Correction: And earlier version of the article incorrectly said that the score of the 1976 NCAA men’s basketball national title game between Michigan and Indiana was tied at halftime. Michigan led 35-29 at halftime. This version has been corrected.
Johnny Orr won 466 games in 29 seasons as a college basketball coach. He was national coach of the year and took Michigan to the NCAA championship game in 1976. He awoke a long-slumbering Iowa State program in the 1980s, taking the Cyclones in 1985 to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 41 years and then back to the tournament five more times before he retired in 1994.
But Orr, who died Tuesday at the age of 86, won’t be remembered most for winning games. He will be remembered most for the way he entered games because no coach before or since has ever made an entrance to a basketball court the way Orr did during his 14 seasons at Iowa State.
Orr would always wait until both teams were on the Hilton Coliseum court and the pregame clock was almost at zero. Then he would come down the ramp from the locker room as the pep band played the old “Tonight Show” theme music and the entire crowd yelled, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” a la Ed McMahon introducing Johnny Carson. The place would go nuts, Orr would shake his fists to get the crowd even more pumped, and everyone in the building would stand and watch and smile, regardless of how cold it might be outdoors on a winter night in Ames, Iowa.
Orr could make the coldest night feel warm, could crack the toughest veneer, could even make Bob Knight smile. His entrance and the way he got the crowd going became known as “Hilton Magic,” but in truth the magic was Orr’s. There just wasn’t anyone who didn’t like Johnny Orr — even Knight, who was famous for turning on coaches who had the audacity to win against him.
“You have one good season and people love you,” Knight said to Orr one December night in 1985 before Indiana and Iowa State played one another. “I have one bad season, and most people boo me. The rest want to fire me.”
Orr responded, “Might be a reason for that, Coach.”
Orr called everyone “Coach,” whether they were a coach or not. It was a term of endearment and a term of respect. If Orr called you “Coach,” it probably meant he liked you. And he liked a lot of people.
“He’s the only person I know who calls more people, ‘Coach,’ than I do,” Larry Brown said. “The difference is half the time I do it because I can’t remember someone’s name. He does it because he can’t think of anything better than to be called ‘Coach.’ ”
Orr was a very good basketball player at Illinois before spending 15 months in the Navy in World War II and then finishing his education at Beloit College. His first head coaching job was a three-year stint at Massachusetts. He went from there to Michigan as an assistant and then moved up to replace Dave Strack in 1969. Five years later, he won the Big Ten title and reached the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. Then, in 1976, he took the Wolverines to the national title game in Philadelphia, only to run into Knight’s undefeated Indiana team. Michigan led by six at halftime, but the Hoosiers pulled away in the last 10 minutes to finish off their perfect season.
Orr’s decision to leave Michigan in March 1980 shocked the college basketball world. Iowa State Athletic Director Lou McCullough was looking for a hot young coach to energize a program that had gone 57-104 the previous six seasons under two coaches. He tried to hire Mike Krzyzewski, an unknown 33-year-old who was coaching at Army. Krzyzewski’s mentor, Knight, urged him to take the Iowa State job. At that point, Krzyzewski was a candidate for the Duke job and decided to wait to see if it might be offered to him.
McCullough called Orr to ask about Bill Frieder, his top assistant. During the conversation, it became apparent to Orr that the new Iowa State coach was going to be making considerably more money than the current Michigan coach — Orr — was making. Orr told McCullough that he would be interested in the job, and McCullough offered it to him on the spot.
If the rest wasn’t history, it was certainly magic.
Orr needed a while to turn around the program, but he proved to be worth every penny McCullough paid him and far more. After making the tournament in 1985, the Cyclones reached the Sweet Sixteen a year later, upsetting Michigan in the second round to get there.
Iowa State reached the tournament four more times before Orr retired in 1994 at the age of 67, tearfully saying, “I just don’t want to do it anymore,” while announcing he was stepping down. The rigors of recruiting and trying to compete in a cut-throat world without a cut-throat personality had finally worn him out.
They built a statue to him inside Hilton Coliseum, and he remained a revered figure in Ames. As recently as six weeks ago, he was in attendance when Iowa State hosted Michigan; he had left both schools as their winningest coach.
When Orr walked to his seat, the band played, “The Tonight Show” theme and Orr shook his fists like in the old days, and the place rocked with the magic he had brought with him from Michigan.
Fred Hoiberg, who grew up in Ames watching Orr make his entrances and then played for him, is now the Cyclones coach and has brought back some of the old Hilton Magic. After Iowa State had beaten Michigan that November evening, Hoiberg said that seeing his old coach shaking his fists and hearing the music once again, he was tempted to ask him if he wanted to coach the game.
Of course had Hoiberg asked, Orr might have said yes.
“He was my hero,” Hoiberg said simply upon hearing the news that Orr had died.
The 13th-ranked Cyclones defeated Northern Illinois, 99-63, on Tuesday night, giving them a 12-0 record. But the feeling of loss inside Hilton Coliseum on New Year’s Eve was, undoubtedly, palpable.
And yet, even though there might have been tears, there were certainly far more smiles among those who knew him and remembered him and felt the warmth whenever he came down that ramp.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.