Mark Orr knows this place.
The news conference at The Well at Sacramento State on Monday introducing him as the new athletic director overlooked Hornet Stadium, which holds special significance to Orr.
As a kid he would sneak onto the football field, through a fence, and then open a side gate to let siblings and buddies in so they could catch games. As a star running back/defensive back for Christian Brothers High School in the early 1990s, Orr played the Holy Bowl in front of crowds of 18,000 against rival Jesuit.
Now Orr has come full circle. He won’t have to climb under fences and evade security as he may now hold the gates open for all comers. Orr wants to show off the Hornets’ athletic teams and a school brand he vows to make an even more vital part of the community.
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Signed away from Saint Mary’s College to a five-year contract, Orr was moved by the applause and turnout in a packed room. Sac State president Robert S. Nelsen called it, “a day of greatness” for the Hornets.
The gathering included Hornets coaches, alums, student-athletes, interim athletic director John Volek and Orr family members, including parents Cynthia and Greg, sister Tia and brother Chris. Greg Orr flew in from Arizona, where he was scouting for the Minnesota Twins. There were tears of joy for Team Orr.
Mark Orr introduced his wife, April, a teacher in Walnut Creek, and young sons Jake and Tyson, who wore green T-shirts with Hornets logos, black blazers and broad grins. The boys are the same age Orr was when he attended Hornets events.
“You’ve seen my sons, and we’re fortunate they’re sitting still,” Mark Orr told the crowd. “I can’t stay long. This curtain behind me will come down once they start playing.”
Orr added: “Today is a special day and a personal day. I was born and raised in this city. My parents were born and raised in this city. My grandfather, Clarence Orr, played in the Turkey Game for McClatchy in the 1940s. This city is who I am.”
It’s so much a part of Mark Orr’s DNA that he will move back into his old bedroom at his father’s home in the Pocket area. April and the sons will finish out the academic year in Walnut Creek. Orr’s official start date is April 17.
Said Tia Orr: “The kids want a pool and a dog. We can take care of that!”
“I’ll be living with Dad, and hopefully I can get a bicycle and ride to work,” Mark Orr said with a laugh.
Orr, 40, has challenges looming beyond transportation means. Among them is finding a way to fund a much-needed events center on campus to house basketball games, graduations and other events. Orr said he will engage with members of the community, shaking hands, rubbing elbows, sharing stories. He will attend Hornets sporting events and visit with student-athletes and coaches regularly to gauge their concerns and interests.
“We will get an event center done, no doubt,” Orr said. “That’s why I’m here. I’m ready to get after it. I will give my heart and soul to this city and this university. The time is now for Hornet Athletics. I told Mr. Nelsen I won’t let him down.”
Nelsen said he will empower Orr to make coaching decisions, to hire and fire as he sees fit. Although it has rarely contended for a Big Sky title since joining the conference in 1996, Orr views Sac State football as a sleeping giant, saying: “We are going to be competitive.”
Saint Mary’s excelled under Orr’s watch, including basketball with nationally ranked teams. That school’s graduation rates among student-athletes was high, including a 93 percent rate in 2015-16, second highest among all institutions in California.
Hornets baseball coach Reggie Christiansen was on the hiring committee and said Orr “is an exciting hire,” adding: “I’m friends with Saint Mary’s baseball coach Eric Valenzuela and talked to him a lot. He said Mark is really supportive of all the coaches, and that’s a big thing.”
Nelsen was animated and excited. He showed Orr and his family that a forefinger in the air signifies No. 1, and the raised pinkie finger means “Stingers Up.”
“We finally got Mark to come here,” Nelsen said. “He watched games here. He went to Cal (on a football scholarship) and got a bum knee. Wouldn’t have happened here! Happy to have him.”
That knee injury occurred when Orr played defensive back for the Bears in the 1990s, sending him to the Memorial Stadium turf and, ultimately, sending him to a different route in his life. Though he was a four-year letterman at Cal and received the Tiny Bates Memorial Award for character and leadership, Orr spent more time in the training room than in the secondary. His NFL hopes dashed, Orr focused on advanced degrees, which helped lead him to the athletic director post at Saint Mary’s at age 29 in 2006.
“I was in the stands for that game when he got hurt, and I was never one to run onto the field as a parent to tend to my son, but I had to this time,” Orr’s mother, Cynthia, said. “They wouldn’t let me into the trainer’s room. I should’ve barged in! But Mark never let the injury slow him down.”
Said Greg Orr: “When Mark tore his ACL, he was devastated. I told him he had one of two choices: Feel sorry for yourself the rest of your life, or tighten up, put on the game face and beat this. … He got degrees and got after it. He believes in education. I’m just thrilled with (the announcement) today. What Mark will do is what he’s always done: Lead by example.”