Meyer's life was one of giving, and forgiving

Updated: March 19, 2006, 11:33 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

A lot of grown men will set a record for tear-duct usage come Tuesday at Chicago's St. Vincent DePaul Church. That's when the arc of Ray Meyer's life, all 92 years of it, will be celebrated and mourned in a 10 a.m. service on the same campus where he coached basketball in five successive decades. That's when you'll witness the trickle-down effect of someone who knew the eloquent power of a warm smile and the lasting meaning of an act of kindness.

Ray Meyer (center)
Steve Woltmann/WireImage.comRay Meyer was joined by former players Tyrone Corbin and Gary Garland in February 2005.

Meyer died Friday of congestive heart failure. It figures it would have taken this long for his pump to give out. After all, Meyer's heart was his strongest feature.

He was known by everyone, including his own family, as "Coach.'' I didn't know him well, but you didn't have to. He wasn't a nuanced man, which was part of his charm. With Meyer, there was right and wrong, friend or foe, loyal or disloyal. There was no in-between. And there also was no black or white. You earned Meyer's trust based on character, not color.

Meyer won basketball games, to be sure. You don't need to run your forefinger down the list of all-time NCAA victories very long until you see Meyer's record at DePaul: 724-354. He won the 1945 NIT, when the NIT was a bottle of Dom Perignon and the NCAA tournament was a can of Blatz. And he was nimble enough to lead DePaul, the only head coaching job of his career, to the NCAA Final Four when he was 29 and again when he was 65.

That might have been the genius of Meyer. He understood how to build a bridge from one generation to the next, and used something as basic as family and, well, love to do it.

Basketball historians will point excitedly to his use of 6-foot-10 George Mikan -- the game's first true skilled star -- as some sort of revolutionary milestone. And they have a point; Meyer instantly recognized the impact Mikan could and would have on the sport. But no way does Mikan share the lede of Meyer's obit.

To fully appreciate Meyer you have to remember he came from humble beginnings. His father died when he was 13. His first contract at DePaul was for $2,500, which might not pay for the make-up crew for a Mike Krzyzewski Chevy commercial.

Better yet, Meyer retained his humility even when DePaul, Marquette with the eclectic Al McGuire, and Notre Dame with Digger Phelps, were an integral, quirky part of the national hoops landscape in the 1970s and early '80s. DePaul was part of the elite, and Meyer was its gap-toothed leader.

On Friday, when news of Meyer's death became public, Phelps would refer to his longtime friend as "a gentle man," which was mostly right. Meyer was gentle. And exacting. And dictatorial if he had to be. And capable of holding a grudge. Just ask DePaul, which Meyer froze out for two years in protest of the way the school handled the forced resignation of his successor and son, Joey.

But Meyer was forgiving, which is why he eventually ended the cold war with the school he loved. He was compassionate, a softy. He loved his summer basketball camp in the woods of Wisconsin, and loved even more the phone calls or notes he'd get years later from former campers.

Ray Meyer, right, and  George Mikan.
AP Photo/stf-Ed MaloneyGeorge Mikan (left) was one of Ray Meyer's early stars. This photo is from January 1945.

Until recently, I never knew Meyer earned a sociology degree at Notre Dame and later worked for the Chicago Relief Association, an organization dedicated to assisting the city's poor. Maybe that explains why Meyer was big on giving second chances.

I remember doing a story on a former DePaul player who had had his share of post-college difficulties. There were run-ins with the law and talk of mental instability. Meyer's voice grew soft as he defended the essential goodness of his former player. He said the player was the victim of an assault where the attackers took a tire iron to his head -- and that the kid was never the same after it.

Meyer did what he could to help. On occasion -- and Meyer said he witnessed it -- the former player would sit down at a piano and begin playing as if he had been classically trained. This is when Meyer's voice almost broke. He cared for his stars. He cared for the fallen.

It only makes sense that Meyer died in March, when basketball matters most. He loved attending Final Fours. You'd see him in the stands with Joey. You'd see him at Sunday Mass in the church closest to the Final Four dome. Sometimes you'd see him Tuesday morning at the airport.

That's when I saw him last. At the Atlanta airport in 2002, the morning after Maryland won the national championship. Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey and I said hello, and Meyer instantly began chatting up Rick.

The next day I called Joey and kiddingly asked why his old man was giving me the DePaul freeze-out. An hour or so later my phone rang. It was Coach.

He apologized. For what, I don't know; I'd rather talk to Morrissey than me, too. But this was so Ray Meyer. Just another act of kindness.

I'll try to return the favor Tuesday at St. Vincent's. I just hope I can find an empty seat.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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