Johnny Orr’49 and Bill Knapton shared a profession and love for Beloit College, which is partly why my thoughts drifted to the latter when the former passed away last December at age 86.
The other reason is simple: Without Knapton, I never meet Orr, who provided one of many lasting memories from my own Beloit experience.
Orr played for basketball coach Dolph Stanley during Beloit’s legendary “Bucket Brigade” era in the 1940s and ’50s and went on to become the career coaching leader in victories at both Michigan and Iowa State. In short, he was a Division I big-timer, though you’d never guess that from his warm, gregarious nature and folksy style.
Knapton won 557 games over 40 seasons as Beloit’s men’s basketball coach, working far from the limelight but shaping and influencing several generations of student-athletes nonetheless.
I played for Knapton from 1985-89, riding shotgun and listening intently to his rich stories as one of the two vans he drove rattled across the Midwest for road games. Several of those stories focused on Orr, with whom he became friendly because of their Beloit background, shared birth year of 1927, and occasional associations on the prestigious and influential National Association of Basketball Coaches.
Orr coached Michigan to the 1976 NCAA championship game and runner-up finish to Indiana, the high point of a 12-year run that produced a 209-113 record. Then he shocked the college basketball world by leaving a proven powerhouse to begin his own program at unheralded Iowa State. Fourteen seasons and 218 victories later, Orr’s decision proved fortuitous.
The roots Orr placed in tiny Ames, Iowa, are similar to those Knapton grew at Beloit after leaving the Division I fast track he appeared to be on as a young assistant coach at Marquette University. Instead, Knapton detoured to succeed Stanley in 1957 and never looked back, even turning down interest from Marquette when it called to gauge his interest in the head coaching job in 1959.
“I wanted to be a lifer,” Knapton once told me. “I just felt a smaller school more afforded that opportunity. I couldn’t listen to what others thought might be best for me.”
Orr felt the same way. I know this because I had the good fortune of spending a day with him.
Inspired in part by Knapton’s tales about Orr and the “Bucket Brigade” era, I pitched to professor Tom McBride the idea of tracking down several of the famed participants for my senior thesis. I interviewed Stanley in his Rockford, Ill., home and enjoyed dinner with Ron Bontemps’51 and his wife in Peoria, Ill. I even rode with Clarence “Sour” Anderson’50 from South Beloit to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport as he squeezed me into a business trip.
But I will never forget turning the knobs on my old mailbox in Pearsons Hall and finding a handwritten letter on Iowa State stationery:
Come on out March 22. I have the entire day set aside and am looking forward to meeting with you. Come through Dubuque and then check the map. Good luck and see you soon.
Inside Orr’s nondescript office, the natural storyteller regaled me with tales about everything from playing for Stanley to leaving Michigan for Iowa State. For someone who now covers the Chicago Bulls for the Chicago Tribune, who has written about everybody from Michael Jordan to Derrick Rose, the interview still stands as a career highlight for its honesty, humility, and humor.
“Follow your heart,” Orr said on the day of our 1989 interview. “That’s the way to a life well-lived.”
I’ve known I wanted to report and write about sports since my junior year at Evanston Township High School. Beloit broadened and enriched me. Like Orr and Knapton,
I found and followed my path.
That’s the way to a life well-lived.
K.C. Johnson’89 joined the Chicago Tribune in 1990 and has reported on the Chicago Bulls since 2000, except for a one-season detour spent covering the Chicago Bears.