“March Madness” Finally Comes to Des Moines

“March Madness” Finally Comes to Des Moines
The 2013 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Wells Fargo Arena . Hosting this proved that Des Moines was ready to host any major sporting event.
The 2013 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Wells Fargo Arena . Hosting this proved that Des Moines was ready to host any major sporting event.

Remember when Wells Fargo Arena and the Iowa Events Center opened in 2005?

Remember when people complained about paying $6 for a beer at Wells Fargo?

Remember when the Polk County Board of Supervisors had that ridiculous iron-clad contract to put an AHL team inside Wells Fargo?

Remember when people expected Wells Fargo and Des Moines to land a NCAA men’s tournament game right away?

Funny how we forget those moments. People stop complaining about the price of beer. It’s cheaper than venues like Solider Field and Yankee Stadium.

After the first fiasco of having an AHL team, the Board of Supervisors finally got it right by having the right owners and an affiliate that was in the region (Minnesota Wild).

And all that talk about never getting to host March Madness?  That debate ended today.


This morning, the NCAA has announced that Des Moines was selected as one of eight cities to host the first and second round games for the 2016 Division I men’s basketball tournament…aka March Madness.

Yes…our city. How about that?

See what patience and proving doubters wrong can do?

Des Moines was ready for this moment to come. It took a few “no’s”, but here it is.

This is why the IAHSAA and the IGHSAU moved their tournament dates up a few weeks early, much to their displeasure.

This is why Des Moines was willing to host the NCAA Track and Field Championships, the women’s basketball early and regional rounds, Iowa State hosting the volleyball regionals, and the coup d’etat, the NCAA wrestling championships in 2013.

And not to mention, Des Moines has hosted the AAU Junior Olympics the last few years as well.

This is why after listening to what they needed to do to improve their chances at hosting the men’s tournament, Des Moines, quietly and patiently, worked diligently to put as many of the pieces together. A new hotel will be built next to the Events Center complex in the next two years.

So that excuse of not having a hotel on site can no longer be used as an excuse by the NCAA or anyone else.

This news even surprised WHO-TV’s Andy Fales, who thought Des Moines was going to miss out, yet again:

…after the announcement:

The more you doubt a person or something, the more they can prove you wrong.

The credit goes to the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau and others like Iowa State, Drake, and sports fans. We earned this. We proved that anything can happen…patience is a virtue.

Is hosting a major national sports event still a “useless folly”, Mike Draper?  I didn’t think so. The CVB just got scoreboard.

That also goes for those who will continue to find ways to player-hate on Des Moines. You can quietly exit stage left.

The haters are not going to ruin this day for sports fans. We’ve waited for a long time for this to happen. When 2016 arrives, it’ll be 44 years since March Madness was held in an Iowa venue (Hilton Coliseum hosted the 1972 Midwest regionals).

There are a few other things I want to add about the news (for one, it’s long overdue for the NCAA to find new cities to host tournaments), but for today, it’s a good day to see that the work towards getting March Madness paid off.


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.

One More Ride

Courtesy: Wartburg Athletic Department
Courtesy: Wartburg Athletic Department

Nine NCAA Division III national titles.

20 consecutive Iowa Conference championships.

164 consecutive Iowa Conference dual wins.

70 Academic All-Americans.

34 Individual national champions.

Nearly 100 former wrestlers are coaching on the high school or college level.

Not too bad for a guy who hails from Waterloo, Iowa.

Jim Miller has had one hell of a ride as the head coach of the Wartburg College Knights wrestling team.  Since his arrival in 1991, Iowa went from a fellow Waterloo native by the name of Dan Gable to Tom Brands.  Iowa State landed a kid from Utah who would do something that Gable nearly did:  end his career undefeated.  That kid goes by the name of Cael Sanderson.

A lot has changed in the sport of wrestling, and in our world in general, but there was one constant:  Miller and Wartburg won.  Not one Iowa Conference team has beaten them since 1994.  I was a senior in high school…at Miller’s alma mater, East Waterloo.  They formed a great rivalry with Augsburg College of Minneapolis.  Together, both schools have combined to win 19 national titles, and the last time a school not named Wartburg or Augsburg won a national title was Ithaca…in 1994.

So how appropriate would it be, in Miller’s final year as the Knights’ head coach, to go on top, one more time?

His squad thinks so.  So does a legion of orange-and-black clad fans who believe that their team is the “finest in the East or West”.

So it is with this in mind that Milboy’s last ride begins Friday in Waverly versus Coe for the IIAC Championship Dual.

