The final day of 2013 brought news of the death of a man who will go down in the annals of University of Michigan sports history as its most forgotten coach – former basketball coach Johnny Orr. The man who led the 1975-76 Wolverines to an improbable NCAA Finals berth (losing to perhaps the greatest team in college basketball history NOT named UCLA) was 88 … and had long since been out of the hearts and minds of U-M fans.
Which is, and was, a tragic shame in itself; Orr did much to reverse Michigan hardcourt fortunes, culminating in that appearance in The Spectrum in Philadelphia and then a season-long number-one ranking the following year.
Even the news leads in most of the printed obituaries referred to his time in Ames, Iowa as the head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones, with Michigan being an afterthought. The news of Orr’s passing was a “stop the presses” moment in Iowa; TV stations did on-site reports from Ames about community reaction to the man credited with putting Cyclone basketball on a legitimate contending footing.
Inside Hilton Coliseum, there is a statue of Orr and an entire section devoted to his years (1981-94) at Iowa State; in Ann Arbor, no such honors or remembrances exist.
But Orr made his real mark within the coaching profession in Ann Arbor, garnering Coach of the Year honors in 1976, ahead of Indiana’s Bobby Knight, who coached IU to that undefeated (32-0) NCAA title. When the honor was announced at the NABC banquet on the Sunday afternoon between the Final Four and the NCAA Finals, Knight was the first to stand and applaud and lauded the choice.
The 1975-76 squad was a mixture of state of Michigan-produced and imported talent coming together as an outstanding team, guided by Orr; it would have been even greater if not for the looming giant that was Indiana.
Initially ranked 16th in the various national polls to start the season, the final ranking was ninth, which did not matter since all issues, including the national championship were settled on court.
Michigan was led in scoring by its point guard, Rickey Green from Chicago, perhaps the fastest and quickest guard in Wolverine history. He averaged 19.9 points per game and 4.4 assists, and would become a first-round draft pick of Utah.
Out of the Cleveland area came freshman center Phil Hubbard (another future first-round NBA selection), who averaged 15.1 points per contest (shooting 54.6 percent from the floor) and 11 rebounds per game despite playing the center position at 6-7.
Those were the “stars” of the squad, but the real heart of the team could be seen in the other three starters.
Sophomore Johnny Robinson, also from Chicago, was the perfect power forward for Orr’s up-tempo, fast-break offense, and his ability to run the floor allowed his, at 6-5, the score 14 points per game and grab 8.2 rebounds.
Steve Grote, the pride of Cincinnati, played more like the standout linebacker he was in high school as a guard, and also averaged in double figures for an offense that led the Big 10 in scoring.
Normally using a short rotation, Michigan’s top reserves were guard Dave Baxter, a left-handed outside shooter, and another southpaw, forward Joel Thompson, who possessed great speed and leaping ability. Both players, however, were best known for their flamboyant 1970s Afro haircuts, especially Baxter, whose locks flowed through the air as he ran the court.
And then there was the senior captain Wayman Britt, out of Flint Northern High School, who was the team’s defensive specialist at just 6-2. He was forced to guard players far taller than he stood and much bigger in bulk, since Britt was under 200. Yet he never backed down from a challenge and normally got the best of his assignment, night in and night out.
On the stat sheet, Britt scored at a 10.9 per game average, but his contributions went FAR past what he did with the basketball. He was a captain – a real leader – for his team. If anyone deserved to have a number retired, it would be Britt’s “32.”
As a unit, Michigan outscored its opponents by an 86-77 point margin, shooting more than 50 percent from the field (setting a school record), and held its own on the boards despite an overall lack of upfront size. Its 2,753 point total would stand as the school standard until 1987.
In the 1975-76 season, the Big 10 Conference was loaded with top-flight talent: Greg Kelser and Terry Furlow at Michigan State, Jerry Sichting, Walter Jordan and Kyle Macy at Purdue, Flip Saunders, Mychel Thompson and Ray Williams at Minnesota, and the best starting ever (perhaps in history) at Indiana of Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernathy, Scott May and Kent Benson in the post (plus sixth man Jim Crews).
