Legendary coach Don Meyer’s career, life stretched beyond sidelines

Coach Don Meyer's career mark of 923 wins still ranks sixth all-time in men's college basketball.

DOUG DREYER/AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — I remember the first time I met legendary college basketball Don Meyer, who passed away on Sunday from cancer. He was 69 years old.

It was the late 1980s, and Meyer had already set in motion what would be a coaching career that would later have him become the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history at one point and still sixth all time. As a young reporter for the Nashville Banner, I had the assignment to write a feature on one of Meyer’s players at Lipscomb University, where he coached from 1975 to 1999 and won 665 of his overall 923 victories. The interview was to take place in his small office inside McQuiddy Gym.

Meyer did more of the initial interviewing than I did. And when he learned my father had been a career high school basketball coach in Kentucky, his ears perked up.

Fumbling through his wooden desk, Meyer pulled out a handful of coupons to Captain D’s, where he ate just about every day. He then said, "Let’s go," and we were off. On the trip over and back and throughout lunch, he had to know more and more about me, and I got less and less from him for the reason I had visited.

Back in his office, the interview went well. But as I was leaving, Meyer reached into a huge box sitting next to his desk, where he kept a sizable quantity of a particular self-help book written by noted author Stephen Covey.

"Here, read this," Meyer said. "From what I have learned about you and your family, I think this book can really be a benefit."

I’ve read that book many times over. And I’ll read it again soon in honor of Meyer, who passed away at his home in Aberdeen, S.D.

"That was just coach Meyer," Lipscomb athletic director Philip Hutcheson said when told of my first encounter with his former coach. "There were several books along the way."

Hutcheson should know. He played for Meyer and the Bisons from 1986-90. By the time he had graduated, Hutcheson had become the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history at the time and helped the team win a NAIA national championship.

"The past few years, there was one by a (17th) century monk (Brother Lawrence) that wrote a book called The Practice of the Presence of God," Hutcheson said. "He had literally bought like 3,000 copies of it in paperback. Everywhere he went, he would give that to people. So, that was him."

It was much more than the 923 career victories that came at Hamline University (1972-75), Lipscomb University and, lastly, Northern State (1999-2010), but rather all those he touched along the way in becoming a coach’s coach. Meyer produced more than 40 basketball instructional videos and wrote 15 books on coaching. The summer basketball camp he ran at Lipscomb was the largest in the world at one point, reaching as many as 5,000 campers during some summers.

But it was a near-death automobile accident in 2008 in South Dakota that altered his life forever. During surgeries to try to save his leg, which had to be amputated below the knee, it was learned that he had a rare form of inoperable terminal cancer in his intestine and liver. He was given only a few more years to live.

"Coach Meyer has had a second life," said ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney, who wrote the book How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer. "Since the accident, he was always the first one to talk about how that was a blessing because he connected to so many people."

Olney was recently asked by the Atlanta Braves to have Meyer come speak during spring training in Orlando, Fla. In introducing him, that was the last time Olney saw Meyer, who had befriended him while he was also a sports writer at the Nashville Banner.

"It was amazing to get the feedback from those guys after that," Olney said. "And they were talking about all the different things that he was talking about in terms of improving teams, in terms of improving players, but also all the energy he had, his wry sense of humor. He stuck with those guys. I got tons of direct messages and emails from people who were in the room that day."

Meyer was inducted into 10 halls of fame and received many other honors, including the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame John Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, the John Wooden Keys to Life Award, the Naismith Award for Outstanding Contribution to Basketball, and the Jimmy V ESPY Award for Perseverance.

Since his passing, tributes for Meyer have come from all corners of the globe.

"Once the news was out (Sunday) that he had passed," Hutcheson said, "you could watch just page after page on Facebook or Twitter, people just sharing their thoughts and reflections and the influence he had on them. (There were) guys that are some of the most well-known coaches in the land to people who were a camper 30 years ago at one of his basketball camps who remembered meeting him or something he said or taught."

Just months after the accident, he returned to coaching Northern State and retired following the 2009-10 season. The past six years, Lipscomb University has held the Don Meyer Evening of Excellence in his honor that has featured such guest speakers as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and baseball great Ernie Banks.

"(Meyer) often said only half-joking that he didn’t have any hobbies," Hutcheson said. "He didn’t hunt. He didn’t fish. He didn’t play golf. The only thing he did was coach. So, he was either in the middle of coaching or he was reading about it or talking about it or studying it.

"Of course, a lot of coaching is leadership. A lot of coaching is teaching. So, naturally those were the kind of things that he became an expert on and well-known for, some of those other things that were part of being a coach. As he liked to call it, he was a student of the game."

Of all the sayings he used in all walks of life, Meyer’s favorite might have been one credited to him.

"It doesn’t matter where you coach," Meyer said. "It matters why you coach."