The Johnny Orr Files

As Iowa State readies to play in its third consecutive NCAA tournament, met up with three basketball dignitaries for memories on Johnny Orr, the Cyclones' late, great basketball coach

In the pandemonium after Iowa State's Big 12 tournament championship, a 74-65 win, Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg cooly walked to a portion of the pro-ISU crowd at centercourt, clenched his right hand, raised it in the air and shook it.

It was an unmistakeable salute to his late coach Johnny Orr, who died at 86 on New Year's Eve of 2013.

"The fist pump was such an emotional feeling for me, just — I really thought about Coach Orr," Hoiberg, who played for Orr for three of his four years at ISU, said afterward. "I know he's been watching over us this year and this one's for him."

Iowa State takes on N.C. Central this Friday in San Antonio, the first game in what it hopes is a deep tourney run.

In 14 seasons at Iowa State, Orr took the Cyclones to the NCAA tournament six times. There's no better time to publish a series of free-flowing interviews conducted by contributor Carmon Wilson, who spoke with Norm Stewart, Jim Hallihan and Bernie Saggau.


Jim Hallihan joined the Iowa State Coaching Staff in 1982 to reunite with Johnny Orr. Together they spent 12 years roaming the Cyclones' sidelines and leading the team to six NCAA appearances and three NIT bids. Since retiring from the game in 1994, Hallihan spent the following two decades as Executive Director of the Iowa Games before retiring this past year.

"My relationship with Johnny started long before I joined his staff," Hallihan said at an Ankeny Starbucks in January. "He actually recruited me out of high school while he was an assistant coach at Wisconsin. Shortly after though he took the job at Massachusetts, and I looked at the map and told him I wasn't moving from Illinois to Massachusetts. I ended up at Miami (OH) and our paths didn't cross that much for a long time as he was coaching at Michigan and I was coaching in the Southeast. One summer I went on a Nike vacation they used to give coaches, and I was the head coach at East Tennessee State at the time. There I met Jim Calhoun and Bill Frieder and they told me about Johnny looking for an assistant who had once been a head coach. By the end of that week vacation I'd written Johnny a letter applying for the job and soon thereafter he picked me up at the airport and we hit it off — both being from Illinois, both playing for state championship teams and our towns only 40 miles apart, and the rest is history."

  • On Orr's relationship with the local press:

    "The press loved him here. If someone asked him to speak with [Jeff] Grayer, he would tell that reporter what time practice would start and tell him to show up 15 minutes early. More often than not the guy would show up 15 minutes late and we are in the middle of practice. I used to get so mad and tell coach to make them wait until after practice. But he was so accommodating that he'd pull Jeff out of practice to do an interview. After practice I asked him why he always did that and he told me that while he was at Michigan someone in the press was writing some negative stuff about him. He came in coach's office one time and Orr got so mad he physically threw him out of the office. Coach Orr told me that this reporter killed him in the papers for the rest of his tenure at Michigan and he didn't want that to happen again here. So that's why he always treated the media with such high regard. It didn't matter when they came, he'd come and talk to them. "

  • On the reputation Johnny had built on getting after the officials:

    "The funny thing about yelling and getting on the official was that sure he'd yell and scream, but it was always at the other official on the other side of the floor — never the official next to bench, so that guy wouldn't get mad at him. He'd tell that official next to him how bad the other official was officiating the game and call him this that and whatever, and doing so that the referee close to the bench couldn't get upset and give him a technical foul. I recall after one particular game he was in the media room and he explained to the reporters that he was told by the Big Eight office not to talk about the officials. And so instead of telling the media what he thought, he explained what his wife thought and went off."

  • On his personality during recruiting:

    "Johnny was the best at home visits during recruiting. The home visit is always the key time with the player and his parents and you can discuss the program, try to get the play on campus or commit. In those days we didn't have much for electronics, so we had a flip book full of photos of the campus and guys like Barry Stevens and whatnot. And then we'd turn it over to Coach Orr to entertain. And if it was a player with a single mother we'd tell Coach Orr not to use any profanity and he'd say, ‘Okay I understand.' Well he'd be in there for 15 minutes and would let a four-letter word out just to test the waters. If she cracked up he's start letting them fly left and right and really let loose.

