There have been two amazing revivals of collegiate athletic programs in Iowa during my lifetime.
And, both occurred at approximately the same time.
The fall of 1979 was my final semester at the University of Iowa. That previous spring, we’d heard the woeful regime of Bob Commings was over, and some Texan we’d never heard of — Hayden Fry — was the new coach.
We had no idea what to expect, but it had to be better than what we’d experienced our previous years on campus.
It certainly was, as it turned out. After 17 straight losing seasons, Fry and his staff came in and changed the whole culture of the program. It was amazing to watch the process, from the inside out, as a member of the university’s Sports Information Service staff.
Fry, now 84, was the architect of everything you see now in a jammed Kinnick Stadium on Saturdays, and the wonderful football facilities nearby. One of his young assistants, Kirk Ferentz, was paying attention and rebuilt the program after a lull near the end of Fry’s 20-year run.
A few months after Fry began his first season in Iowa City, I began my newspaper career in Atlantic. Three months later Iowa State shook up the college basketball world, in March 1980, by announcing Michigan coach Johnny Orr was taking over the Cyclone program.
Like Iowa’s football team before Fry, Iowa State basketball was languishing in mediocrity that generated little interest in what was then a pretty new facility in Hilton Coliseum.
Fry was Bump Elliott’s most important hire at Iowa, and ISU athletic director Lou McCullough made that university’s most noteworthy hire when he called Orr to inquire about his top assistant, Bill Frieder.
When Orr realized the new Iowa State coach was going to make considerably more money than he was as the Michigan coach, Orr seized an opportunity. He may have had a folksy, sometimes profane manner, but he was no dummy.
Everyone knows the rest of the story. Iowa State, 57-104 the previous six seasons and generating crowds of less than 7,000, was suddenly the hot ticket. The Cyclones made the NCAA Tournament in 1985, and reached the Sweet Sixteen a year later.
Deb and I joined a bunch of ISU fans at a 1986 NCAA tournament game in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena against North Carolina State. I admired the steady play of the likes of Jeff Hornacek and Jeff Grayer.
It was apparent that Orr was fun to play for, and he attracted some terrific talent to Ames before retiring at age 67 in 1994. Barry Stevens still ranks among the best pure shooters I’ve seen play for a team in this state.
During that run, Orr and football coach Jim Walden would appear here for the Midcrest Cyclone Club outings at the Creston Elks Lodge. He was always a hoot. A much more satisfying experience than trying to strike up a conversation with Iowa coach Steve Alford in the same setting, when it was obvious he wasn’t interested in being there.
I covered Fry in some I-Club outings and he was a lot like Orr. A man of the people, who enjoyed being the center of attention.
My former colleague at the Mason City Globe-Gazette, Bob Fenske, recalled a visit by Orr to Mason City when he joined some locals at a Clear Lake golf course before that evening’s banquet.
Tom Thoma, the sports editor at the Globe-Gazette when Fenske and I worked there together, had worked in the area the better part of three decades and seemed to know everyone. Waiting at a tee box, Thoma was holding court with a bunch of locals.
Orr looked up from the previous hole’s green and howled, “Who’s that guy, the (expletive) president?”
That was Orr. A quick wit, and the first one to cackle that trademark laugh at his own remark. You couldn’t help but smile when you were around him.
Even in those moments after a tough defeat, when some coaches are understandably grouchy when forced to face the media, Orr could turn a tense moment on its side.
Bobby La Gesse of the Ames Tribune related a story told by ISU broadcaster John Walters about a press conference after a tough ISU defeat to Oklahoma. It was the second or third straight close loss. The first question, from a Cedar Rapids TV reporter, was whether these losses were getting to the players.
“Of course, it’s difficult,” Orr replied. “Have you ever been involved in athletics?”
The reporter said yes.
“What did you play? Ping-pong?” Orr asked.
Walters still laughs when he retells that story, as he did in Hilton Coliseum on Tuesday, the day that Orr passed away at age 86. There was an emotional video tribute to the man who constructed “Hilton Magic” as Cyclone fans assembled for a victory over Northern Illinois to improve to 12-0.
Then on Thursday, a steady stream of people filed in to pay their respects to the coaching legend at Hilton Coliseum.
Visitors could sign a guest book and walk around the outside of Johnny’s — a sports-bar themed gathering spot in the arena for donors — where coach Orr memorabilia has been preserved behind display cases near Orr’s bronze statue.
The memorial took place as officials released more information about the legendary coach’s death. Polk County Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Schmunk said Orr died from complications from a head injury, and that he had fallen.
How lucky were we that we had one more chance to see his patented “Here’s Johnny!” entrance to the Hilton court six weeks ago when ISU hosted Michigan. Orr had left both schools as their winningest coach.
He came in, shook his fists while the old Tonight Show theme played one more time, and the place rocked with the old magic.
Not bad for an old Dubuque Senior High teacher and coach, who took a college assistant job in Wisconsin. He even left coaching for a short stint as an insurance executive in the 1960s.
I can just see him sitting across the kitchen table from a husband and wife, pitching his latest product.
“Whoee, coach. This is a dinger!”
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