Don Meyer was a teacher above all

Originally Published: May 18, 2014
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com

Don Meyer leaned in and, speaking forcefully, gave instructions to the college-age kid, telling him the challenge he should anticipate and advising him on what should be his next action.

Meyer coached college basketball for nearly four decades, winning a then-NCAA record 923 games with record-setting teams and players, but above all else, Meyer was a teacher.

The young man he spoke to in that moment was not a basketball player, but a farmer who had lost a leg in a combine accident just two weeks before. He had come to see Meyer at a book signing in Fargo, North Dakota, in the fall of 2010. When Meyer saw him come through the door on crutches, with one pant leg of his jeans pinned all the way up, Meyer reached for the cane next to his seat.

He rose and greeted the farmer on the prosthetic left leg, which he referred to as Roger Legge, that he received after a car accident in fall 2008 forced an amputation. He talked to the young man about how the wound left from surgery would heal. Meyer recommended a particular balm and talked about the phantom pain the farmer would feel in the same direct tone I had heard him speak to players about rebounding or triple-threat position.

Through their conversation, Meyer mined a wealth of details about the young man -- his family situation, the size of the farm, his support system, his hopes -- and integrated all of that into his advice. When we drove away later, heading back to Meyer's home in South Dakota, he related all of this, pondering and writing down notes of what he took away from the conversation. As always.


I met Don Meyer in 1988 at about the same time I took my first full-time job out of college at the Nashville Banner. I was assigned to cover city college basketball and the birth of a great rivalry between Lipscomb -- the school Meyer coached to an NAIA national championship in 1988 -- and Belmont, colleges that were two miles apart. Meyer and his counterpart, Belmont's Rick Byrd, held open practices. Meyer, who was stoic and gruff with an extraordinarily dry sense of humor, invited me into his team meetings, which were really life lectures disguised as basketball talks.

[+] EnlargeDon Meyer
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesDon Meyer won the Jimmy V Award at the 2009 ESPYs.

What struck me right away was the bond the Lipscomb players had with one another but also with Meyer's words, through the notebooks they all kept. Most of them still have those notebooks and quote from them to this day.

I stayed in touch with Meyer, and on Sept. 5, 2008, I got a call from a friend who had news. Meyer had been gravely injured in a car accident in South Dakota. As he led his team -- Northern State -- on a retreat, he fell asleep at the wheel and swerved into oncoming traffic. He survived the accident, but in the midst of the effort to save his life, a doctor discovered previously undiagnosed terminal cancer.

Meyer's leg was amputated below the knee, and he suddenly was faced with the kind of life challenges he had spoken about to generations of players. Brooke Napier, the oldest of his three children, and Randy Baruth, his assistant coach at Northern, were touched by how he handled the cancer diagnosis and his injuries. He lived his words, Baruth once said.

Meyer coached for two more seasons after the accident, retiring in the spring of 2010, and although his cancer was relentless, he continued to speak to teams, churches and conventions, in small groups and large groups. At the time of diagnosis, he had been given an estimate of two years to live. Meyer's health ebbed, but he kept right on traveling, kept on speaking.

When I asked how he was doing, he grunted a response before quickly changing the subject and asking me about something he had seen in a baseball game -- about Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia or Clayton Kershaw, about what makes them great.

Ronnie Richardson, the Atlanta Braves' minor league director, asked Meyer to speak to the managers and coaches in his farm system. On Feb. 26, 2014, Meyer watched batting practice in a golf cart alongside general manager Frank Wren, shaking hands with Freddie Freeman, B.J. Upton and others.

When Meyer rolled into the meeting room in his wheelchair, his voice -- once so powerful that he could overwhelm the noise of a raucous gymnasium as he yelled at a player -- was reduced to little more than a whisper. He had lost so much weight.

But his humor and his messages were heard.

"As he addressed our staff that day, he touched on many things that had to do with not only coaching and teaching but also relationships that we encounter every day in our lives that define who we are," Bruce Manno, the team's vice president and assistant general manager, said recently. "And he did this all with an incredible sense of humor.

"One question he asked our staff that seemed to provoke deep thought was 'Do you love coaching more than you love winning?' He made many profound statements that day, including 'Define your unique talent or gift, develop it to the fullest, and give it away every day.'"

Said Marty Reed, the Braves' Triple-A pitching coach: "Coach Meyer said a lot of meaningful things, but one quote I remember is, 'Treat everyone with the utmost respect, and most of all have patience when you teach. You cannot hit them with a fire hose and expect them to respond. Hit them with slow rain and you will reap the rewards.'"

Added John Schuerholz, formerly the Braves' general manager and now team president: "I am so grateful that Coach Meyer took the time to come into my life and that he truly cared. A blessing which I will cherish forever and ever."


Meyer coached at small colleges for years because he did not want his work of coaching to be overwhelmed by the complications that come with running a Division I program -- competing against schools that might be skirting the rules in recruiting or having to answer constantly to boosters.

[+] EnlargeCarmen Meyer, Don Meyer and John Schuerholz
Courtesy Atlanta BravesDon Meyer, middle, went with his wife Carmen, left, to speak to the Braves in February at the request of team president John Schuerholz, right.

He wanted to teach basketball to players who wanted to learn, to lead them through the process of improvement that went beyond the court. He left Lipscomb in 1999, after a fight with the administration over its desire to take the program to Division I, and when he arrived at Northern State, the players -- aware of the great success Meyer's team had had -- anticipated a dynamic, Lombardi-like personality.

What they quickly learned, however, was that Meyer could be a personality riddle. You couldn't always tell if Meyer was listening to you, and he tended to change topics constantly in conversation. When he first met some of the players, he told them to grab a piece of paper and take notes. He offered three basic rules:

1. Everybody takes notes.

2. Everybody says "please" and "thank you."

3. Everybody picks up trash.

The players took those rules seriously. After Meyer's teams played road games, the opposing coaches would go into the visiting dressing room and find it spotless. Towels would be folded neatly in a pile with a note of thanks on top.

Anybody who heard Meyer present these rules, pausing to give an opportunity to write them down, probably was doomed to a life of never passing a piece of paper on the ground without hearing Meyer's voice and reflexively reaching down. I know; I am among those.

But the rules have many layers. There is the literal interpretation, of keeping your corner of the world free of litter. It speaks to the need to tend to problems. The fact that everybody picked up trash in Meyer's program, from the best player to the managers to Meyer, affirms a shared responsibility.

But in recent days, when Meyer went into hospice, I have thought more the trash rule. I suspect that what he really meant was that everybody should strive to leave a place better than it was on arrival.

That is how Don Meyer departed Sunday morning, at the age of 69, after a lifetime of teaching and touching souls.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.