DES MOINES — Johnny Orr, the charismatic basketball coach and father of Hilton Magic who woke up a sleepy Iowa State program, died Tuesday at the age of 86.
A 1949 graduate of Beloit College, Orr came to the school with an impressive basketball and football reputation. He led Taylorville High School to 45 consecutive victories in 1943-44, as the team became Illinois’ first undefeated basketball champion. After a year at Illinois, where he won Big Ten honors in both sports, Orr entered the Marine Corps. He rejoined Dolph Stanley, his high school coach, in 1946 and helped trigger Beloit’s rise to national basketball prominence. Named most valuable player three successive years, he was a three-time All Midwest conference and a two-time All NAIB choice. His 1,347 points rank him as Beloit’s second all-time scorer. In addition to excelling in basketball, he won two football letters. Following graduation, Orr played professional basketball with the St. Louis Bombers and Waterloo Hawks. But he soon turned his talents to high school coaching and immediately realized great success. In 1959, former teammate John Erickson appointed him assistant coach at Wisconsin. Four years later, Massachusetts selected him as head basketball coach, and his teams posted a winning record over three seasons. Off left coaching in 1966 to become an insurance executive, but returned a year later as an assistant at Michigan. He was named the Wolverines’ head coach in 1968.
He was inducted into the Beloit College Athletic Hall of Honor in 1969.
Orr's arrival in Ames in 1980 shocked the college basketball world.
He gave up the power and prestige of Michigan for a Cyclones program that had suffered through five losing seasons in the six years before Orr arrived.
"I can't say I never regretted it," Orr said in a 2004 interview. "That first day of practice I regretted it. But I got over that."
Orr became Iowa State's winningest — and losingest — coach with a 218-200 record in his 14 seasons in Ames. He also remains Michigan's winningest coach, with a 209-113 mark.
His 1984-85 team earned Iowa State its first NCAA Tournament berth in 40 years.
Orr took five more Cyclone teams to the NCAAs during his stay, including a Sweet 16 season in 1985-86 when his team knocked off Michigan in what Orr considered his greatest Cyclone triumph. Future Olympian and first-round NBA draft pick Jeff Grayer was one of the key ingredients.
"Coach Orr was someone you could just flat-out love," Grayer said.
Playing an up-tempo style that was much more successful at home than on the road, Orr's teams won just 40.3 percent of their Big Eight games.
But the Cyclones were dynamic at home. Orr's teams won 76.7 percent of their games played at Hilton Coliseum, including 20 victories over Top 25 teams.
Orr's popularity among Iowa State's fan base was not a reflection of his record, though his teams won more than Iowa State fans had been accustomed to. His charm, charisma and wit, profane as it was at times, made him an Iowa icon.
"I remember one time (former Indiana coach) Bobby Knight said to me, 'Orr, you're 9-6 and they're cheering you. I'm 16-2 and they're booing me,'" Orr recalled.
The fact that he was willing to leave a name school like Michigan for Iowa State only strengthened his magnetic appeal in Ames.
"He wasn't a guy we hired from Tennessee Tech," said Jim Hallihan, Orr's longtime No. 1 assistant at Iowa State. "He came from the Big Ten, from Michigan, a runner-up for the national championship. And he came to Iowa State. People immediately felt graditude about that."
The top eight attendance seasons at Iowa State came with Orr as coach. Average home attendance the year before he arrived was 6,470.
Orr's trademark fist-pumping Hilton entrance became as big as the games themselves. The ISU pep band started playing "Here's Johnny," the theme song from the "Tonight Show," when Orr came onto the floor.
"We used games as a barometer in terms of how fired up we'd get him," Hallihan recalled. "The bigger the game, we'd say, 'Coach, you've really got to get them going now. Got to really get them fired up.' And you could tell, the bigger the game, the more he sprinted out there with his fists in the air."
That entrance, and the high winning percentage, fueled "Hilton Magic." Iowa State owned one of the best home-court advantages in the nation.
Orr's success centered on his player-friendly approach to the game.
"The way he taught the game made it easy and enjoyable," former Cyclone star turned coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He didn't try to overcoach. He knew when to get on you, and when to back off."
Grayer, who became Iowa State's career scoring leader, said it was "a tremendous blessing for me to come and play for Coach Orr."
Orr said his joke-and-a-handshake approach to life — "coach" was his personal term of endearment — wasn't always there. He changed his ways after some divine guidance from his wife, Romie, shortly after they were married in 1949.
"I changed my personality," Orr said. "I had several talks with my wife. She said it was just as easy to be nice as it is to be mean. So I thought, what the heck, I can start being nice. After a while it became a natural thing. I enjoyed being with people."
