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December 31, 2013

Remembering former Michigan coach Johnny Orr

Former Michigan head coach Johnny Orr helped elevate the basketball program to new heights in the 1970s before Iowa State wooed him away, but he'll always remain a big part of U-M basketball's success. Orr passed away Dec. 31 at the age of 86.

Orr assisted Dave Strack at Michigan for one season before taking over the head coaching duties at Michigan prior to the 1968-69 season.

"The Michigan Basketball program is saddened by the passing of Johnny Orr today," U-M head coach John Beilein said. "Johnny was a tremendous person and basketball coach. We will always value the many positives he brought to both the University of Michigan and college basketball in general. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Orr family during this time."


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. His 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).

He became extremely popular at Iowa State. He spent 14 years on the sidelines at Hilton Coliseum, 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.

Orr told TheWolverine.com several years ago why he left Michigan - he simply had a difficult time getting money out of U-M's consummate businessman, Don Canham, at crunch time. Coaches current and former quipped over the years about Canham's penny-pinching. Unfortunately, it became the reason Orr left Michigan to accept the head coaching duties at Iowa State in 1980.

"He would not pay me," Orr recalled. "I had been there as the head coach for 12 years and I was making $33,000 a year. He just absolutely would not pay me. I went to him a month before Iowa State called and said, 'you know, I'm 52 now, been here 12 years, I have no contract. I'd like you to give me a three-year contract, then I'll be 55. That's long enough for me. I'll either get out of basketball and help you do something, or I'll just get out.'"

With a family of four girls and college tuition to think about, Orr asked for a $5,000 raise. Instead, he ended up with nearly 15 times that when Iowa State officials courted him - not vice-versa, he insisted - and finally landed the 'name' coach they coveted.

Even Orr's biggest fans in Ann Arbor couldn't argue the move. In Ames, he built a bottom feeding Big Eight program into one of national respect, becoming a folk hero to the Cyclones fans. Yet it almost didn't happen.

"I told them, 'I've got a good job, I'm only going to be in this business a little while longer,'" Orr recalled. "I came back to Michigan three days [after my visit] and they called me back, said, 'Coach, the Board met and they want you to come out here. Fly out here with your wife and see the place.' I tried to get Don, called him for a week to tell him I'm going out there to interview.

"When they offered me, they offered me three times what I was making and everything else. I came back and got Don on the phone finally, told him, 'I'm going to Iowa State.'"

There were no hard feelings, Orr recalled - just a word of advice from Canham, who offered, "Make sure you get it in writing."

Orr's biggest win came against Bill Frieder and No. 1 Michigan in the 1986 NCAA Tournament. His Cyclones, led by Detroit native Jeff Grayer and future Utah Jazz star Jeff Hornacek, bumped heavily favored U-M in stunning the Big Ten champs in the second round.

Beating good friend Frieder was bittersweet, but the win instantly became one of the biggest in school history.

"We beat Miami in the first game at the buzzer to get there," Orr recalled. "Michigan had just won the Big Ten, had Roy Tarpley and those guys. But I had a very talented team, too - not a big team, but very quick. I didn't think we could beat them, to be honest. Their guards were bigger than my forwards.

"Oh, God, it was a great win. If it isn't the greatest win in Iowa State history, it's certainly one of them. That was emotional, and my team was emotional. We had a lot of Michigan kids on the team. In the locker room, you didn't have to say anything. I knew they'd be fired up. I thought maybe we'd make a run and fade out, but we kept getting stronger."

Orr was inducted into the Iowa State Letterwinners Club Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2011, the Iowa State Athletics Department opened a large, sports bar-themed gathering area in the east concourse of Hilton Coliseum, naming it "Johnny's" as a tribute to the coaching legend. Outside the entrance of "Johnny's", a larger-than-life statue of Orr with his trademark fist-pump is permanently on display, along with memorabilia of his coaching tenure at Iowa State.


Orr is survived by his wife, Romie, and three daughters; Jennifer, Leslie and Rebecca. His daughter, Robin, who passed away in 2010, preceded him in death. The Orrs have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.



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