This is the last ride for Coach Miller and as hard as it sounds, this is really it.  No do-overs.  The next 40 days or so and a chapter in the glorious history of wrestling in this great state of Iowa will pen its final words.

Take a walk and enjoy this ride one last time.  This one is going to be special.

The Curious Case of a Trophy Gone Wrong

Here's an idea: use this trophy to promote and honor farm families at halftime of the Iowa/ISU game.

Alright…let’s get this out-of-the-way. 

  • The new Cy-Hawk trophy was head-scratcher to see.  It’s a good idea…for a wrong topic.  See my idea in the picture caption above.  There are ways to still use the trophy above and still tie it to the game…for better reason, if we want to honor our heritage and tradition of being an agricultural state. 
  • The people got what they wanted…a new trophy.  Now do us a favor, fans: don’t get too crazy.  A simple nice design will do. 
  • This is only my opinion:  I felt that Iowa and ISU threw the Iowa Corn Growers Association under the bus by not coming out immediately and defending them.  Both schools approached the ICG about sponsoring (remember, ICG was asked to sponsor) a trophy, had ample input into what they (schools) wanted in the new trophy, and had no issues with the design.  Today, at the presser, both schools tried to take some guilt for the fiasco, but for the flak that the ICG received, much credit is given to the ICG for explaining what went into the process, taking the criticism, and being open to come up with a new design. 

They owned it, when the schools didn’t want to.  Again, that’s my opinion. 

I didn't think it was a bad trophy. Today, fans understand how lucky we were to have this. Better support the new one that we vote for.
  • A sports talk show host attempted to blame the governor for propelling the ICG to do an about-face.  Correction, hombre.  If you stick a microphone in a person’s face and ask them for their opinion, guess what?  They will give your their opinion.  We, the fans, wanted to know, and ye shall hear it. 

Plus, it’s a bit juvenile for said show host to block or refuse to take calls on this topic.  I know that radio hosts always have the last word (see Jack Trudeau), but they show a lack of class by cutting off the audience. 

You are hired to talk local sports.  People care about the sports in their state and hometown.  Nobody cares about the New York Jets or the Winnipeg Jets. 

The opinions of the audience have a far greater impact than what a guy sitting behind the microphone thinks.  Thank goodness Murph and Andy understand the audience and let them voice their opinion. 

  • And please, for the love of Francis X. Cretzmeyer and Gary Thompson, stop with the “they turned a positive into a negative” line.  It’s clichéd and redundant.  Iowa Corn Growers did what they supposed to do:  take stock of the opinions of their customers and the public. 

Every company, organization, entrepreneur, and others have to do this on a daily basis.  If they don’t, people who are on Twitter will not be afraid to say it and pass the word. 

It’s called listening to your audience, even if they don’t use their product.  ICG did their job.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Now, get off of their backs and help them out with putting together a new trophy. 

I rest my case. 

Small College Football: A Love Story

Everyone knows about Iowa and Iowa State, but have you… (Wartburg Circuit)

It’s hard to believe that we’re 10 days away from the annual Iowa/ISU game.  Around this time every year, everyone starts talking about the Hawks and the Cyclones, planning tailgates, and having big events to celebrate this yearly clash.

I’ve been fortunate to go with my friends to watch Iowa and ISU.  But when I try and encourage them to go see a small college football game, they scoff at the notion, simply because it’s not Iowa or ISU.

…considered watching Central, Coe, and Wartburg this year?

The Iowa Conference is one of the most premier leagues in NCAA Division III and plays the best football in this state.  To be quite honest, sitting in a stadium with 7,000  fans is a little less frightening that being packed like sardines in a 70,585 seat Kinnick Stadium.  Going to a small college game is special and quite foreign for the average big-name Division I-A football fan.

But, as many of you Cyclones and Hawkeyes fans will ask:  why should we care about schools like Wartburg, Coe, and Loras? Here are my reasons that you should experience a small college game.

Luther (blue) vs. Central (white)
  • You could spend up to $100 to nab two tickets to see a game at Kinnick or Jack Trice Stadium.  It’s only $7 a piece to sit in picturesque venues like Carlson Stadium, J. Leslie Rollins Stadium, or The Rock Bowl.
  • Game-day in Iowa City and Ames isn’t the same as it it in Indianola, Waverly, or Mt. Vernon.  I love the smaller atmosphere, intimacy, and the charm that small college athletics offer.
  • Tailgating is smaller and more intimate.  You’re not weaving through a crowd of over 35,000 to get to your tailgate site.  We party and celebrate as much as the big schools do, but you’ll never have to feel crushed in a crowd to have fun.
Coe (white) vs. Cornell (red), the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi River.

