“(U)niversity of (N)othing’s (I)mpossible”

“(U)niversity of (N)othing’s (I)mpossible”

March 16, 1990 was a historic day for the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team.

To write that is a big understatement.

Maurice Newby...the man who made the shot that sent the Cedar Valley into a frenzy. (UNI Athletics Communications)
Maurice Newby…the man who made the shot that sent the Cedar Valley into a frenzy. (UNI Athletics Communications)

Twenty-five years ago today, in their first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a Division I-A program, the 14th seeded Panthers faced the Missouri Tigers, who were seeded 3rd and at one time, were ranked #1 in the polls.

UNI, tied with Mizzou, 71-71, with 10 seconds left, had the ball on the sidelines. Troy Muilenburg inbounded the ball to point guard Dale Turner. Turner dribbles the ball to the right, then reverses back to the left. Maurice Newby comes towards Turner, as Mizzou’s Anthony Peeler doesn’t switch off Turner quick enough as Newby receives the pass from Turner. Newby, with time running out, gathers himself behind the three-point line and lets one fly…


The Tigers, with no timeouts to use, hurry to inbound the ball and heaves it past the basket into the crowd as the buzzer sounds.

The Panthers won, 74-71 over the Tigers. It was one of the biggest upsets in the 1990 tournament and goes down in the annuals as one of the most memorable in Iowa sports history.

There is a distinction that has to be made here, if you don’t mind.  The 2010 win versus Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament was the biggest win in the program’s history. The Jayhawks were the top seed and nationally ranked in the top 5 during the 2009-10 season.

While many fans, and rightfully so, will say Kansas ranks #1 as the biggest win, the victory over Mizzou was the most “defining” win for the Panthers’ basketball program.


You can’t dismiss what that win over the Tigers meant to UNI. Until 1981, UNI was a Division II school. When they made the leap to Division I, they went through plenty of growing pains. To Iowa, Iowa State and the rest of the state, Northern Iowa was a blip on the map. Yes, they are a state school, but they were not always treated as equals like their big brothers were.

UNI is the school where the student body is slightly over 90% Iowan. It was known as Iowa State Teachers’ College until 1967. Norm Stewart, the losing coach for Missouri, was the head coach for ISTC from 1962 to 1969. Panthers athletics were known more for wrestling, volleyball, and most times than not, football.

Jason Reese cuts down the nets after the Panthers' 53-45 win over UW-Green Bay for the Mid-Continent tournament championship. (UNI Athletics Communications)
Jason Reese cuts down the nets after the Panthers’ 53-45 win over UW-Green Bay for the Mid-Continent tournament championship. (UNI Athletics Communications)

The 1989-90 season for UNI was a defining moment for the team for various reasons. They hosted the Iowa Hawkeyes for the first time in seven decades. The game, held in the UNI-Dome on January 3rd, created a buzz that hasn’t been seen since the Dome opened in late 1975. With the court raised and centered in the middle of Dome, 22,676 fans witnessed and were part of history. It was the largest crowd to watch a college basketball game in state history. That record still stands today.

UNI, behind 15 second half points by reserve Brad Hill, upset the Hawkeyes, 77-74.

In early March, the Panthers hosted the Mid-Continent Conference tournament. After finishing in fourth place in the league, and losers of three of their last five games, there were plenty for UNI to prove. They lost only two games in “Eldon’s Dome of Doom” in the regular season.

After a wild triple overtime win over Illinois-Chicago in the first round, Northern Iowa got a go-ahead basket to lead (Southwest) Missouri State 63-61, the Bears had the ball and a chance to tie or win the game. They were called for traveling with 4 seconds left. The Panthers advanced to the title game against a Wisconsin-Green Bay team that beaten the twice during the season.

With a loud raucous crowd behind them, Northern Iowa stymied the Phoenix and star player (current Virginia coach) Tony Bennett, 53-45, to earn their first ever appearance in the “Big Dance.”