Finishing second in the Big 10, the Wolverines opened tournament play by with narrow 74-73 victory over Wichita State in the Midwest sub-regionals in Denton, Tex., followed by another close win, 80-79 over Notre Dame (which sports a roster that included the likes of Adrian Dantley, Bill Laimbeer, Bruce Flowers and Bernard Rencher) and then defeating Missouri 95-88 in the Louisville regional finals.
Making its first Final Four appearance since 1965, U-M met the “local” favorites, undefeated Rutgers (from neighboring New Jersey) in the first of the two Saturday games on March. Led by All-American Phil Sellers, Rutgers was more than the odds-on favorites to challenges IU in what was projected a classic championship game between two unbeaten teams.
But Michigan was not the desired guest, whipping Rutgers from the opening tip and manhandling the Scarlet Knights 86-70 (after leading 46-29 at half) to set up the first NCAA men’s basketball finals between schools from the same conference. All five U-M starters scored in double figures (led by Robinson’s 20 points, followed by Green and Hubbard with 16 apiece) and Sellers was held to just 11 on 5 of 13 shooting while Phil Jordan missed 14 of his 20 shots for just 16 points. Rutgers, as a team, was smothered to death for less than 40 percent shooting from the field.
Indiana would do its part in the second contest, beating UCLA 65-51 (in the Bruins’ first year after John Wooden retired) in a sloppy affair. Earlier in the season, Michigan had lost to the Hoosiers 80-74 in Ann Arbor and 72-67 in Bloomington, but this kind of matchup had never happened before in NCAA tournament history – from the same conference.
In the championship, Michigan stunned the entire arena by taking a shocking 35-29 lead into the halftime locker room. The team headed into its tunnel and some of us ran towards to Spectrum restrooms, which already sported long lines waiting to “take care of business.”
The Michigan fans were filled with bluster and cockiness, having played one of its greatest halves that season, as engineered by Orr. But we should have all known better; the real Indiana would eventually appear and through past experiences, it would be more than Michigan could handle.
Our confidence quickly waned in the opening minutes of the second half as IU came out and executed its offense to perfection while clamping down on all the Wolverines offensively, Cinderella’s carriage never appeared as U-M lost 86-68 to camp Indiana’s perfect run.
May and the 6-10 Benson (named the tournament MVP) combined for 51 points while Buckner added 16. Hubbard had a double-double with 10 point and 11 rebounds and Green scored 16 (when there was no three-point shot), but IU’s defense forced 19 Michigan turnovers and got to the free throw line 28 times.
Indiana, for the game, shot 52.5 percent from the field, holding Michigan to 47 percent, outscoring UM 57-33 in the second 20 minutes. The Hoosiers finally wore Michigan down with its press and sizeable height advantage.
I got to know Orr fairly well when I worked for the Sports Information Department at UM from 1974-76. I played a weekly “tennis” match with his top assistant Bill Frieder (Orr’s successor) and our antics, when retold in the basketball office, drew belly laughs from his head man.
If there was artwork in the dictionary, next to the word, “laidback,” Johnny Orr’s photo would have been attached. On the court, he often displayed a volcanic nature, when referees called fouls which Orr thought to be particularly egregious, but away from it, he was as affable as anyone in the office, regardless of sport.
Two of my favorite memories actually involve Knight – one on a road trip to Assembly Hall and the other in the week running up to the Final Four.
It would not be incorrect to say most coaches and especially Big 10 officials were intimidated by Knight’s bluster and personality. But not Orr; it seemed as if the two got along well.
Johnny particularly loved telling a story of a Michigan trip to Bloomington, for a regionally televised contest with the Hoosiers. It seemed weather problems delayed Michigan’s arrival for a pre-game shoot-around and left the team with little time for its pre-game prep. All the while, the Big 10 people are waiting and growing impatient to set up their equipment and take over control of the telecast.
Under ANY circumstances, that did not sit well with Knight, who could have cared less what the conference folks wanted or needed. So when Michigan’s bus finally arrived at Assembly Hall, Orr and company were greeted by Knight, who walked them to the court and said, clearly in a volume that could be hard in Indianapolis, “Coach, how long does your team need to get ready?” Orr answered about 15-20 minutes, or so.
“Naw, Johnny, you guys need MUCH more time, 30 minutes at least! In fact, take as LONG as you need, perhaps an hour would be good?”