    "The recruitment of Glen Rice was very interesting. We'd been up there many times to see him and we found out that a key player with him was his pastor. His mother was very religious and so we went up and met with Pastor Bogan and his wife. They were both very impressive people. It was a small church but it could have been a church of 10,000 people and he could have entertained. They asked us to sit in during service on Sunday and so we grabbed a seat in the back of the room. At the end of the service the pastor announced Johnny as a special guest and asked Johnny to say a few words. That was a tough situation for Coach but he did OK."

  • On the legendary coaches of the Big Eight Conference in the 1980s:

    "The coaches in the Big Eight during that time were hall of famers. There was Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State, Billy Tubbs at Oklahoma, Norm Stewart at Missouri, Larry Brown and Roy Williams at Kansas and others. That one year in 1988 we had four teams in the Sweet 16, three in the Final Four and two in the Championship. It was unbelievable. If I were to ask you right now to name me the coaches in the SEC besides Florida and Kentucky, could you do it? No. Is the SEC good at basketball? No. Everyone knew the Big Eight was a difficult league. Did we get along with them all? No. We got along with Roy at Kansas, but Norm Stewart was hard to get along with, Jack Hartman at Kansas State was getting crusty in his old age, and Billy Tubbs was hard to get along with. Billy used to run laps before the game and during our shoot around. I used to get so mad at Coach Orr because we'd be practicing and Tubbs would be in the arena and then make his way down to talk to Coach Orr during our one-hour shoot around. And Orr wouldn't say anything. But again, that's the kind of guy he was."

  • On if Coach Orr was ever tempted to leave Ames after the success:

    "It took him a few years to get it up and running but he and President Parks were very close and he had no intentions of over leaving Iowa State. I remember the year he left Iowa State a team from Texas, maybe Texas A&M or something like that, reached out to him about coaching for an interim basis until they can find a full-time coach, but he said no."

  • On the man off the court:

    "Away from the court he was very kind, gentle and charitable. He did a lot of charity events across the state and when he got attached to a particular charity event it got big. For years he was in charge of getting the speaker together for the Variety Club and he was able to bring in Bobby Knight, Jud Heathcote and all these other big names to help raise money. He was always going out of his way to meet the people within the state. I recall another time when a man was seriously hurt in an automobile accident and he told his family the last thing he wanted to do before he died was meet Coach Orr. Well Coach Orr immediately drove over and met with the man. That's the type of guy he was. Every June on his birthday he'd go over to Boone and speak at the cancer camp for kids and laugh and try and make everyone feel better. We never brought a photographer along and didn't want any press, he just wanted everyone to enjoy themselves. That was his birthday present to himself. "

  • On the Michigan game earlier this year, and learning of his passing:

    "The game vs Michigan I actually thought Coach Orr looked pretty good that day. He looked poor to those who may not have seen him in a couple of years, because he had been declining. But that day he had enthusiasm and the crowd went absolutely nuts, and as it turns out that was his farewell. I'm watching him come out of the tunnel with Fred before the game and I'm bawling like a child.

    "It was a shock when I received the news. I knew he'd fallen but didn't know he was in the hospital for a week or 10 days and had a few surgeries. I knew he'd passed out and had some issues they couldn't explain but he'd just told me a month earlier that he'd had a physical and he felt good, and that his cholesterol was low and heart was beating good and the doctor told him he was going to live until he was in his 90s. After he passed things moved very quickly because he passed on a Tuesday, and Thursday they had the event at Hilton and Saturday was the memorial. One of the daughters asked if I'd call the former players and that was good therapy for me because I [kept] myself on the telephone for three straight days and didn't have time to sit and think about it all. If you will recall the weather was pretty bad later in that week, but I'd gotten 20 players to come back and six others were planning on it but couldn't because of the weather. Victor [Alexander] got stuck in the airport in Atlanta, Jeff [Grayer] got stuck in Michigan, Sam Hill and a few others were all riding together from Chicago and they couldn't get out of town. But we had guys like Ron Falenschek who was in Ames when Coach Orr got here in the early 80s to Klay Edwards who we recruited and redshirted as a freshmen our last year. [Jeff] Hornacek made it back. He was flying from Phoenix to Denver to here in Des Moines and it was great to see him, especially since we all know his hectic schedule as a NBA coach."