Born June 10, 1927 in Taylorville, Ill. — his dad, Bert, was a coal miner and his mom, Ann, a nurse — Orr made headlines with his athletic ability.
A multi-sport star, Orr played basketball for legendary Taylorville coach Dolph Stanley. His team won 45 consecutive games and the 1944 Illinois state title.
Orr enrolled at the University of Illinois. He was a second-team all-Big Ten wide receiver in football and earned honorable mention all-conference in basketball. Forced to choose between being drafted into the Army or enlisting into another branch of the service, Orr joined the Navy and served 15 months.
A first-round NBA draft pick by the St.Louis Bombers of the NBA, Orr's brief professional career included time with the Waterloo Hawks.
"I got a $6,000 bonus for signing," Orr said. "Now, they get millions. But I thought that was a lot of money."
From there he joined the coaching ranks. His first job was at Milton (Wis.) High School in Milton, where he took the team to its first state tournament.
Then it was on to Dubuque Senior High School in 1951, where he was also a world history teacher. He got an interview for the University of Iowa head-coaching position in the spring of 1958 after Bucky O'Connor was killed in an automobile accident, but he didn't get the job and stayed at Dubuque. He coached the Rams another season, then made the jump to college when he joined John Erickson's staff at Wisconsin. He was with the Badgers for four seasons before becoming head coach at Massachusetts in 1963.
After three seasons there, Orr left coaching for a year to be an insurance executive, but jumped back in when Dave Strack hired him as an assistant at Michigan. Orr was promoted to head coach a season later when Strack became an assistant athletic director in 1968.
Orr was national coach of the year at Michigan in 1976 and 1977. The Wolverines lost to Indiana in the 1976 NCAA title game.
His move to Iowa State, long before social media and the Internet led to instant speculation and rumor, was a college basketball blockbuster.
Iowa State all-American Gary Thompson was working as a TV analyst for NBC at the 1980 Final Four in Philadelphia, Pa., while Orr was getting the job.
Iowa was in that Final Four, and Hawkeye assistant Tony McAndrews was thought to be the leading candidate to replace Lynn Nance in Ames.
"I saw Tony McAndrews and congratulated him," Thompson said. "Then boom, the night after the Final Four, I heard that John was going to be the guy."
Orr became an Iowa celebrity over the next 14 years. It was a term of duty much longer than he expected to serve when he came to Ames.
"To be honest with you I never thought, when I came to Iowa State, that I'd stay as long as I did," Orr said after he retired. "Because I was ready to get out of coaching. When this came along, it was like a new life, you know? Refreshing. I got going again."
That coaching flame eventually burned out. After agonizing over the decision for weeks, Orr decided to turn in his whistle on the night of April 13, 1994.
He solidified his decision after receiving a letter from his daughter, Robin, who passed away in 2010.
"The letter said, 'I don't care what you do, I love you either way,'" Romie said on the day her husband retired.
So on that Wednesday night, after supper, Romie sat down behind her high-mileage electric typewriter and tapped out the final version of Orr's letter of resignation. A sleepless night followed. And a tearful Orr, speaking at a public news conference in the same Hilton Coliseum he had energized, tearfully told those in attendance, "I just didn't want to do it anymore."
Despite his absence from the sidelines, Orr remained a popular figure, and a big draw, after his retirement from coaching and a brief term working for the Iowa State athletic department.
He appeared in more than a few parades and golf outings, and an occasional television ad or two, still a magnet with his wit and engaging personality. Hoiberg, who used his all-Big Eight career as a springboard to a 10-year NBA playing career and is considered an Iowa State icon in his own right, remembers once riding alongside Orr in a parade in Dyersville.
"It was like I wasn't even there," Hoiberg, then an active NBA player, said. "Everyone was yelling, 'Johnny, Johnny.' It was great to see how much respect he got from the people of Iowa."
That admiration lasted until the end. Orr's last major public appearance was Nov. 17 at Hilton Coliseum before Iowa State beat then-No. 7 Michigan 77-70. As the band played, Orr pumped his fists like he always did to the delight of a packed arena.
Hoiberg admitted to getting choked up, and cracked, "He was pumped up. Hell, he wouldn't leave. I asked him if he wanted to coach the game."
Orr's 14 seasons at Iowa State changed the way he viewed himself.
"I'm an Iowan, coach," Orr said when he was inducted into the Des Moines Sunday Register Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. "There's no doubt about that. I love Iowa. I'll never leave."
Courtesy of Rick Brown, The Des Moines Register.