Still a Coaching Cyclone at 65 : Iowa State's Orr Says the Thrill Hasn't Gone After 43 Years


Some years back, when college basketball was not enjoying the immense appeal of the '80s and '90s, Johnny Orr was astounded to receive a call from the President.

Not the president of Michigan, the school where he was coaching. But the President.

Gerald Ford, an old Michigan man.

"He said, 'I called to congratulate you on your great year,' " said Orr, whose team had lost the NCAA championship to Indiana in 1976. "I said, 'Thank you very much, Mr. President.' "

Then he heard the laughter.

Orr had been had.

It was Indiana Coach Bobby Knight.

Such pranks relieved the pressures of developing top-ranked teams. Besides, Orr has learned it is better to get even than to get mad.

When Knight brought Indiana to Ann Arbor, Mich., the next season, the lot attendant insisted that the Hoosiers pay $5 before parking their bus next to the arena. Orders from Orr.

That got Knight's attention. And gave Orr another story for his collection. In his 28th season as a head coach in college basketball, Orr is a raconteur extraordinaire. After his autobiography, "Here's Johnny," was published last year, Orr remembered scores of anecdotes that never made it to print.

And Orr, at 65, is not slowing down. He is leading Iowa State to the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in nine years. The Cyclones--20-11, 8-6 in the Big Eight--will open the West Regional in Tucson against UCLA on Friday at about 7:45 p.m. PST. The game will be shown on Channel 2.

Orr is president of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches, a demanding position in today's environment. Whatever he is doing, Orr is known as a man who speaks his mind.

He served a one-game suspension last season for twice criticizing Big Eight game officials. And although Knight has the reputation for volatile behavior, Orr has lobbied for some recognition.

"He gets all the credit for throwing the chair," Orr said last year. "When I played him one time, I threw a chair. The referee turned around and I pointed up to the stands and said, 'See what those (fans) think of you?' "

We know what they think of Orr. They have immense respect for the man who began coaching 43 years ago at Milton (Wis.) High School.

His successful athletic career and the early coaching days are overshadowed by his record in Division I basketball. He is 204-187 in 13 seasons at Iowa State and in 1985 led the Cyclones to their first NCAA tournament berth in 40 years. Including three years at Massachusetts and 12 at Michigan, Orr is 452-333.

Orr graduated from high school in Taylorville, Ill., in the early 1940s as a football, baseball and basketball star. Would he attend college on a football and basketball scholarship, or sign with the Chicago Cubs or St. Louis Browns, who courted him?

He chose the University of Illinois, where he started as a freshman in football and basketball. While at Illinois, he played against DePaul's George Mikan, the first of the good big men, who later starred for the Minneapolis Lakers.

Mikan, at 6 feet 10, towered over his opponents, so an Illini assistant devised a special strategy for Orr. He told his young player to hit Mikan behind the knees.

"He was hard to get to, but I did it a couple of times," Orr told the Chicago Tribune. "Then he turned around to me, said, 'Hey, sonny boy, you do that one more time, I'll knock your (block) off.' "

Later, Orr transferred to Beloit College in Wisconsin, and still later played for the St. Louis Bombers of the now defunct Basketball Assn. of America. He played in the NBA during the 1949-50 season for the Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks.

He left for Milton High shortly thereafter.

"I just didn't like driving a station wagon all over the world anymore," he said.

Besides, playing professional basketball in that era did not command the respect it does today.

"It wasn't a glamorous game then," he once said. "It wasn't a totally accepted thing to be a professional basketball player. You were sort of looked at like a bum."

With success at Milton, Orr soon made it to the college ranks. After coaching at Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he left the business when an Illinois insurance company offered him a $7,500 raise.

But he returned to Michigan as an assistant within a year. He was a lifer.

And now, on the eve of his 11th NCAA tournament, Orr is as excited as if it were his first day at Milton.

"Almost every game is a big thrill," he said. "It's just as much fun. When it isn't, then I'll quit."

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