Williamson remembers: Can Johnny speak at my fish fry?

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Many people have weighed in this week on the passing of Cyclone legend Johnny Orr. Several of our department’s Facebook accounts are testament to those recollections.

 

A personal friend and professional colleague of mine – Rod Williamson – sent me a note this week about Orr. Rod graduated from ISU in 1972 and worked a student assistant to Harry Burrell in the Sports Information Office for a couple of years. He returned to Iowa State in 1974 as assistant SID and then moved to the Cyclone Club in ’77. Rod had personal dealings with Orr, especially at the summer fan outings.

 

Rod has worked in the athletics department at Vanderbilt since 1983 and is its Director of Communications. Here are thoughts on Johnny Orr in Rod’s own words. Enjoy!

 

I was at my desk in the Ralph Olsen Building one afternoon just a few days after Iowa State had shocked the basketball world by luring Michigan’s Johnny Orr to take over the Cyclones’ dormant program.  The phone rang.

Johnny’s introductory press conference in C.Y. Stephens Auditorium had turned into a pep rally, complete with the band, cheerleaders and a banner that proudly proclaimed “Iowa State is Orr Right!”  There was meaning in that banner because the ISU program had slipped so badly that cynics had made “Will Coach Iowa State Basketball for Food” signs.  Johnny Orr provided instant credibility.

 Back to the ringing telephone. The guy on the other end of the line wanted Johnny to speak at his club’s annual fish fry in a couple weeks. I said I would find out.

We had just endured a bumpy run of head coaches in Ken Trickey, Lynn Nance and an interim who took over when the cautious and publicity shy Nance resigned early. Coach Nance, a one-time FBI member, tended to duck public events if possible. 

So goodness, I fretted. Johnny Orr had coached Michigan to the national championship game two years prior. What would a big-time guy like him say about speaking at a civic club fish fry?

“Hell yes I’ll do it,” Orr blurted out almost before I could finish with the details.  So much for idle worries.

So began a special era in Iowa State Athletics. When I checked back later to see how our new coach fared – hoping against hope he didn’t disappoint – I found out not only did he bring the house down with his unique humor and charisma, he took out membership papers and joined the club before the night had ended.

It was love at first bounce. Every Iowa State fan has a fond memory and as a testament to the power of Orr’s glowing personality, many of those have nothing to do with basketball games.  Cyclone fans played golf with Johnny Orr or shot the breeze with him in an airport terminal or a county fair. Others remember laughing themselves silly at Cyclone Club outings in places like Sioux City, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Mason City or Creston. These fans no doubt realized halfway home that Orr had spoken nary a word about his basketball team during his talk, preferring to expound about his fancy new house, latest vacation or visit with Bobby Knight.

Orr inherited a mess and it took time getting things turned around. The Cyclones finished eighth his first year, then seventh. A sure-fire laugh line on the circuit became “you don’t want to win too damn fast or people will think it’s easy!”

Orr immediately became an Iowa State hero, however. There was a little scuffle at a fast food establishment, crowded with folks heading to watch the Cyclones when someone a few lines over had the audacity to loudly question Johnny Orr’s ability and one of Johnny’s many admirers didn’t appreciate the critique.

Coach Nance was convinced Iowa State could not recruit in “Big Ten Country” because top kids in Chicago and Detroit would not be interested in leaving. When I mentioned this theory to Johnny, he was aghast. He sure as heck WAS going to recruit “Big 10 Country” and before long super stars such as Michigan natives Jeff Grayer and Barry Stevens were pouring in points before sold-out crowds. Hilton Coliseum became magical.

Students absolutely loved the thin, balding coach who entered the playing floor to the Tonight Show theme song. When a Veishea celebration turned rowdy and Ames police couldn’t restore order, Johnny Orr and football coach Jim Walden were called in the wee hours to hustle down to Dog Town and calm things down. They did what others couldn’t that night.

Yes, there were signature wins on his resume, despite his classic summer line that he “had the best job in the world if it wasn’t for those damn games!”  But winning games was not Johnny Orr’s legacy. It is bigger and more significant.

Johnny Orr was an optimist that made everyone feel better. He shined his cheery outlook on life’s bland corners. He exuded success and brought pride to a Cyclone Nation that lacked self-confidence. He treated everyone from the CEO to the struggling farmer with respect.

We all felt older when we heard the news. Johnny Orr has left us, gone but not forgotten. On cold winter nights for years to come, the hearts of basketball fans will be warmed by those many stories and treasured memories of a truly special man. 

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