Jason Reese (left) and Nick Pace joking around during a 2012 reunion of the '89-90 UNI team on campus. (Courier archives)
Jason Reese (left) and Nick Pace joking around during a 2012 reunion of the ’89-90 UNI team on campus. (Courier archives)

Purple fever was running white-hot through the Cedar Valley and the state. Panthers fans had something to boast about and a moniker for the team: University of Nothing’s Impossible: beating Iowa, winning three games in three nights to win the conference tournament. Nothing was impossible for this team: Jason Reese, Maurice Newby, Troy Muilenburg, Dale Turner, Steve Phyfe, Cedric McCullough, Cam Johnson, Nick Pace, Brad Hill, Jonathon Cox, Scott Socha, Kent Pollpeter, and Steve Deering.

Northern Iowa drew Missouri in the Southeast regional at Richmond, Virginia Friday morning, March 16th.

Here is the full game, without commercials.

See what I mean why I say a “defining” moment for UNI basketball? That season gave the Panthers the foundation they needed to build success…and what we see today, as Northern Iowa returns to the tournament to face Wyoming on Friday.

Since 1990, Northern Iowa has made the NCAA tournament in 2004-06 and 2009-10, and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in 2004, 2009, 2010, and two weeks ago.

Steve Phfye holds the Mid-Continent trophy in the air. (UNI Athletics Communications)
Steve Phfye holds the Mid-Continent trophy in the air. (UNI Athletics Communications)

The win against Mizzou turned UNI from a “blip” to a place where getting an easy win was no longer possible. Before beating Kansas and Missouri, Iowa was their biggest win, only to eclipse that two months later, knocking off the Tigers.

Northern Iowa may still be the little brother Iowa and ISU would rather not be bothered with, but there is no disputing this: UNI is no longer a pushover. They’re the ones doing the pushing around, which makes the rivalry between the three public schools, and Drake, something that fans in Iowa can appreciate and enjoy.

Nothing is impossible for the Purple and the Gold.




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.


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.

Are We Heading to a Self-Sustaining Culture?

What stays and what goes? That is the question as Fiscal Year 2012 arrives on July 1, 2011.

Budget cuts. 

No one likes them.  No one wants to be the one to swing the ax.  Reality-wise, regardless of opinion and perspective, it’s a business decision that affects a lot of people.  Public broadcasting, preschool, and various other programs are being scrutinized and debated.  Should they continue to be supported by the “taxpayers” (government), be eliminated, or, be self-sustaining? 

Waaa…? (Yes, I said Waaa, as in “what?”)

Self-sustaining.  It feels like we’re heading towards a culture where if we want to keep something, then we have to find a way to keep it and to operate it on our own. 

College athletic programs are on the verge of doing that, sooner if not later.  Over the past year, the Iowa Board of Regents sent a directive to the three state schools that they will be self-sustaining entities and not rely on state funding.  What does that mean?  It means that the next time an athlete gets into trouble, the taxpayers can’t bitch about paying for his or her scholarship, because our money isn’t going to fund the sports programs. 

If UNI athletics get cut off from state support, will it survive in Division I-A or drop down to I-AA?

For UNI, they are not in a position to be self-sustaining, as President Ben Allen told the BOR last fall.  UNI is not Iowa or Iowa State (though ISU is ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 when it comes to athletic funding and resources).  If the Panthers are unable to establish their athletic program as a separate entity, they could move down to Division 1-AA, or at worst, Division II. 

In fact, remember the mass hysteria that Texas caused last year when they threatened to leave the Big 12?  If you weren’t paying attention since the end of the football season, Texas now has their own television network, the lion’s share of the overall Big 12 television profits, and could end up being the first Division 1-A school to be the first real self-sufficient athletic program and not be dependent on the University of Texas as a school and the Texas university system. 

Why am I bringing up Texas and self-sustainment?  Because it’s evident and likely that if we want to keep some of the non-sports programs like preschool or public broadcasting, we may have to pay more for it or lose it, unless there’s another way to keep it going.

