Hilton Magic Forever Changed; Remembering Johnny Orr

It is hard to find the words. Johnny Orr is Cyclone Basketball. He is the father of Hilton Magic. And now he is gone.

If you are reading this, Iowa State University has a special place in your life. Iowa State basketball is the part of cold Iowa winters that binds us all together and bridges generations. Just think of the moments and the memories you have invested with Cyclone basketball and the countless nights at Hilton Coliseum.  Few of those moments would have been possible without Johnny.

Johnny Orr came to Iowa State in 1980. The Cyclones hadn’t been to an NCAA tournament since 1945. Certainly Iowa State had some legendary players like Gary Thompson, Bill Cain and Zaid Abdul-Aziz, but the lean times far outnumbered the good. The Cyclones had just three winning seasons in the 1970’s.

Iowa State was looking for a new coach when they phoned Orr inquiring about one of his assistants at Michigan, Bill Frieder. As the legend goes Orr asked what Iowa State was willing to pay Frieder and when he found out the financial figure, he volunteered himself for the job. It remains the most significant decision in Iowa State athletics history.  

What followed is nothing short of story book. Orr manufactured Iowa State basketball with star quality and magnetism. He brought with him an engaging, up tempo style and the folks in Iowa came to Hilton in droves. Cyclone basketball was the hottest ticket around; it was showtime in Story County.

The numbers stand alone: 218 wins; Six NCAA tournaments. Orr reached unthinkable heights in a college town desperate for something to cheer about.

But Johnny will forever live above any record book or win total. He was the pied piper of Iowa State athletics.

There are charismatic people in this world and there are icons; Orr is the latter. Johnny had the impossible ability to make everyone he met feel like they were his best friend and yet still seem larger than life. Just like they flocked to see Johnny’s teams at Hilton, a crowd always followed Orr at club outings and local establishments. The man could hold court and tell stories and jokes for hours; almost all involved colorful language.

One of my favorite anecdotes that has been passed down over the years: Johnny was at a Cyclone club outing with football coach Jim Criner, who was a popular whipping boy among the fans in the 1980’s. After a few beverages, Johnny was ribbing Criner in his patented, high-pitch voice, “Hey, what do the Reverend Billy Graham and Jim Criner have in common? They are the only two people in the world who can get 45,000 people to stand up and yell Jesus Christ.”

Everyone has a favorite Johnny moment and all bring a smile to the face. College athletics is full of farces and frauds, but Orr was raw; he was real. He was one of those special characters who seemed infallible; a guy who was supposed to be around forever.     

The last time most saw Johnny was this past November when Michigan met Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. The rumors began to float before the game that Johnny was going to be in attendance, but that he didn’t want to make a spectacle. As tip-time approached the anticipation grew and the murmurs got louder. And just like he did hundreds of times before, Orr fired out of the Hilton tunnel, pumping his fist, showing just as much vigor as ever. The crowd rose to its collective feet and erupted like it was 1985 all over again as the band serenaded him with “Here’s Johnny.” Right behind him Fred Hoiberg followed like a proud son. It was hard to not get choked up; tears and goosebumps accompanied by smiles. Johnny Orr had once again stolen the moment.

The spotlight was never too big for Johnny.         

Hilton Magic has a reverential treatment among Cyclone Nation; there is a spirit within the building when it is rocking that is hard to explain, but easy to feel.

One man made that all possible.The Magic will never be the same.