The faces on the Big 10 TV people were quickly turning red.
“Bob, it’s OK. I know they’ve got to set up and we can warm up quicker if needed.”
“No, coach! You take as much time for your kids to get properly warmed up,” Knight answered.
“What about the TV people,” Orr asked.
Knight responded for all to hear. “They don’t run this place; this is MY gym, and I’ll say when the damn game starts – not THEM!”
When Johnny Orr retold that tale, he included wild hand gestures and laughed his way through each sentence.
I was “fortunate” to be in Orr’s office on the Tuesday before heading to Philadelphia for that weekend’s 1976 Final Four; actually, I was in to see Frieder when Orr called from his area, “Bloom come here and sit down. You’ve got to hear this!”
In those days, they conduct teleconference calls, and a group of national reporters were on the line to speak to Orr and Knight. Prior to the start, Orr whispered to me, “Listen to this. Bobby has NO intention of answering their questions. So this should be interesting.”
And for the next 35 minutes, Bobby Knight gave a textbook example on how to hold court without saying a blasted thing. “Almost every question direction Knight’s way was met with “Well, Johnny what do you think?” to which Orr usually responded with “Geez, Bobby! Not quite sure about that.”
This ping-pong conference went back and forth, with neither man budging from clichéd answers and secretly rolling their eyes at some of the more inane questions. The closest thing to an honest response was answering the supposition of meeting in the NCAA Finals.
“I think it would be good for the conference,” Knight said. “It would let people know we play good basketball in the Big 10 and teams like Michigan deserve to be there,” never once mentioning his own squad. Orr could only agree, giving kudos t what Indiana had accomplished up to that point.
“You’re too kind, Coach,” Knight added.
Finally, when it was done, Orr’s office phone rang and it was Knight on the other end.
“Think they got the message about bothering us this week?” Knight queried. And both men laughed loud and heartily.
THAT is how I remember Johnny Orr.
For all his accolades, honors and record, Johnny Orr is NOT in the National Basketball Hall of Fame, which is another crying shame. In 29 years, he went 466-346 for three schools (Massachusetts, Michigan and Iowa State), and his teams made 10 NCAA tournaments.
Orr was hired in 1967 from UMass, coming to a program which was last in the Big 10 just two years removed from an NCAA Finals appearance. By 1970, Michigan had returned to the NCAAs (when there were far fewer teams), and in 1974 and 1977, Michigan grabbed Big 10 titles in one of the toughest leagues in the nation. From Jan. 12, 1976 through Nov. 30, 1977, Michigan won 22 games at home without a loss – another long standing mark.
But it seemed never to be enough for the Wolverine fan base and by 1980, Orr left Ann Arbor for the heartland that is Iowa, again to resurrect a program in dire straits. When Orr left Michigan, he had become the school’s all-time winningest coach (209 wins), which remains true to this day.
“The Michigan basketball program is saddened by the passing of Johnny Orr,” said current Michigan head coach John Beilein. “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.”
Under Orr’s tutelage, Michigan had eight All-Americans: forward Rudy Tomjanovich (1970), guard-forward Henry Wilmore (1971-72), forward Campy Russell (1974), forward C.J. Kupec (1975), Green (1977), Hubbard (1977), forward Mike McGee (1981) and guard Eric Turner (1983).
Orr spent 14 years with the Cyclones, getting them to six NCAA Tourney appearances (the first in 46 years’ time) and five 20-win seasons. Again, when he retired in 1994, he was Iowa State’s all-time winningest coach with 218-200 victories. At the University of Massachusetts, Orr was 39-33 during his three years.
A proud alumnus of Beloit College, Orr was twice named an All-American. He also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and attended Illinois to play basketball and football for one year. As a prep star in Taylorville, Orr led all of Illinois in scoring and his team to a state championship.
Orr is survived by his wife, Romie, and three daughters; Jennifer, Leslie and Rebecca, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his daughter, Robin, who sadly passed away in 2010.
Johnny Orr is gone but not forgotten among many of us. The University of Michigan athletic department would do itself proud if it established a Johnny Orr wing of Crisler Center (Arena, to us old-timers), dedicated to the accomplishments the old coach created for the Maize and Blue.
I think he more than deserved it.