In my column in the July issue of The Local Sports Connection, I mentioned that famous chair-thrower and basketball coach Bobby Knight once saved me a day of work.
Knight was winning national championships and doing his ranting and raving at Indiana when he offered to write a guest column for me. After bringing it up in the recent column on Johnny Orr, several people have asked how I got to know Knight so well.
It went this way. In an earlier writing life, I had authored some sort of commentary article in which I came to the defense of Knight when he was getting into trouble somewhere. Probably Puerto Rico. I likely defended him because everyone else was ready to throw a chair at him for whatever problems he was having.
I did things like that in those days.
Anyway, I was mowing my lawn a few days after the commentary appeared in print. Suddenly my son, Lonn, raced off the deck, shouting that Bobby Knight was on the phone.
I think I said something like, "And did the president say he'd be calling in a few minutes, too?''
"No, it's really Bobby Knight,'' Lonn insisted.
So I shut off the mower and took the phone. I didn't think about it at the time, but I'm thinking about it now. I'm wondering why I was cutting the grass and Lonn was in the house answering the phone.
I must have been dumber then. Anyway, the call Lonn took wasn't from one of our neighbors, masquerading as Knight. Indeed, it was the man now known in Lubbock, Texas, as God's Gift to Basketball Coaching. He said he called to thank me for what I had written. I added that I meant whatever it was that I wrote.
After that, Knight was my pal for a while.
When I was his pal, Knight called me at the office one afternoon and asked if I needed a day off so he could write a guest column for my paper.
Said Knight: "I've got an idea I'd like to run past you. I'd like to write a column for you.''
"What do you plan to put in your column?'' I asked Knight.
"Well, now that Johnny Orr has left Michigan and is the new coach at Iowa State, I'd like to write something about him,'' Knight said.
You can imagine how my bosses felt about that when I told them. They had orgasms right in the middle of the room. Even those who hadn't experienced orgasms for 10 or 15 years acted like they had them. Maybe some were faking it, though.
Anyway, Knight and I agreed that he could take my place on a designated day as a writer for the paper.
Knight wanted to give his pal Orr [I guess I wasn't Knight's only pal in those days] the proper sendoff and make Cyclone fans comfortable with a Big Ten coach.
So here's the column Knight mailed to me by special delivery, and which appeared in the May 18, 1980 paper:
Dear Mr. And Mrs. Cyclone:
Since the basketball season ended, I've been spending a lot of time fishing [fish don't have typewriters or blow whistles] and want to apologize for not writing to you sooner.
You asked me in your last letter what I thought of the new basketball coach Lou McCullough had hired for you and how he would do in Ames. Well, you'll be pleased to know that I think Lou went out and got a real Rolls-Royce in Johnny Orr.
He's going to make things awfully interesting for you in December, January, February, and I have a lunch that before too long you'll be watching Iowa State basketball well into March.
We had a lot of great games with John's Michigan teams over the years and I can tell you that they sure show up prepared and ready to play. Playing Iowa State is not going to be much fun for the Big Eight schools from now on, which should make you happy.
Orr is the kind of guy kids really enjoy playing for, so you can look ahead to some pretty good players wearing your uniforms. He knows what to do with talent and will get the most of it in team play.
Now I have to tell you that I'm a little prejudiced about Orr, because in addition to thinking he is a hell of a good coach, I just happen to really like and respect the guy. He and I have competed awfully hard against each other during games, but have had a lot of fun in doing so.
They've beaten us in some games and we've won a few as well, but I did get the best of him away from the floor a couple of years back.
Four years ago when we played at Michigan, we had to pay $4 to park our bus outside their arena for the game. I didn't say anything when told this had been set up by Orr because I figured the chance would come to get a little better than even.
Sure enough, two years later Orr and some friends opened a restaurant in Ann Arbor. On the night before our game that season, I took eight people there to eat, and signed the bill.
When you have a chance, ask John if he ever collected.
NOW, IF you can keep Orr out of the restaurant business you're going to have a lot of fun on basketball nights in Ames. I can guarantee you that he does a lot better job recruiting basketball players than he does hiring cooks.
I have a real interest in how John does at Iowa State because, although he's old enough to be my father, I've worked hard at helping him do a few things.
First of all, I set up a series of appointments for him with a firm in Puerto Rico to improve his public image. Then, because he has been so hard on officials over the years, I have been trying to show him how anyone can make a mistake and he just has to develop a much more tolerant approach to basketball officiating.
I also suggested that when they come onto the floor at Ames, the band should show its appreciation of the job they do by welcoming them with a special tune such as "Three Blind Mice.''
Always having enjoyed such a great relationship with the press myself, I have lastly tried to help John in this area also. I told him that it would be appropriate for him to start all press conferences with 10 seconds of absolute silence to give the writers something they could quote accurately.
Two areas where Orr doesn't need help from anyone are coaching and making friends. You are really going to enjoy the way his teams will play. They will be exciting to watch on offense and will play your jocks [or socks] off at the defensive end.
I'm damn glad to get him out of our league and let Jack Hartman, Joe Cipriano and Norm Stewart worry about playing his team.
HE DEVELOPED a program at Michigan that filled every one of Crisler Arena's 13,609 seats and the same thing will happen at Ames. Being an Iowa State basketball fan is going to be a lot of fun from now on.
Making friends is second-nature to John everywhere he goes. Coaching is at times a ruthless business, but I've never heard a person say a harsh word about Johnny Orr.
Now, he'll occasionally suggest that a person or two take a short excursion to hell or a similar destination, and most of them will just want to know where to catch the bus.
My wife wishes I were like Orr in this respect, but I tell her that at least I have hair, so she ought to be happy and just keep doing the dishes.
Lou McCullough has done a great job at Iowa State in his tenure as athletic director, but nothing will bring more enjoyment to Cyclone fans than his getting you Johnny as basketball coach. John has been a great credit to the Big Ten and college basketball.
The loss of Orr is one that our league can't make up in a game, a season or a decade of seasons because he is what college basketball should be and all too often isn't.
Well, it's been nice visiting with you, and I just want to close by asking you to take good care of my friend, Johnny Orr. We're going to be out there to play in a couple of years and I'll look forward to seeing you then.
In the meantime, don't worry about keeping me posted on how John is doing, because I will be able to find out myself. However, if you run into John, tell him I said hello and that I'll be following him and rooting for him.
P.S. There is one thing I could ask of you. Tell John to stay the hell out of Indiana with his recruiting.
Orr wound up coaching Iowa State from 1980-81 through 1993-94. And, as Knight predicted, he brought an exciting brand of basketball to Ames.
It was Orr who generated "Hilton Magic,'' produced some overflow attendance averages and was serenaded by the band's "He-e-e-r-e's Johnny!'' routine at home games.
The Big Eight in which Orr coached is now the Big 12, and Knight is coaching in it at Texas Tech after being fired at Indiana. Knight is due to bring his team to Hilton Coliseum next season, and it'll be interesting to see if Orr is in the building for that game.
Ronald Wesley Maly
Vol. 2, No. 37
[Maly's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]