If Iowa and ISU wins 6 games, they get to go to a bowl game.  In the IIAC, whoever wins the conference title is the only one from the league to go to the playoffs.  Nine teams fighting for one spot in the post-season.  No one takes a week off during the season.

In the “Neil Suckow” Bowl in 2006, Wartburg students made up these shirts to poke fun at Coe. Suckow transferred from Coe to Wartburg the previous winter.

Why do I love small college football?  Because it’s not Division I-A, where coaches have to run their programs like CEOs, face the pressure of “win now”, and players don’t leave early for the NFL.  You’ll never see that in Division III, Division II, and NAIA.  Coaches get to coach, the players play for their school and for each other, and fans support it because they believe in small colleges and the value they provide to a community, a student body, and to its alumni.

If writing a 550-word post about this isn’t good enough, well, this video should hopefully do the trick.  This clip represents every school in the Iowa Conference and why it’s special to those who graduated from these member schools.

The Right Decision

Anthony Tucker, who will transfer at the end of the school year. He made the right decision for himself.

It’s pompous and borderline arrogant to utter the words “I told you so.” Try saying it in a nasally and condescending way, and it grates on you.

With that said, I said in December it was very likely that Anthony Tucker, the troubled sophomore on the Iowa men’s basketball team, was not going to be on the team after his second brush with the law involving alcohol.  In case many Hawkeyes fans have short memories, Dan Bohall was the first one in Lickliter’s dog-house, after being found in a dorm hall, in a drunken stupor.

Tucker asked for and received his release from his scholarship from Iowa this morning and will transfer at the end of the school year.

Disciplinarian? Ya, you betcha.

Now before Lickliter gets criticized for the travails of this program, let’s give him credit.  He’s a disciplinarian, first and foremost.  If you, as a player, is not willing to get on the same page with the coach and the team, it’s not going to be pretty. When players get into some sort of trouble, either legally or within the team, each case has to be adjudicated based on the degree and severity of it.  When players are dissatisfied and voice their differences with the philosophy of the coach, that could evolve into a major issue, as in the case of 4 Iowa players leaving the team last year.

With the exception of Jake Kelly, the other three left because they wanted to play a style of basketball that allowed them to utilize their skills.  Iowa ran a different brand of basketball.

ISU coach Greg McDermott suspended Chris Colvin for walking out of the locker room after the Cyclones lost to Duke.  That suspension was to last until this month.  McDermott lifted the suspension after Lucca Staiger bidded “auf wiedersehen” and went back home to Germany to play pro ball.  Fans and critics said that McDermott “went back on his word” and Colvin should have stayed suspended.

Cyclones fans, for what it’s worth, didn’t read into the fact that all that Colvin did was “throw a temper tantrum” in the locker room.  Colvin quickly realized that it was not the proper way to handle his frustration, along with the team, on how this season has gone.  Everyone has thrown a “fit” from time to time.  Colvin apologized to McDermott and to his teammates and has worked on keeping his cool.  That was enough remorse for McDermott to cut short the suspension.

All that Chris Colvin threw was a temper tantrum. Everyone has one.

Tucker, on the other hand, was in a more serious situation.  Underage drinking has become the “crying call” for most campuses across the country.  Apparently, as some Iowa officials are working on initiatives and attempting to stop the abuse and misuse of alcohol, students under the age of 21 are going to continue getting caught for underage drinking, public intox, and worse DUI and OWI.  Much like what happened to Iowa football analyst Ed Podolak, there’s nothing wrong with having a couple of cold ones, unless you see that someone can’t control their drinking.

I wrote about Podolak and the culture of drinking on the U of I campus in 2009.

I don’t know if McDermott is more lenient in disciplining his players than Lickliter is, but you can’t fault Lick for sticking to what it’s on the books and his principles.

After the first incident, Tucker quietly worked on re-earning his place on the team and in Lick’s good graces.   That was until he was arrested again in December for public intox and allegedly assaulting a cab driver.

Regardless if Lick was going to give him a second chance, it was clear that Tucker not only needs help with staying away from alcohol until he turns 21, his presence on this team was going to be a bigger distraction than the low attendance at Carver-Hawkeye.  To accuse Lickliter, or McDermott, of running off kids is a bit premature.

In the case of Tucker, it was the right decision for both parties involved.  Tucker could not afford to be looked at as an enigma on campus, and Iowa Basketball could not afford to have this hanging on their necks like an albatross.  Losing games is already weighing them down.

Anthony Tucker need to get out of Iowa City and find a new school, not just to play basketball, but to get his penchant for booze out of his system.  It might be the only way he can save his young life from going down the drain.