute and remember Johnny Orr on this, the final day of 2013, a melancholy and bittersweet happy trails for a coach, already successful and revered, who took a chance on a school that had no consistent winning tradition or culture, and turned it into a place so special and endearing, a Kansas Jayhawk fan can openly admit, with trepidation, that there’s something about Hilton Magic that makes Iowa State one of the toughest places to play…ever.

Farewell, Johnny.

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