CBS 2 Local Sports

CBS 2 Local Sports

text size

ISU Coach Johnny Orr Dead at 86

Updated: Tuesday, December 31 2013, 03:49 PM CST
AMES, Iowa (ISU Athletics Release) - Johnny Orr, the man credited with resurrecting a
once-dormant Iowa State men’s basketball program and energizing an
entire fan base, passed away today. He was 86 years old.

Orr was
one of the nation’s most successful basketball coaches during his
29-year head coaching career (1964-66, 1969-94). He compiled a 466-346
career coaching mark and led 10 teams to NCAA Championship berths while
at Massachusetts, Michigan and Iowa State.

“He was my hero,” said
Iowa State head basketball coach Fred Hoiberg, who played three years
for Orr. “As a kid, just to see him walk out of that tunnel was what you
waited for on game nights. Just to see his enthusiasm and passion. He
was a father figure to so many of us. He impacted so many lives and made
all of us better people. Not only was he a great basketball coach, he
was even a better person.”

Orr inherited a downtrodden Iowa State
program that had produced losing seasons in five of the last six years
prior to his arrival in 1980-81. He spent 14 years roaming the sidelines
at Hilton Coliseum, making steady improvement and leading the Cyclones
to a school-record six NCAA Championship appearances and five 20-win
seasons. Orr retired in 1994 as Iowa State’s all-time winningest coach
with a 218-200 record.

Orr was a winner at Iowa State, but his
legacy in Ames was achieved by more than wins and losses. The
ever-popular Orr was the perfect coach at the perfect time for Iowa
State. His exciting, up-tempo style of play - combined with his
infectious personality - created a tidal wave of excitement throughout
the state of Iowa.

An Iowa State game in Hilton Coliseum became
the hottest ticket in the state, as Orr’s teams steamrolled over their
opponents for a 76.7 percent winning percentage at home.

came in droves to watch the Cyclones. Iowa State averaged 6,470 fans the
year before Orr arrived. Six years later (1985-86), Hilton Coliseum
swelled to 14,024 fans per game, selling out all 13 home games. The top
eight single-season attendance marks in school history occurred in the
Orr era.

Hilton Coliseum erupted when Orr made his entrance
fist-pumping to the “Tonight Show” theme. It usually spelled doom to the
opposing team, even if the Cyclones weren’t the favorites. Orr’s
Cyclones defeated top-25 opponents 20 times at home and he owns 12 of
Iowa State’s 29 all-time victories vs. top-10 opponents.

State’s home-court dominance in sold-out Hilton Coliseum under Orr
created a frenzied atmosphere that was second to none. The local and
national media picked up on it, and soon the term “Hilton Magic” was
created when Des Moines Register writer Buck Turnbull used it in one of
his stories after another huge Cyclone victory at home. The moniker
still is prevalent today.

Orr’s 1983-84 team turned the corner
with a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) appearance, followed by an
NCAA Championship berth in 1985, Iowa State’s first NCAA bid in 41

The 1985-86 Cyclone squad was possibly his best. Led by
future NBA all-star Jeff Hornacek and Iowa State’s all-time leading
scorer Jeff Grayer, the Cyclones finished with a then-school-record 22
wins and placed second in the Big Eight Conference at 9-5. After
securing its second-straight NCAA berth, the Cyclones advanced to the
Sweet Sixteen with a victory over No. 2 seed Michigan, Orr’s former

The win over the fifth-ranked Wolverines was, “the
greatest of my career” Orr beamed afterwards and cemented his already
enormous popularity among the Iowa State faithful.

Orr’s Cyclone
teams would later make NCAA appearances in 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993 and
annually ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring. Iowa State
averaged over 80 points per season six times in the Orr era, including a
school-record 90.2 ppg in 1987-88, which ranked ninth nationally. The
top four scorers in Iowa State history were coached by Orr (Grayer,
Barry Stevens, Hoiberg, Victor Alexander).

Orr coached six
Cyclones who earned first-team all-Big Eight honors 10 times. He
mentored a total of six Cyclones who went on to a career in the NBA
(Grayer, Hornacek, Stevens, Alexander, Hoiberg, Loren Meyer). Grayer was
an All-American and is the only Cyclone men’s hoopster to compete on a
United States Olympic Basketball team, earning a Bronze Medal at the
1988 Olympics.

A native of Taylorville, Ill., Orr graduated from
Beloit (Wisconsin) College in 1949, where he was a two-time All-American
in basketball. He coached at the high school level throughout the
1950s, including a stop at Dubuque (Iowa) Senior High School from

His first move into collegiate coaching was as an
assistant at Wisconsin for four seasons. Orr became a collegiate head
coach in 1963, when he was handed the reins at Massachusetts for three

After UMass, Orr assisted Dave Strack at Michigan for
one season before taking over head coaching duties at Michigan prior to
the 1968-69 season.

Orr led the Wolverines to four NCAA
Championship appearances in 12 seasons, amassing a school-record 209
victories. He is one of the few coaches to be the all-time leader in
career wins at two high-major schools.

Orr’s Michigan squads
finished second in the Big Ten Conference three times and captured the
1977 Big Ten title. In 1976, Michigan advanced to the NCAA Championship
title game, falling to Indiana in the national final. He was named
National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) National Coach of the
Year in 1976 and was Big Ten Coach of the Year twice (1974, 1977).

Throughout his 29-year head coaching career, Orr tutored 18 players who were drafted by the NBA.

remained an active supporter of Iowa State after his retirement in
1994. His immense popularity among Cyclone fans never waned, either. Orr
always was the life of the party at Cyclone outings, pep rallies and
reunions. He had a special ability to make people laugh. 

was inducted into the Iowa State Letterwinners Club Hall of Fame in
2001. In 2011, the Iowa State Athletics Department opened a large sports
bar-themed gathering area in the east concourse of Hilton Coliseum,
naming it “Johnny’s” as a tribute to the coaching legend.

the entrance of “Johnny’s”, a larger-than-life statue of Orr with his
trademark fist-pump is permanently on display, along with memorabilia of
his coaching tenure at Iowa State. His legacy is preserved for future
generations of Cyclone fans.

Orr is survived by his wife, Romie,
and three daughters; Jennifer, Leslie and Rebecca. He was preceded in
death by his daughter, Robin, who passed away in 2010. The Orrs have
five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.
ISU Coach Johnny Orr Dead at 86

Advertise with us!

Related Stories

Advertise with us!

Ed Thomas Coach of the Week

Faith, Family, Football. Words of Inspiration from the Coach Ed Thomas Foundation. CBS 2 and FOX 28 in partnership with the Eastern Iowa Airport are looking for coaches who embody the spirit of Coach Thomas by having a strong impact on the community and on the sidelines.

Nominate your favorite coach from any sport in the form below.
Please re-enter the code shown in the image below.