Johnny Orr, 1927-2013

Submitted by Ace on December 31st, 2013 at 11:58 AM

Johnny Orr (left) and his successor at U-M, Bill Frieder, in 1976 (via)

Johnny Orr, Michigan's all-time leader in basketball coaching wins and a legend in both Ann Arbor and Ames, Iowa, passed away today at the age of 86. The following is courtesy of the Iowa State athletic department [emphasis mine]:

AMES, Iowa - 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.


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.

Iowa 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 years.

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 school.

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 1951-59.

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 seasons.

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.

Of the five Michigan Wolverines with retired jerseys, two—center Phil Hubbard (#35) and forward Rudy Tomjanovich (#45)—played under Orr. RIP to one of the all-time greats.



December 31st, 2013 at 12:45 PM ^

I don't think it's possible to draw a Fab Five connection that makes any sense. This was just before Michigan was willing to pony up big-time money for basketball — Frieder took the Arizona State job in 1989 because he was frustrated by the lack of financial support for the program.


December 31st, 2013 at 12:34 PM ^

Here's a link to a Herald-Tribune article on the hiring:…

To sum up: "Orr told an enthusiastic crowd at an afternoon pep rally that his ISU job will make him one of the highest paid college coaches in the nation. He said the six-year contract calls for an annual salary of $45,000 plus several 'personal' extras."

Beyond that, though he had great success in the late 1970s, Orr's last two teams at UM didn't make the NCAAs, just the post-season NIT. So I'm not sure how hard AD Don Canham would have tried to keep him.

This doesn't make Orr a bad guy -- seems like he was a very good coach & person, and it makes sense to leave for big money at a place where you have some personal ties (he coaches high school b-ball in Iowa).


December 31st, 2013 at 1:30 PM ^

In 1973 there was an active "Dump John Orr" movement on campus, and one guy actually ran for student government on that platform and won. There were disgruntled fans holding "Dump Orr" signs near the football stadium during games, and at the inaugural game played in Crisler Arena, Orr was loudly jeered by the fans when his name was announced.

All this was due to the widespread perception that Orr was a failure at getting what were thought to be talented teams to be more competitive both in conference play and in post-season play. He managed to get the team to the 1976 NCAA final game, but were pretty much crushed by the juggernaut Bobby Knight Indiana team that year. The following season Michigan was ranked #1 for some portion of the year, but were beaten by unheralded UNC-Charlotte and Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell in the tournament in what was a hugely disappointing upset.

You can scroll through this PDF of the Michiganensian for more info:…

It's hardly surprising that Orr would accept the ISU job since they were throwing more money at him than Michigan was paying, and seemed to actually want him. It was a good move for him.

Prince Lover

December 31st, 2013 at 12:32 PM ^

I was surprised to read he only had 4 appearances in 12 years in the tourney. I'm not trying to take away his accomplishments, and I know the tourney was much, much smaller back then, but I thought UM went to a lot more.
Goes to show how tough it was to make it back then.

Team 101

December 31st, 2013 at 12:41 PM ^

Johnny Orr was the first Michigan basketball coach I remember.  He left right before my freshman year.

I don't remember seeing Cazzie Russell play but the 1976 and 1977 Michigan teams were legendary with Phil Hubbard, Ricky Green and Steve Grote.  The 1976 tournament run was a surprise making it all the way to play an undefeated Indiana in the finals in what was the first final with two teams from the same conference.  In 1977 we all expected to go all the way and were shut down in the Elite Eight against UNC Charlotte and Cornbread Maxwell.

The tournament was much smaller back then.  I think there were 32 teams.  Before 1975 there were even fewer.  There were also rules limiting the number of teams from each conference.  At one time only the champion could go.  It was then changed to allow two teams from each conference.  The two teams could not meet until the final which explains what happened in 1976 (no one thought that it would happen!).  That explains why there were fewer appearances back then.  Getting into the tournament really meant something and an NIT bid still was thought of as an accomplishment.

Orr's departure to Iowa State was when I first learned about the business of college sports.  The main reason Orr left was for the money.  I think he was making somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 per year at Michigan and he had no contract.  The Iowa State paid a lot more than that and if Michigan had attempted to match it he would have eclipsed Bo's salary (which became an issue a couple of years later when Texas A&M had enticed Bo to leave).