  • On ISU honoring Orr.

    "Is the bronze statue enough? That's not up to me. I like it because it will always be there and it shows his personality but I would have liked to see his name on the floor. Because then everyone will recognize what he did here. Right now the only people that see his statue are those who walk through the building. It would be nice to have his name on the floor because then every time you turned on the TV you'd see the name Johnny Orr. "


    Many people know ‘Stormin' Norm Stewart for his 32 years as the Missouri Tigers head coach (1967-99), however most don't know that Stewart actually began his head coaching career in Cedar Falls coaching the University of Northern Iowa (1961-67). It's common knowledge that Johnny left perennial Big Ten power Michigan to take the Iowa State head coaching position in 1980. However, when his 1980-81 Cyclones took the floor to face Missouri later that season, it wasn't the first time these two coaches faced off against one another.

    "Unfortunately I did know Johnny before he took the Iowa State job," Stewart said over the phone. "His Michigan team had just beaten us a few years prior in the NCAA tournament which cost us a trip to the Final Four. But we had a good relationship from the start. His wife, Romie, was a graduate of Missouri and that earned him some points with us right away."

    Before Orr took the position, Iowa State hadn't had much luck against Missouri. But a 73-72 overtime victory at home against a top 10 Missouri program was not only Orr's first victory over Stewart but sparked Hilton Coliseum.

    "Barry Stevens was a heck of player," Stewart said. "He'd beaten us a few times, and as I can recall he beat us on a last second shot in the Hearnes Center. I don't recall that game in 1983 in particular but we brought a lot of good teams to Hilton and lost."

  • The atmosphere inside Hilton before and after Orr's arrival:

    "Iowa State wasn't that good of a team before Johnny took over the program," Stewart said. "However, to go into Hilton Coliseum and hear the band strike up Here's Johnny when he came out, it was fun to watch. For some reason we always played well up there. It was always a heck of a game and hard fought. When Johnny would bring his teams to Columbia, he was one of the few guys who had some success and beat us at our place too.

    "That Here's Johnny routine really got the crowd going when he came out and when they started having more success and winning, Hilton became a very difficult place to play. More people got behind the program when he took the job and started showing up at the games and helped them win a lot of games."

    Sometimes you just have to sit back and listen. It's at this time in the interview I sat back and let the tape recorder do its work. Below is Stewart's stream of consciousness.

    "Johnny, myself, Lon Kruger and Stan Albeck used to play golf quite a bit in those days. Johnny was the best player within our foursome with Kruger second and Albeck and myself as the dirt guys. I'd be paired with Kruger more often than not and we would win. (Laughs) It's funny because Johnny would get so made at Albeck. It was just fun things like that. We always had a good time.

    There are probably millions of stories I could tell, but most of the time it wasn't any individual story that sticks out in my mind, but all the fun that happened.

    I'll tell you though, the team they could really beat in those days was Kansas. Here is a great story. Iowa State had a stretch of beating Kansas in Ames. They'd play in Lawrence and he'd get beaten. The first time he played Roy Williams, Roy had a substitute routine. And you might get his best five players at the end of the game because Roy was going to stick to his routine. This particular game in Kansas he's beating Johnny and it's not close. It's an ass-kicking. And in comes the starting five back into the game during the last two minutes (laughs). Johnny went down to Roy after the game and says (Johnny impression in a high squeaky voice) "God Damn Roy! Are you on a one-year contract here or what?" And then of course he'd come back and beat ‘ole Roy in Ames the next time.