The Mayor, The Jayhawk, and I (Linn-Mar 64 Waukee 52)


Fred Hoiberg (left) and Bill Self (middle) at the Linn-Mar @ Waukee game.


Marcus Paige scored 23 points and Josh Montague added 13 as Linn-Mar defeated host Waukee, 64-52.  In front of a large crowd, with ISU coach Fred Hoiberg and Kansas coach Bill Self in attendance, Linn-Mar pulled away in the 2nd quarter and never trailed after being tied 10-10 after the first stanza.  Waukee’s Judd Welfringer was the Warriors’ leading scorer with 25 points, including 4 3-pointers.  It was Welfringer’s first game, after transferring from Arizona during the summer.

Hoiberg and Self were there to scout Paige, who is being recruited by several other major programs.  Welfringer is being recruited by Drake.  He was an all-stater in Arizona.


Waukee Warriors

Thoughts:  The Lions started out slow, but found their groove in the second quarter.  Being that this was the season opener, both teams had a tough time finding the hoop early on.  Waukee tried to slow things down on offense, but Linn-Mar started applying pressure on defense to force the Warriors to make bad shots.  On offense, the Lions worked their game plan with good passing and setting up shots from the perimeter for Paige, Montague, and Shane Benton, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half.  That also opened up the lane as well for coach Chris Robertson’s crew.

Paige’s jumper looked effortless and smooth from the outside.  He could have camped out all day from 15+ feet and score every time.

Shane Gogg, the 6’7″ sophomore for L-M, scored only 4 points, but looked and played more active than Waukee’s big men, who struggled to finish plays in the lane.  Jordan Stotts (6’7″ F Jr.) finished with 5 points and Matt Roling (6’6 C Sr.) scored 4 markers.


Linn-Mar Lions

It’s only the first game of the season, with that said, Linn-Mar picked up a good road win against a team that can compete in the CIML-Iowa Conference, if their big guys can muscle up and clean up on the boards.  Finding another guy besides Welfringer to score wouldn’t hurt either.  There is a lot of promise and talent around Welfringer.  The Lions were active around the hoop for offensive and defensive rebounds.

A few sideline bits:  When Hoiberg walked into the gym with his wife, the Waukee student section didn’t hesitate by shouting “Freddy, Freddy, Freddy” in his direction.  Hoiberg stops and waves to the section.  They did the same when Bill Self arrived, by chanting “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” and “Bill Self, Bill Self!” Self cracked a smile and shook his head in amazement.

The Linn-Mar fans got a good chuckle when Paige was on the free throw line.  The Warriors students started chanting “Ashton” and “Demi”, as a reminder of the minor NCAA violation that embroiled when the couple met Paige and Josh Oglesby at the UI-ISU football game in September.

The Mayor was sitting in the Linn-Mar section for the entire game, as Self stood by the wall behind the north basket near the Linn-Mar bench.  At halftime, Hoiberg strolls over and chats up Self until the start of the 3rd quarter.

Priorities All Wet

Hilton Coliseum, courtesy of Chris Williams of Cyclone Fanatic.

I wrote a post in June about making flood-prone areas like Birdland Park and Four Mile Creek a priority if we wanted to prevent another disastrous flood.

Maybe today will finally be the moment that the State of Iowa, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the federal government can stop fumbling their thumbs and come up with an aggressive plan to do something in preventing a scene like this:

Cedar Rapids, 2008

and this…

…and, sadly as of right now in Ames, this…

Courtesy of Christopher Gannon of the Des Moines Register.

Have we learned anything from 1993?  2008?  Right now?

If not, then we will never learn from history.  With as much technological and eco-friendly ideas we have on the drawing board, we can’t seem to put our heads together and find a way to prevent a creek, river, or a dam from wiping out someone’s home.

Keeping up with the News (sort of…)

The stoic and proud Centennial Bridge, linking Davenport and Rock Island.

After a few days with the family, it’s good to be back in front of the computer screen and catch up on the events that was.  I didn’t realize how much I miss not being near a good reliable computer in contrast to my sister’s slow-as-molasses PC.  If I’m fortunate enough, I hope to invest in a laptop for my birthday in January.

