Former Cloudland coach Orr remembered with reverence

Jamie Combs • Mar 28, 2020 at 12:00 PM

ROAN MOUNTAIN — There’s no hall of fame for solid citizenship. If one did exist, former Cloudland High head football coach John Orr would be overqualified.

Orr, who passed away last week at age 87, was more than just solid.

“John was an outstanding individual … as a coach, as a person,” said retired Cloudland coach, teacher and administrator Bill Birchfield. “Of course, he was also religious — he taught Sunday school there at Lower Shell Creek Church. He touched the lives of a lot of young kids in Roan Mountain. If you talk to them, they’ll tell you that. He just had a big influence on a lot of kids over the years. I reckon John was well liked by everybody.”

Also impactful as an educator and administrator, Orr devoted 30-plus years to Cloudland — operating with a no-nonsense but caring approach. Among those receptive to his guidance was Mike Lunsford, who played football for Orr in the late 1970s, stuck with him as an assistant coach while in college and became his successor in 1989.

“Coach Orr’s the reason I went to college,” Lunsford said. “I had a pretty tough upbringing and was the first (in my family) to graduate from high school. There was a picture there on WJHL (after Orr’s death) — we were standing near the fieldhouse. It was before the (2016) Harriman playoff game and Coach Orr wanted us to have our picture made. It’s so ironic because we were standing in almost the identical spot when I was a senior and he asked me: ‘What are you going to do when you graduate?’ I said: ‘I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to coach.’ And I really thought that was out of my reach. I had never really felt like I could go to college and do that.

“And he said: ‘Well, why don’t you go to college, get your degree and come back and take over for me someday?’ And I was like: ‘You think I can do that?’ He said: ‘Yeah, Mike. You’re smart, a hard worker — figure out how to do it.’”

The winningest head football coach in school history, Lunsford ran the program for 18 years (1989-2003, 2016-18) and had a stellar seven-year stint (2009-15) at nearby Hampton. Without his college degree, none of that is a reality.

“There was a time I was getting ready to quit (college),” Lunsford said, “and I remember (Orr) telling me one time: ‘Don’t ever let somebody else take away what you want out of life. You find a way to get it done.’

“He was such an influence on me and so many other people.”

In charge of the Highlanders for 18 1/2 seasons (1962-68, 1977-88), Orr was a coach with the right touch. That’s not reflected in his career record (90-98-3), a price he paid for directing an enrollment-challenged school in the Watauga Conference through his first eight years on the job. He still coaxed three winning seasons from that period of time — topped by a 7-3-1 mark and the program’s first-ever bowl appearance (Shrine Bowl, at Dobyns-Bennett) in 1968.

An area-wide conference consisting of only Class A teams came along in ’78, and that’s when Orr began to thrive. Over his remaining 10 1/2 seasons, he was part of nine conference championships (Appalachian, East Tennessee Independent, Smoky Mountain), claimed nine conference coach-of-the-year awards and produced a 63-51 record with a dominant league worksheet (34-3).

One of those titles materialized in 1982 (ETIC), when a brain tumor forced Orr to hand the reins to assistant Garry Oaks with half a season to go. Long on toughness, the Korean War veteran (U.S. Army) was back in the driver’s seat to begin the ’83 campaign.

Science Hill principal Todd Barnett, a 1981 CHS graduate who played and later coached under Orr, described the man as a source of inspiration.

“We were all scared to death of Coach Orr when we were freshmen, but by the time we were seniors we would run through a wall for him,” said Barnett, a former head coach at Cloudland (basketball) and Unaka (football). “I have as much respect for him as anyone I've ever known and he's the biggest reason I chose teaching as a career profession.”

Take an overview of Orr’s career and you’ll see that he led the team to all three of its bowl games — including a 20-0 shutout of Wartburg Central in the 1984 Little T Bowl. Furthermore, he ushered Cloudland to its first four playoff appearances (1985-88) as well as its first two playoff wins — beating Oneida both times (1987, 1988).