    I can recall another time when we were ranked No. 1 in the country, and whatever team we played before heading up to Iowa State held the ball on us. In that time there wasn't a shot clock, you know. We were ahead 28-4 or something like that and the other team held the ball so we wouldn't blow them out. Our next game was in Ames and I read in the paper (laughs trying to do his best Johnny impression), I'm not going to hold the damn ball I'll guarantee you that! Well to open the game, we hit the first 6 or 7 shots and we had them down and eventually won. After the game (laughs) Johnny (again in his best Johnny impression) At least we didn't hold onto the damn ball! He just had that great spirit that could never be replicated.

    "Every one of those [Big Eight coaches] were competitors! A lot of people probably don't know, but we would go to each other's home before and after the game on the road. Or we'd go on a trip after the season.

    Abe Lemons (former Texas head coach) said it best when he told me that when we used to coach, we used to have a lot of fun, but didn't make any money. Now coaches are making a lot of money but I don't know if they are making any fun. When I first started coaching in Missouri I made $14,000 a year. My good friend Bob Boyd who coached at USC made $15,000, so we weren't making a lot of money. We thought Johnny struck gold when he signed on with Iowa State for $43,000.

    As close as we all were, I hadn't seen Johnny in a while. I speak with (former Oklahoma head coach) Billy Tubbs once in a while, at least once a year. We always laugh because we feel like if Billy, Johnny or myself were coaching now as opposed to those times, we would have been fired at least two-three times. We weren't exactly politically correct in those days. We could get technicals, throw water on the floor to stop the game when you were out of time outs, anything.

    Poor John Erickson, who directed the Big Eight Conference at one time, had to take weekly calls from Tubbs, Orr and myself complaining about the officials. Erickson used to head up the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and every time one of us would call, I would assume after that call was over he'd have to pray for the next five days. We really lit into him.

    I was shocked (to hear about Orr's death). I was with my wife, and we all knew one another of course. It sure makes you think. The first thing I thought about was all the fun we had together. He was fun to be with and one hell of a funny guy. So I started to think about all those moments, and then a few games we played. I can still see him chasing a referee on the sideline. (Laughs) I'd love to tell him that if he didn't have [former Big Eight official Ron Spitler] on his side, he wouldn't have won a game. Spitler was a hell of an official. I don't think he ever called a game that Orr was coaching, in which Orr didn't win.

    Johnny Orr was a heck of a coach, a heck of an athlete and was fun to be around. Boy was he fun to be with and be around in those days. It was a different set of circumstances in those days. I laugh thinking about it, but we'd all imitate him: "Hot damn, Coach! What the hell are you doin?" Everybody was coach to him you know. He was really a good person, a hell of coach and a heck of a competitor."


    Bernie Saggau's long career included more than 38 years as the Executive Secretary of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, chairperson of the National Basketball Rules Committee and an appointment to the United States Olympic House of Delegates Committee. Saggau also spent 19 years as a Big Eight Official and seven as the Supervisor for Officials in the Big Eight. It was a time when the basketball landscape was much different, where coaches could get away with almost anything. And it was during this time that Saggau got to spend a lot of quality time both calling Johnny Orr's games and overseeing the officials who did.

    "There are two Johnny Orrs," Saggau said over the phone in January, "the Johnny Orr that was the basketball coach at Iowa State and the Johnny Orr off the basketball floor during retirement. I say that sincerely because I'm going to say some things that will come across wrong but I want you to know how I feel because I think Johnny is a friend of mine."

    "During my tenure, Johnny was the toughest on officials of any coach in the league. That was part of Johnny's make-up. I mean you go to a place and the band plays Here Comes Johnny as he enters the arena. He had the fans behind him 100 percent and he had the support of the college president. He was an actor. He knew how to manipulate the kids to get them to play hard, and how to manipulate the fans to get them into the game when he noticed the team struggling a little bit. He was more than a coach. Part of Johnny's coaching was getting on the officials. There wasn't any doubt about that. If he wanted to rev the crowd up, he knew what button to press with the officials, when to press it and how hard to press it. And if it wasn't going to do any good, he wasn't going to press that button.