Big 12 Commish Dan Beebe. No, he shouldn't get credit for "saving" the Big 12 (minus 2). He's still a dead man walking.

Oh, that $10 million exit penalty fee that Nebraska and Colorado is to pay to the Big 12?  It didn’t exist.  It was a “threat” if that’s what you want to call it!

Texas pulled a two-step spin move on the Pac-10 and decided to remain in the Big 12.  Well, not actually “remain” in the league, but wrangled themselves a better TV deal that will give them an opportunity to create their own network.  As Texas gets the better of the deal, schools like Iowa State and Kansas State will say that with two less teams in the league, the 10 remaining schools will get a bigger share of the media profits.

That’s all well and good, but it’s only a short-term fix for an evolving issue that will be long-term:  the future of athletic conferences and the push to form super-conferences as a way to lock out smaller leagues from being involved in the BCS for college football and March Madness for college basketball.

Many fans were griping over Senators Harkin and Grassley possibly getting involved in the fray to protect Iowa State.  Maybe a history lesson is needed here.  From 1934 until 1977 Iowa and Iowa State didn’t play each other. Iowa, in particular, didn’t see the need to add ISU to their schedule.  It took the late Bill Reichardt, former Hawkeye standout, local clothier, and state senator, to push the renewal of the rivalry through the Iowa Legislature.  It was by that effort that the Hawks and Clones are playing today.

People vote for elected officials to "take care of them" as well as "take care of what they love" including their schools.

So to say that elected officials need to stay out of sports and deal with the oil spill is hypocritical in my book.  Sports like boxing and horse racing has traditionally been besieged with corruption, illegal practices, and other issues in which the government had to step in and enforce rules in order to better regulate these sports.  It is a matter of “institutional control”.  If Congress and the feds have to probe and regulate sports like horse racing and boxing, then they have the time to should inquire about the ineffectiveness of entities like MLB and the NCAA, if said entities are unable or unwilling to police themselves and their sport.

Most countries have a “minister of sports” that are charged with ensuring that everyone “play by the rules.”  The United States doesn’t have a “sports minister”, but it shouldn’t be an excuse not to have some oversight if the leagues and organizations that run the sports leagues we watch can’t seem to get their acts in line.

The Des Moines Register has begun a short series of articles addressing what the future of the Golden Circle (Des Moines and the surrounding 6-county region) will be.  What do we need to have in make life better here in the capital city?  There are a few things I think we need to address first before asking for money to build a new transit mall for DART ( it wouldn’t hurt to consider some of the buildings south of downtown and use some ingenuity with these buildings).

First of all, let’s get the Birdland Park/neighborhood levee deal taken care of.  It’s makes no sense to try to attract people to move and live in Des Moines if we can’t take care of the residents who are already here. The good folks in the Birdland neighborhood or low-lying areas should not have to for another flood before something can be done to protect them.

I have more suggestions, but that will wait for now.

“Head east, Big Red”

Load up the wagon, Ma, we're heading east....to the Big 10!

Sean Callahan from Husker Illustrated has reported the inevitable, and I say this with caution, that the Board of Regents at the University of Nebraska will meet on Friday morning and is likely to vote in favor of leaving the Big 12.

Later on that day, the Big 10 is expected to extend the invite for Tom Osborne and the Big Red Nation to join their league.

As Horace Greeley would say today:  “Go east, young man.”

The Huskers have called Missouri and Colorado’s bluff, and the covered wagon wheels are now moving…to send the Big 12 off the cliff.

It’s on like Donkey Kong now, kiddies.

Today’s ever-changing conference comings-and-goings:

Big 10: Nebraska

Pac 10: Colorado and all of the Texas schools, sans Baylor

Screwed: Missouri and Baylor (welcome to the club fellas), the Kansas schools, and ISU

Who should start a new conference?: the teams in the screwed category plus Utah, Colorado State, and Tulsa.  It’s the “new” Big 8!