Tom Jorgensen. I probably could write a book. Where do you start? I guess at the beginning.
It’s the late 1950s in the sports department of the Toledo Blade on a hectic, local prep basketball Friday night in a predigital world. Scores and game highlights are quickly scribbled on paper. Box scores are dictated over phone. Stories are created on a typewriter.
Welcome to the dawning of the modern age of Northern Illinois University men’s basketball.
Bud Nangle, the executive sports editor of the Blade, who would return to his NIU alma mater as sports information director in 1967, answers one of the phones. “Blade sports,” Nangle says, pencil, paper, and keyboard ready.
“Yes, this is coach Jorgensen,” the voice on the line replies, “I have the Maumee High School box score...”
“Jorgensen? Is this Tom Jorgensen who played at Chicago Parker High and the University of Michigan?”
“Yes it is,” Jorgy answers. “I’m the new coach at Maumee. Who is this?”
“Tom, this is Bud Nangle...”
The rest, as the story goes, is history. Huskie Hall of Fame history.
When I heard the news from Art Rohlman and confirmed Tom’s death with his family late Friday, I started having Jorgy flashbacks. Why not? I’ve known him for 47 years since my freshman year at NIU in 1966-67, which by coincidence or cosmic fate, was Jorgensen’s first season in DeKalb. How lucky was I?
I smiled last summer when rummaging through some ancient 1960s artifacts only to rediscover my red and black “We Love Jorgy” lapel button after several decades. “Outta sight,” Tom would have said in the day. That, in essence, was Jorgy. To me, he will be eternally 35 years old.
Yes, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 12 years ago. Little bits of Tom were slipping away each day. But even at our sixth and final Jorgy Reunion in 2008, he still possessed that John F. Kennedy-like charisma and upbeat personality that endeared himself to all back when NIU men’s basketball was relevant and earsplitting Chick Evans Field House was packed.
Those seven seasons (8-12, 10-14, 13-11, 13-12, 13-10, 21-4, and 17-8 during 1966-73) were anything but dull.
Neither was Jorgy or his student-athletes.
From the cornfields and the college division into the Top 20 and the Big Time in six years. Totally exhilarating. At a time when lead singer Jim Morrison of the Doors screamed and insisted: “We want the world and we want it now...” Northern Illinois hoop fans couldn’t complain. Except for the obvious NCAA tournament snub in 1971-72, the basketball gods smiled on DeKalb, albeit for a relatively short time.
“Big Left,” aka, Jim Smith dominating the paint. Ray Meyer’s DePaul team, Eddie’s Sutton’s Creighton quintet, Bobby Knight’s No. 5-ranked Indiana, and many others all went down in Evans. All-America Jim Bradley in Sports Illustrated, Jerry Zielinski z-z-zing jump shots from the dead corner, marquee games in Chicago Stadium, The Palestra, and Madison Square Garden. Midwestern Conference kingpins in 1972. How many Billy “The Kid” Harris double-clutch highlights would’ve made “SportsCenter” if there had been an ESPN in the early 1970s?
Who knows, but Huskie basketball then was a gas, gas, gas.
Jorgy was the complete coaching package. He taught the fundamentals, believed in conditioning and structure, but allowed his players their individual space. Did he talk to Billy “The Kid” about that high Chicago Public League dribble and flashy moves? Never. “He let us be players,” said Rohlman who spent six years in the program – four as a player and two as a coach. “If Billy wanted to freelance, Jorgy’s system allowed it.”
In 1966-67, Jorgensen started a 6-foot-2 center (his first scholarship player Mike Taylor). Outmatched on paper many times that winter, that NIU team was in-your-shorts competitive. It would become the trademark as future recruits improved - ultimately to legitimate Blue Chippers such as Harris and the 6-foot-10 Jim Bradley.
Recruit? Rohlman was being wooed by Loyola-Chicago and coach George Ireland, who made the fatal mistake of introducing Art to Jorgy at an all-star game. Next thing, Jorgensen takes Rohlman’s parents to dinner. You know the rest of the story. “Jorgy related to people,” Rohlman added. “Whether it was recruits, students in the dorm about basketball, the community, the media, Tom had that gift. It was sincere.”
Bradley was on a wish list of 350 schools nationwide. Harris was set to be a Kansas Jayhawk. They became Huskies and NIU Hall of Famers.
Scheduling? It may have been a different era, but did Jorgy have contacts. NIU went from playing the likes of Mankato State to a four-game set with Indiana (including the fateful Jan. 4, 1972 date in Evans Field House). Three years into his tenure, Northern Illinois played in the new Crisler Arena against Michigan and Rudy Tomjanovich. You didn’t see too many mid-majors playing Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, etc., but Jorgy and the Huskies did.
Sideline demeanor? Jorgy fought as he wanted his team to do on every possession and the NIU students (including this one) loved and celebrated it. Once Tom was so mad at a call that he kicked a folding chair into the stands and just missed his first wife. With the original dirt floor in the field house, the team managers always grabbed his sports coat when Jorgy would start disrobing over a call. Unloosing his tie knot would be next.
“Tom had a knack,” Rohlman said. “He’d go to the brink (on protesting calls), but never as far as, say Bobby Knight. I don’t remember too many technicals, but as a player you see this and say to yourself ‘I’m going to play my butt off for this guy’ and that’s what we did.”
A prolific scorer at Chicago Parker (30 ppg. average as a prep senior), Jorgy grew up in Englewood on the south side, winning quarters on the playground from his neighborhood buddies with his deadly set shot. That love for offense eventually evolved into the Hall of Fame 1971-72 team that ranked third in the nation with a 95.3 ppg scoring average. Even Marquette’s Al McGuire noticed. “They’re uptempo,” McGuire said. Without the 3-point basket, “Back to the Future” Northern Illinois was Loyola-Marymount without the publicity and decades before.
“Jorgy liked to get it up and go, push the ball,” Rohlman added about a system where outlet passes to half court were the norm. “We had the same basic offense, but he would find a situation or particular player and make sure that [Jerry ‘Z’ Zielinski] got the ball in the corner. He was an offensive genius.”
Back to the rest of the story.
As the young and precocious Jorgensen advanced up the coaching ladder, spending six years (1960-66) as an assistant to Dave Strack at Michigan when the Cazzie Russell-led Wolverines would eventually capture three consecutive Big Ten Conference titles (1963-65) and back-to-back NCAA “Final Fours” (1964-65), Nangle paid closer attention to the former Public League star he had covered at the Chicago Daily News in the 1950s.
When the NIU coaching job opened up in 1966, Nangle immediately dispatched his highest personal recommendation on Jorgensen’s behalf in a letter to then athletics director George “Chick” Evans. And, if you knew Bud, he would not endorse just anybody to Evans. This was NIU family. Evans hired Jorgy without reservation.
And a Huskie coaching legend was born. Tom Jorgensen. We’ll all miss you, Jorgy.