Commentary

The measures of Don Meyer's success

After 38 years, the coach steps down with the undying affection of the basketball world

Originally Published: February 26, 2010
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

For 38 years, what Don Meyer has loved most about coaching is the problem-solving. Fixing a player's jump shot. Correcting the way his team defends the screen-and-roll. Adjusting the offense.

Meyer will coach the last home game of his career on Saturday, when Northern State University plays host to Southwest Minnesota State in Aberdeen, S.D. He has 923 career victories, and he got there by focusing on the process rather than the product, on getting his own players to execute better.

[+] EnlargeDon Meyer
AP Photo/Doug DreyerOne of the ways Don Meyer racked up more than 900 victories? His constant intensity.

"You always knew what Don's teams were going to do," said Belmont University coach Rick Byrd, who has probably matched up against Meyer more than any other coach. "But the attitude of his teams was, 'We're going to practice it so well, execute so well and play so hard, that we're going to be better than you.'"

This kind of intense preparation required generations of players who could rise to the challenge of meeting Meyer's overwhelming intensity, who understood the message in his sometimes biting critique and window-rattling sarcasm, and who realized along the way that his lessons were about more than just basketball.

Over the years, his relentless focus on problem-solving -- the habit of looking inward and demanding accountability -- has been about more than defending the screen-and-roll. It's been about his players demanding more of themselves, as people.

"It wasn't always a bed of roses," said Wade Tomlinson, who played for Meyer at David Lipscomb College from 1986-90. "I can remember going back to my dorm room and visualizing holding him down and punching his head. But he is exactly what an 18-to-24-year-old male needs at that time in their life. He was exactly what I needed."

Meyer's success as a coach could be defined, in theory, by his record of wins and losses, of the NAIA national championship that David Lipscomb won in 1986, by the fact that the two greatest scorers in college basketball history, John Pierce and Philip Hutcheson, played for him.

Or it could be defined by the response of the Northern State players on Sept. 5, 2008, after Meyer was involved in a head-on collision with a semi hauling 60,000 pounds of corn. The seniors on the team responded, in the first seconds and minutes after the accident, as if they had prepared for this kind of crisis before. One player was dispatched to make a 911 call. The freshmen were led away from Meyer's car and told by the seniors to form a prayer circle, to say the Lord's Prayer -- partly to shield them from the pain and suffering that Meyer was experiencing until help arrived. When Faulk County Sheriff Kurt Hall arrived on the accident scene, he was struck by how composed the players were, how focused they were. A couple of players, Kyle Schwan and Mitch Boeck, made a point of embracing Don Carda, the truck driver who had hit Meyer, and assuring him that there was nothing he could have done to avoid the accident. Meyer had fallen asleep and drifted into Carda's path. Every rib in Meyer's body was broken. His spleen had to be removed and he would lose much of his left leg. And on the night of the accident, as doctors worked to keep the coach alive, a trauma surgeon discovered that Meyer had carcinoid cancer.

Meyer's success as a coach could be defined by the response of other coaches to the accident, and to the news of his cancer diagnosis. Hundreds upon hundreds of letters from high school coaches and elementary school coaches and college coaches and NBA coaches arrived. From Bobby Knight to North Carolina women's coach Sylvia Hatchell to Jason Powers, a high school coach in Owensboro, Ky., who heard Meyer speak at a clinic, and wrote this: I got a chance to listen to you speak a few years ago in Evansville, IN. I have always thought a lot of you as a coach and as a person. I've also learned a lot about coaching and working with young people from you. Thanks for being a blessing in my life.

Or Meyer's success might be defined by how his former players -- only one of whom failed to graduate after completing his playing eligibility -- reached out to the man who had mentored them.

On Jan. 17, 2009, the week after Meyer surpassed Knight's career mark for victories, Northern State named the court at Wachs Arena after him, and Meyer's graceful and precise signature was painted into the floor. About a half-dozen of his former players made the midwinter trek to South Dakota. It was a ceremony that signified permanence, and some of his former players wanted to make sure they were there.

Four hours before the game, Meyer walked into his office, and there was Hutcheson and Tomlinson, the latter with his feet up on the desk.

"Your worries are over!" Tomlinson said. "The cavalry is here!"

Meyer laughed, leaned over from his walker and whacked Tomlinson on the side.

Don Meyer
Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesAt the ESPYs last summer, Meyer was given the Jimmy V Award.

After the game, Meyer's former players made the trek back to his house, to hang out in the living room, and naturally Meyer first asked them for an honest assessment of what they had seen in the Northern State team that night. But then he began reminiscing, telling the story of a confrontation in a David Lipscomb game from years before. Meyer chuckled about how the opposing coach had gone berserk during the game, inexplicably.

There was a silence, and then Hutcheson said, "Coach Meyer, I need to tell you what was really going on there."

And with a 20-year statute of limitations apparently over, Hutcheson told him that the reason the other coach had reacted so crazily was that a player on the Lipscomb team had made a rather inappropriate gesture.

Meyer was stunned by this revision of history.

"Well, crap," he said, grinning. "What other stories do we need to clean up?"

So for the next couple of hours, his ex-players drew up the curtain on their past and revised their shared history, all of them laughing. It was nice, Hutcheson thought, to be around his former coach when he didn't seem to be in too much pain.

At 2 a.m., they broke for some food that Meyer's wife and daughter had made, and a couple of the former players took off to drive to Omaha to catch a plane.

But Tomlinson, Hutcheson and Rob Browne stayed awake, lying on air mattresses on the floor at the feet of Meyer, who was in a lounge chair. Brooke looked at her father and thought she hadn't seen him that happy since his accident. If God meant to take him, she thought, this would be the best time.

[+] EnlargeDon Meyer
AP Photo/Doug DreyerA hospital stay after the accident in 2008 couldn't keep Meyer from his work.

It wasn't until 3:30, after more storytelling, that Meyer began to doze off. Browne saw Carmen Meyer, Don's wife, walk into the living room and reach down to touch his shoulder; he seemed to be dozing.

"Don, it's time to go to bed," she said.

"No, no," he said. "I want to stay with my boys."

She pulled the blanket up to his shoulders, and he fell asleep.

Meyer has been worn out in this, his last season, by the demands of his work, the demands he has placed upon himself. He mentioned in January that he couldn't wait to sit and watch the snow fall outside. He's earned that opportunity, after teaching so many others the value of process over product.

His time as a basketball coach -- which he has cherished -- will soon end. His coaching endures.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is writing a book on Don Meyer, to be released later this year.

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Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine