Johnny Orr made magic that endures

Rob Gray
Published: December 31 2013 | 8:51 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:30 am in
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 By Rob Gray


 AMES — About 12 minutes from tipoff of Tuesday’s Iowa State-Northern Illinois game, Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg stood with folded hands, serenaded by cheers, poised to gaze upward at a video tribute just like the other 14,384 people packed into Hilton Coliseum.

Hoiberg — a.k.a. “The Mayor” — would see himself, 20 years younger, briefly in the video.

But his was a cameo appearance.

The fist-pumping star, then and now, was his legendary coach, Johnny Orr, who died earlier in the day at the age of 86.

“It’s hard to see yourself up there with him knowing he’s no longer here,” Hoiberg said of Orr, ISU’s all-time winningest coach with a mark of 218-200.

Vintage Orr moments flashed across the screens that towered above the mid-court line.

There were his grand “Here’s Johnny” entrances — the ones he wanted to stop doing in his first season after shocking the college basketball world by becoming ISU’s coach after leading Michigan to a still-standing school-record 209 victories.

“I remember him telling me when I first got there, ‘You can’t believe how tough that was to go out there for those couple first years when we were no good and getting our butts kicked,’” said Jim Hallihan, who became a Cyclones assistant in 1982.

Those drubbings eventually became rare, especially at Hilton, as Orr’s magic began taking root.

Once loosed, the magic became strong, drumming up sellout after sellout.

“I talked to our guys just about what Johnny meant to the entire community, to the state, to college basketball in general,” said Hoiberg, whose team won, 99-63, to improve to 12-0. “He comes in here and he takes a program that was averaging about 6,000 people and immediately turns it into a national power.”

Orr led his teams to 20 upsets of top-25 foes at formerly half-filled Hilton.

His best season, 1985-86, extended to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 — and included a 72-69 victory over fifth-ranked Michigan.

“(That) probably was the sweetest win,” Hallihan said.

Of course, interviews with Orr helped form Tuesday’s tribute, too. As always, he spoke the unvarnished truth, though it may have been slightly filtered for all ages.

“If he created Hilton magic, he might have created the seven-second delay, too,” said Cyclone Radio Network play-by-play man John Walters, who began working as a still-in-college TV reporter in Des Moines about the same time Hallihan arrived in Ames.

Tame example: ISU had lost three gut-wrenching games in a row.

A reporter asked how tough such defeats were to take.

Orr’s response?

“‘Of course it’s difficult,’” Walters recalled Orr saying. “‘Have you ever been involved in athletics?’”

Reporter: “Um … yes?”

Orr: “Well, what did you play, ping pong?”

Orr played many rounds of golf after retiring in 1994.

He shaped better lives then and now.

“He was a father figure to everyone,” Hoiberg said.

He also always held court — even when he was off the one he made famously magical.

“People all over the state, even the Hawkeyes, loved coach Orr,” Hallihan said. “They’d always invite him to their golf outings.”

Orr played in Hallihan’s Iowa Games outing this July — on a blazing 100-plus degree day.

Hoiberg was one of his partners.

“He was the same old Johnny,” said Hoiberg, who played for Orr and his successor, Tim Floyd. “He was out there telling stories and making everybody in the group laugh. … And we won the damn thing. Johnny hadn't played all year. It was his only round of golf this summer. I wasn’t playing worth a damn and those other two guys aren’t any good. And we found a way to go out and win that thing and I’ll never forget that.”

The memories kept coming.

In November, Orr was invited to reprise his beloved “Here’s Johnny” entrance, when the then-No. 7 Wolverines came to Hilton.

Orr fired off punch after punch with vigor.

“He showed so much life that day,” Hoiberg said.

Orr completed his walk. The crowd roared adoringly, almost creating an echo.

“Here’s Johnny” became “Here’s to Johnny”.


And forever.

“For us old-timers in the crowd, that was a tearjerking moment for sure,” Walters said. “You’re so grateful that in this one case, the timing did work out just right. Everybody was able to say thank you.”

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