    "He was a PR man and everything anyone would ever want to promote a university. And the University tolerated a lot of the antics that probably wouldn't be tolerated in today's world."

    With coaches like Norm Stewart, Billy Tubbs and Orr roaming the sidelines, the Big Eight Conference had a sort of Wild West mystique about it. If there was an opportunity to make a scene, a coach might just act like his favorite horse had been shot.

    "A lot of officials didn't want to give him a technical foul," Saggau said. "We had a certain understanding and he stayed off of me for the most part. Part of his coaching though was to plead to the officials and his crowd fed off of it. When he got on the officials, the crowd went nuts. That was his personality and his character.

    "As Supervisor of the Official's I'd call the coaches and let them know who was working the games, and I recall one time I called a coach from the Big Eight and told them that we had a new official working the game, and warned them to stay off him. In that I mean to easy up on him a little. And that coach says, ‘OK but those other two are really going to get it.' And we'd all laugh. That was the demeanor of the coaches then.

    "Johnny was respected by the other coaches in the league because his X's and O's of the game were good. But Johnny had something extra that most coaches don't have, support from the university. Then-president [Robert] Parks (1965-1986) was known for being a very strong man, but after a game I saw him run over to Johnny and hug him after a game.

    "I don't know if Johnny could coach today the way he coached then. I just don't think it would be acceptable. His sideline antics and vocabulary wouldn't be acceptable today. But it was then. His X's and O's would do fine in today's game, but his personality wouldn't be acceptable, that's for sure.

    "I didn't respect the way he acted on the floor and wrote him up a number of times," Saggau said. "I did not respect the way he treated our officials."

    Being an official for so many years, Saggau had the chance to witness the transformation of Iowa State basketball before and after Johnny was hired, including the dawn of Hilton Magic.

    "That environment before Johnny arrived in 1980 to when he was rolling in the 80's had completely changed," Saggau said. "He managed to get the crowd to feel like they were a part of the game. Some people come to just watch the game, but when Johnny was coaching, people came to be part of the game. They had a distinct home court advantage because he had them believing they could win any game. Johnny made them a part of the game. And that's why they loved him!

    "What Johnny Orr did for basketball at Iowa State is unbelievable. He got those fans so enthused and I believe that tradition has carried over into today. Today they have one of the greatest young coaches in college basketball and the crowd loves him. But that crowd is a carryover from that grand enthusiasm that they had for Johnny Orr 30 years ago."

    And what of the other Johnny few knew about?

    "I mentioned the second Johnny earlier," Saggau said. "Johnny touched so many lives and so many people have so many good things to say about him. So many people loved him for his comedic enthusiasm, but I respected the other Johnny Orr much better.

    "I don't think Johnny wanted people to know it, but he was a gentle man with a big heart. Once you got him to get out of that tough character of his and away from basketball, you would find that Johnny was a solid, good person. He's the only basketball player I'd ever known that got a four-year scholarship from a college and paid every penny back after he graduated. That's the true Johnny Orr that most people never saw. Because when he talks he makes everyone laugh, he can tell a few off colored comments, but when you get him away from that setting, Johnny was a kind and good man.

    "I was at a golf tournament when Gary Thompson beat Johnny by one stroke. Of course after playing 18 holes he was enthusiastic. Of course he manipulated the crowd greatly and after the event he said some funny things and everybody laughed. Then he calls out another golfer and uses a derogatory word. Everybody laughed and thought it was funny, and then Johnny dropped his voice and told the crowd some very nice things about that young man and you could hear his passion come through in his voice. He was sincere and had the crowd hanging on to his every word.

    "That was the real Johnny Orr. The man who could make you feel like the most important man in the world. Of course afterwards he stirred up the machine once again and got everyone laughing. That's the Johnny I choose to remember, and I have total respect for him. I will miss him, that's for sure."

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