That was Johnny Orr: Remembering an Iowa State coaching legend

Former ISU men’s basketball coach Johnny Orr talks about his memories as the winningest coach in ISU men’s basketball history following a speech.

Alex Halsted

Johnny Orr put his arm around me and we walked toward the elevator at Hilton Coliseum.

He had just wrapped up a speech in June 2012 at midcourt on the floor at Hilton, the very place he became an Iowa State coaching legend. I had watched from the lower bowl as the small crowd seated at round tables on the court erupted with laughter each time Orr spoke, telling stories of his days in Ames.

When the speech concluded and the crowd had settled, I requested an interview. He was more than happy to do it and asked that I walk with him toward the elevator on the other side of the arena to go up a level where his ride awaited.

Orr put his arm around me as we walked across the length of the court where he coached the Cyclones for 14 seasons.

We stopped for a moment along the way to that elevator as a fan pulled out a small basketball and pen, requesting an autograph. Then again for a young fan who requested a picture. Johnny put his arm around the kid, gave one of his famous fist pumps and smiled for the camera.

He was more than happy to retake the photo a moment later when the kid returned after the photo turned up blurry. That was Johnny Orr.

Just weeks ago when Iowa State faced No. 7 Michigan — a matchup of two schools in which Orr became the winningest coach at — he emerged from the tunnel with ISU coach Fred Hoiberg.

He fist pumped, and the crowd went wild.

“That was a really special moment,” Hoiberg said after the game. “I got a little choked up walking out there with him.

“I saw him back in the locker room before the game and I can’t tell you exactly what he said, a couple of the words, but he said, ‘Freddie, I’m 86-years old and I got dressed up for you.’”

Orr passed away Tuesday. He was 86 years old.

Orr arrived at Iowa State in 1980. He had received a call from then-ISU Athletic Director Lou McCullough looking for a recommendation. Orr decided he liked the job and took it for himself.

“I had a great time here,” Orr said when his statue was unveiled at Hilton in January 2011. “When I came here, I remember they said, ‘You’ve got to be nuts!’ I said, ‘I’m not nuts. Hell, they paid me.’”

During the next 14 years, Orr led the Cyclones to six NCAA tournament appearances and five 20-win seasons. When he retired in 1994, he had a career record of 466-346 in his 29-year coaching career. 

As we walked across the court on that summer evening — Orr’s arm around my shoulder each step of the way — he shared those memories.

“We were unbeatable here,” Orr told me, referring to Hilton. 

He was excited to talk about his favorite victory, an NCAA tournament win against No. 2 seed Michigan in 1986 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, and he laughed when talking about Hoiberg.

Finally, we reached the elevator.

“Thank you very much,” Orr said to me as I tried to thank him.

He disappeared into the elevator. That was Johnny Orr.

“He was my hero,” Hoiberg said in a statement Tuesday. “Not only was he a great basketball coach, he was even a better person.”