Catching Up...With Johnny Orr

When Johnny Orr came to Iowa State in 1981 his jubilant pre-game introductions weren't much fun. However, by the end of his illustrious career his fist-pumping entrance accompanied by the ISU pep band's rendition of "Here's Johnny" delighted Orr and the Hilton Coliseum faithful.

When Johnny Orr came to Iowa State in 1981 his jubilant pre-game introductions weren't much fun. However, by the end of his illustrious career his fist-pumping entrance accompanied by the ISU pep band's rendition of "Here's Johnny" delighted Orr and the Hilton Coliseum faithful.

"It wasn't much fun at first because we were losing," Orr said. "I told assistant athletic director Steve Cox that I couldn't go out there like that to those cheers, and then get beat.

"He told me we wouldn't do it that night. I walked out there, and they played it. Finally, we won some games, and later on it was hard for anybody to beat us (at Hilton Coliseum)."

Orr turned a lifeless Cyclone program into a Big 8 contender, and more than doubled attendance figures. He finished his 14-year stint with a 218-200 record and five 20-plus-win seasons. His 218 wins are the most in school history.

He also guided the Cyclones to six NCAA Tournament appearances and led ISU to the Sweet 16 in 1986 when the Cyclones upset Michigan in Minneapolis in front of an ISU partisan crowd.

Orr also attracted some Iowa State's top players, including Jeff Grayer — who is the school's all-time scoring leader, and Barry Stevens the second-leading scorer.

But the on-court success was just a part of what made Orr popular. His charismatic persona left an indelible mark in Clone fan's hearts.

"He was as much of a personality as he was a coach," said Orr's longtime assistant Jim Hallihan. "Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy were great coaches, but Coach Orr had the personality of a movie star. People were drawn to him."

Orr came to ISU almost by accident. After leading Michigan to the national championship game in 1976, he was frustrated with being underpaid. Iowa State officials contacted Orr for help in finding a new coach. Orr, who was contemplating retirement and entering the restaurant business fulltime, suggested his assistant coach, Bill Frieder.

In the end, Orr took the ISU job and Frieder was named the Wolverines' head coach.

After three sub-.500 seasons, Orr's club earned an NCAA Tournament bid in 1985 where they lost to Ohio State in the first round.

That initial plunge into the tournament led to one of the biggest moments in program history the following season.

After Jeff Hornacek hit a long jumper to beat Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament at the Hubert H. Humphrey Dome in Minneapolis, Orr met his pupil Frieder.

The Wolverines were ranked in the Top 5 entering the tournament, but Orr's club upset the Wolverines in front of 39,000 fans.

"That was my biggest win (at Iowa State)," Orr said. "I think along with the game where Iowa State beat Kansas with Wilt Chamberlain, that was one of the biggest wins.

"They were ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation, and it was an awesome victory in front of 39,000 fans. That's the game that sticks out the most."

The revenge factor made the win even sweeter.

"I enjoyed that, although it was against my assistant coach (Bill Frieder)," Orr said. "It was a heartbreaking loss for him. It was a great day for me, but he was sick."

The Cyclones lost to North Carolina State in the quarterfinal game. That was the farthest any ISU team advanced in the tournament under Orr's guidance.

After several more successful seasons Orr retired after the 1994 season. Many thought that Orr was tired and had health issues, but according to the coach it was a feud with then-ISU President Martin Jischke, who arrived in Ames in 1991, that drove him from coaching.

"I didn't want to (retire)," Orr said. "I had a lot of disagreements with (Jischke). I thought it was best not to be disappointed or negative and get out of it. I was 67, but health-wise I could still have coached. I could still coach now."

Orr, who is 79, still lives in Iowa six months of the year. In the winter months he lives in Estero, Fla. on Wildcat Run— one of Florida's prestigious golf courses which Orr takes advantage of daily.

During the summer Orr attends Iowa State and Iowa Network Service corporate golf outings. Orr is an INS spokesperson.

Orr also takes care of his wife of nearly 57 years, Romie. Romie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease three years ago. The Orrs have also raised over half a million dollars for Alzheimer's research. The couple has participated in walkathons and golf tournaments and also testified in front of congress and have participated in efforts in bringing a memory center to Des Moines.

Orr said he loves Iowa and has lived there longer than any other place in his life. However, he may not ever love Iowa State fans as much as they have and will continue to.

"When the 1984-85 team came back last year to be honored when they unraveled a banner with his name on it with the retired numbers in the rafters, the people went wild," Hallihan said. "He comes back and does work with Iowa Network Services, and he is still popular."

 


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