Julie Voss: ‘life support’ of the Iowa State men’s basketball team

Julie Voss works as the administrative assistant for the men’s basketball team and has been working with the team since 1977. 

Emily Barske

Johnny Orr — a former Iowa State coach known for putting the Cyclones on the college basketball map — returned to Hilton Coliseum for Iowa State’s game against Michigan in 2013.

Walking out of the locker room, Orr pumped his fist to a standing ovation, his grin a mile wide. A few feet behind him stood an admiring coach Fred Hoiberg, clapping along with the more than 14,000 fans who filled the arena.

The 77-70 win went down as one of Hoiberg’s best non-conference wins and a sure sign to the rest of the country that ‘Hilton Magic’ was no myth. When Orr died just a few months later, it was as if fate put him in Hilton just one last time. Today photos of the moment are framed in local restaurants as an eternal reminder.

But for Julie Voss, whose role on the men’s basketball team isn’t well known by many Cyclone fans, that moment before the Michigan game was something much more than just watching the two coaches exit the locker room.

For Julie, it was meeting with Orr and his wife Romie up in Johnny’s restaurant, where Julie’s old office sat when she started her job in 1977, at Hilton before the game. Orr exclaimed, “Julie, I was worried you weren’t going to get here,” when she walked into the restaurant.

For Julie, it was telling Orr that Dick Vitale — a man who he’d had a running feud with for years — was in the building and taking Orr and Romie down the elevator to the locker room. They ran into Vitale and he shook Orr’s hand. Then, Julie walked Orr into the locker room “just beaming” and talked amongst the players and coaches before she sent him out of the locker room.

For Julie, it was the building — Hilton Coliseum — where it all started for her. For Julie, it was watching a man — Johnny Orr — who was her former boss, a friend and a father figure. For Julie, it was watching another man — Fred Hoiberg — whom she’d practically watched grow up with the basketball program, helped arrange his visit to Iowa State as a recruit, saw him through his four years as a player and told him, “It was a good thing I was good to you, huh, Fred?” when he became the team’s coach in 2010.

For Julie, that game is one of just many iconic Cyclone moments in her time since being promoted to her position.

In 1977, Julie was 21 years old and she’d been working as a secretary for Administrative Data Processing at Iowa State. To be promoted, she had to take a typing test. She did well and was in the top five of those who’d taken the test, which meant she got to interview for two open secretary positions at the university.

One was with the men’s basketball team and now, she’s been in the position coming up on 40 years this November and has seen the program through eight coaches.

“My guys”

Walking up the stairs upon entering the Sukup Basketball Complex, where the men’s and women’s teams practice,  a sign that reads “Men’s Basketball” sits over the Iowa State logo. In the office, behind the desk, Julie greets you with a smile and asks how she can help you. 

She would be on her feet already because she now has a standing desk after being pestered on multiple occasions by Hoiberg for how bad it is for her joints to sit on her foot while she was in her chair. At 5 foot 3, she doesn’t tower over the desk — nor most of the players who are all 6 foot 3 or taller — yet her presence in the office still fills the room.

On the right side of her desk, which faces the hallway leading to the coaches’ offices and the theater room where they watch game film, there will usually be a few basketballs or a poster that she helps get the team to sign for items to be given away at charities or as presents to Cyclone fans. During some of the busier times for autographs, like Christmas or tournament time, she said the office looks like a basketball store.

At her desk, she helps coordinate current coach Steve Prohm’s schedule — his appearances, meetings he has to attend or interviews. She coordinates the recruiting visits — travel arrangements, where the recruit will stay, their itinerary, whether their parents will attend too and who all the recruit needs to meet while they’re here — all while filing the correct compliance paperwork for the NCAA. She helps coordinate the travel for postseason play and international travel like the trips to Italy and Spain.

She helps manage the expenses and game tickets for recruits or NBA scouts and compliance paperwork and any other office work needed to keep a Division I basketball program and its players afloat. All of the things that the average fan or members of the team will never have to think about.

And she does most of it behind her standing desk. Prohm said her “people-person” personality mixed with sarcasm and jokes often shines through.

She provides nice perspective “in a room full of hardened coaches and men who’ve been around basketball for a long time,” said Micah Byars, director of basketball operations. “She essentially fills the role of another assistant coach on our staff because she’s been in Division I basketball for so long.” 

One of the offices just past her desk has windows overlooking the men’s practice court. Those windows are sometimes propped open and the practice going on below echoes in sounds of bouncing basketballs, swishing of the hoop and shouts from the men’s team members — who she simply refers to as “my players” or “my guys.”

“Her players” are the reason she’s stuck around for so long.

“The best part is the relationships”

Current Iowa State senior Naz Mitrou-Long first met Julie on his recruiting visit in 2011. She’d arranged for him to join the team at Sukup and later a tailgate before one of the football games. The first thing he noticed about her was that she was smiling at everyone.

“Whenever she walked by, everybody was giving hugs to her. Everybody was saying ‘what’s up’ to her — not just inside the basketball facility, but to everybody,” Mitrou-Long said. “She treated me as if I was already a Cyclone and I wasn’t yet.”

Mitrou-Long’s feelings aren’t unique.

“To say that she’s the mother of the whole group would probably not give due credit to everything she does,” Byars said. He’d been in the coaching business for 11 years when he came to Iowa State and first met Julie.