Orr is a charter member of the Carter County Sports Hall of Fame and the school’s football field was long ago named in his honor. Yes, he accomplished much in the profession — and did so by rarely deviating from a reserved strategical approach.

“I’ll never forget one time,” said Lunsford, referencing Orr’s retirement years. “We ran a fake punt out of the end zone and he came down there after the game, just looked at me, shook that head and said: ‘Well, you never learned that from me.’ I’m not sure if he was proud I had done it or amazed that I was that stupid (laughter). But it worked. Me and Todd Barnett … Todd was my special teams coach (at Cloudland) the night we did that.”

A good player for the Highlanders in the late 1940s/early ’50s, Orr developed deep roots in Cloudland athletics. It’s been several decades since he and Birchfield formed a strong alliance as coaches.

“He coached (for) me and I coached (for) him and he coached my oldest son (Randy) — so we go back a long way,” said Birchfield, whose 1968 state tournament basketball team included Orr as an assistant. “At that time, he and I were the only two coaches Cloudland had. We coached elementary basketball, football, baseball, high school basketball, the whole works. Of course, we did that for several years.”

In baseball, Orr’s 1979 team accounted for the Highlanders’ first-ever district final (1-A) appearance. He later became head softball coach.

“He was Mr. Cloudland athletics,” said Lunsford, a member of that baseball team. “That’s just the truth.”

When presented the notion that Orr was never caught up in himself, Birchfield quickly agreed.

“Very unselfish … very,” Birchfield said. “He was always ready to help anybody. He was one of those individuals who didn’t do anything for self-gratification. He just wanted to do a good job as a coach and a person — and like I say, he was an outstanding individual. We just need a lot more like him.”

Orr leaves behind his wife of 58 years, Phyllis, who was always there with helping hands. She even took care of Lunsford’s baseball uniform when a scheduling glut left too little time for doing laundry.

“My mom was disabled, my dad was dead and we were getting home late,” Lunsford said. “It was hard for me to get my uniform washed. Coach Orr told me: ‘Mike, just bring your uniform to school and leave it in your locker.’ And Miss Orr would come out and take my uniform and go wash it.

“They were probably the perfect coach and coach’s wife. She was 100 percent behind him. She was just as much the coach as he was, really.”

The Orrs produced three children — Mike, Crystal (Winters) and Rob — who were multi-sport Cloudland athletes. They all played for their dad in at least one sport, a situation in which favoritism was thrown to the wind.

“I think there was a certain degree of responsibility (expected of us) and I know that I always tried to do the best I could because I didn’t want him to be disappointed,” Mike said. “But he never treated us any different. He would jump on me just as soon as he would jump on anybody else. …

“Everybody was seeing how he did handle that. Would he put one of us out there in front of everybody else? That never happened.”

An academic product of Lees-McRae College and Milligan College, Orr eventually earned his master’s degree from Appalachian State.

“This was back in the ’70s,” said Mike in regards to the master’s process. “He had us three kids, then tried to teach and coach and then also go to school. So I thought that was a big achievement during that time for him … to achieve that degree. I always admired that.”

Always one to encourage students to make something good out of life, Orr gained the pleasure of watching his daughter and two sons do just that.

“He liked to see us achieve and prosper and be able to have our own families,” Mike said. “He really, really enjoyed that. That made him feel good.”

Orr also had his extended family, once prompting a house call from Lunsford — then a college student — with news that he and his wife-to-be at the time, Kathy, were planning to get married.

“We were sitting on the couch and he got up, walked out there on the porch and never said a word,” Lunsford said. “Phyllis, said: ‘John … John.’ She said: ‘Mike, pay him no attention. Let’s go out there.’ When we walked out there, I said: ‘Coach, I’m going to graduate college before we get married.’ And he said: ‘Oh, oh, okay. Well, I love Kathy to death — you ought to marry her.’

“But he wasn’t liking the thought of me getting married before I got out of college.”

The memories take on added meaning now that Orr is no longer running his earthly race.

“I’ve lost a good friend and the community has lost a good friend,” Birchfield said. “He was truly an asset to the community.”

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