There were also issues with Michigan being a football school and that Orr would always be second fiddle to Bo when it came to prestige.  Even when the basketball team was a national championship contender, basketball was a side show that gave us something to pay attention to when football was off season.  It was harder to follow back then because not all of the games were on TV like they are now.  There were even tournament games that were not on TV.

Orr had a great career at Iowa State and was fortunate to have left a legacy at two schools. 


December 31st, 2013 at 4:28 PM ^

A fine UM player and good defender and later announcer. Hustle award named after him.

I remember the guy's one BUMMER moment in the 75-76 season. We had Indiana beat by 2 pts in Bloomington late and he was fouled for a 1-and-1. Missed the free throw and Indy tied us at the end and won in OT - otherwise no undefeated season for them.

Grote used to say, as an announcer, he'd get teased about that miss everytime he announced a B1G game in Bloomington.

Great memories from the Orr days.


January 2nd, 2014 at 2:59 PM ^

Yeah, that Indiana game I think was the last of the regular season. Epic stuff.


Some people would call Grote a hustler. My dad said he epitomized "leather jacket basketball". He said if Grote could get away with it he'd wear brass knuckles on the court.


My dad liked Grote a lot.


December 31st, 2013 at 12:45 PM ^

was Michigan Basketball coach while I was a student.  I had the honor of driving his teams on campus buses to/from the airport (actually both DTW and Willow Run).  Coach Orr was a class act and his teams always travelled in an efficient, business-like manner.  It was good to catch a glimpse of him during the game at ISU early in the season.


December 31st, 2013 at 1:14 PM ^

I covered the basketball team for the Daily the 1975-76 season that ended with the loss to Indiana in the national championship game.  Coach Orr allowed gave us free rein to attend practices.  I would go several afternoons a week.  His office door at State and Hoover was always open and we would often just swing by his office with no appointment and sit down and talk basketball.



December 31st, 2013 at 2:05 PM ^

Sometimes forgotten that Orr was genuinely in on Magic right up to the end.  Same with Clark Kellogg, who--the story goes--asked Johnny to come down to his press conference announcing his college selection (back in a time that was rare)--Johnny reasonably assuming that meant Michigan.  It didn't as we know.  Johnny apparently wasn't happy.  Yet another reason to dislike the pumpkin announcer.


December 31st, 2013 at 4:22 PM ^

Was a teenager and the 1st time I really watched the tourney seriously. Still remember beating Wichita State on a jump shot near the end of the game. Then a nice win vs. ND team with Adrian Dantley. Indiana was one of the greatest all-time teams period, so losing three times to them was understandable. 

I still loved the end of the next season, remember watching Michigan rally at home on a Sunday (final regular season weekend) to beat Marquette and end the season #1. Marquette ended up winning it all for Al McGuire.

The 1986 NCAA game where Iowa State beat us was almost predictable. Master (Orr) beats Son (Freider), even with lesser talent. That's what always PO'ed me about Freider teams - didn't play well in NCAAs.

RIP Johnny!


December 31st, 2013 at 10:07 PM ^

Orr's was the third name in professional coaching I learned after Schembechler and Billy Martin. I was very young during his tenure at Michigan, but all of my associations with him are positive.


January 2nd, 2014 at 3:15 PM ^

The '76 team was as entertaining a Michigan squad as any that has followed since. That includes the national championship team, the Fab Five and last year's team. Give the '76 team a three point line and they'd average in the low 90s.


That year in the tournament they faced an undefeated Rutgers team that topped the NCAA in scoring average. Lots of biased East Coast media tooted their horn. Less than 10 minutes into the game we led 22-8. An object lesson in racehorse basketball.


Phil Hubbard was an all-time great Wolverine, yet he was not half the player he should have been. Never truly recovered from his broken leg. Was just a guy in the NBA and should have been more.


Great staff too: Orr on top with assistants Frieder and a certain Jim Dutcher. Though actually by '76 Dutcher had already left for Minnesota. You may remember his work - Kevin McHale anyone?