“We had people with different roles that were similar to what I thought she did when I realized the full scope of everything she had done and how long she’d been at Iowa State,” Byars said. “Of course I was impressed like everyone else, but my first impression of her was that she was sweet and accommodating and nice, which says a lot for having been there for as long as she has been there in that capacity.”

She’s the person who can hug any of the players whether they win or lose, Byars said.

And she helps the team with whatever they need.

“Early on in my years, I had to mail a couple of things back home given I’m from Canada and I didn’t have the absolute knowledge on how to do that,” Mitrou-Long said. “So I asked Julie if she could help me mail some things. She gave me a hug and patted me on the head and said ‘you know I’ll always be here for you, I’ll take care of you.’ She walked me through the steps of how to mail things and since then she’s been like a second mom to me.”

She said nowadays one of the things she often helps the players with is learning to write a check.

“She’s been unbelievable — she’s a huge support figure for these guys,” Prohm said.

Beyond knowing her as a sweet lady, the players seem to notice her for another aspect of her personality: her fashion, which has made Mitrou-Long dub her “one of the swaggiest individuals” he’s ever met.

“Julie has a lot of different outfit choices — she has a great taste in fashion,” Mitrou-Long said. “She can dress with the best of them.”

Sometimes her fashion was the butt of a joke. Georges Niang, a former player who is a member of the Indiana Pacers, used to get on her about her “Jesus sandals” that he hated, but were her favorite pair. Last fall, when catching up with Georges over the phone, he asked if she was wearing the sandals — which are actually Chacos — and he again asked during his February visit.

Tami Cross — Julie’s step daughter — grew up with the basketball program. She’d sit behind the bench during the Coach Orr days and when she got married years later, he was there.

“The best part is the relationships,” Julie said. And some of those relationships go on for years and have afforded her some unique memories.

Jeff Hornacek played for Iowa State from 1982 to 1986, played in the NBA for 14 years and is the current head coach of the New York Knicks. Julie, who is good friends with his wife Stacy, drove Jeff’s car down with her to Phoenix while he was playing for the Phoenix Suns. After watching him play, Julie and Stacy were looking forward to dinner with Jeff — he brought guests.

When they left the arena to head to dinner, Jeff drove and Stacy sat in the passenger seat. Julie sat in the back between Dennis Rodman, who was in his rookie season with the Detroit Pistons, and Isiah Thomas, who was the Pistons’ point guard at the time. Julie remembered Stacy looking back at her with a look of, “What is going on?” Julie would soon find out they were just like regular people.

Except in some ways, they aren’t like regular people. Early this year, the Chicago Bulls, now coached by Hoiberg, and the New York Knicks, now coached by Hornacek, were playing each other. Julie was watching from home and sent Fred a text: Who would’ve thought she’d be watching two of her former players coaching against each other in the NBA?

Team historian

One day this January when Byars was in his office working, he couldn’t recall what Lafester Rhodes, a former player, was known for. So naturally he shouted down the hall to ask Julie.

“Double overtime game, 54 points, against Iowa,” Julie shouted without a second thought.

While she says she can’t recall too many specific games, that one — where Rhodes led the Cyclones to 102-100 win over the Hawkeyes in 1987 — sticks out to her. At that time, her seats were still behind the Cyclone bench. Near the end of the thriller, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was campaigning for the 1988 Iowa Caucus, came strolling into Hilton and was standing right in front of her.

Julie recalled being angry that he was blocking her view.  

“The game was the bigger deal,” she laughed.

After, Jackson went over and congratulated Rhodes.

“Unbeknownst to her, she recalls this stuff a lot more quickly than she probably thinks she does,” Byars said.

Her quick recall and relationships with alumni have also given her a role of “team historian.” Prohm said that one of the biggest aids she provides the program is having connections with alumni and other support figures. 

One of the more unique times that role played a factor was with Fred Hoiberg.

In 2010, when Iowa State was searching for a new coach, a friend of hers in the athletic department told her, “I can’t say who it is, but you’re going to be really happy.”

When Julie heard that Hoiberg would become the next head coach, her first reaction was to laugh. Not because the idea of him being a coach was funny, but because she’d seen him before he was a pseudo celebrity, before he’d become one of the best players Iowa State had seen and before he was drafted to the NBA.

She first met him at his recruiting visit in Ames. She sat next to him behind the bench at a game he was attending as a recruit. He sat there, with a quiet demeanor and watched the game. Julie usually tried to chat with the recruits, but Hoiberg wasn’t much of a talker, though eventually the two would become close, and they still text occasionally.

As a player, Julie said Hoiberg was one of the guys who would do whatever she needed and right when she asked him to. While he was at Iowa State, she also got to know his then-girlfriend and now-wife Carol.

“Julie, I’m so glad you’re still here,” Carol told Julie at Hoiberg’s introductory press conference.

“The best lady”

Julie can talk to anyone, though she doesn’t really like to talk about herself. But those who know her well were perfectly OK with talking about her.

Mitrou-Long says she is “the best lady.” Byars says she is “the default director of basketball operations.” Cross says she is “the glue that puts it all together.” Prohm says she is “the life support of this program.”

And though her role and personality of someone who “does everything 110 percent,” as Cross puts it, has not changed over the years, what she does has changed. One might imagine that would happen with eight different bosses, a program that has gone from little known to a national contender and an industry that’s become a huge business.

“Her role has evolved from year one… she’s probably had a different role every year and those of us who’ve been in the business for a long time realize how hard it is to reinvent yourself that often — and she’s done it fluently,” Byars said.