CARE: Don Meyer

This month’s “C” word is CARE. In the “C” You In The Major Leagues definition, CARE includes: puts others first; evaluates everyone honestly; understands everyone’s impact. Obviously it applies on and off the field or court – player, coach, boss, mother, father, it doesn’t matter. Early this year, when we planned the 2018 “C” words for each month, we didn’t really imagine Lipscomb University would be making its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, after beating Florida Gulf Coast University in the Atlantic Sun tournament. As a Lipscomb grad, who was tied closely with the athletic department during the last few years of its NAIA days, this is a great time to tell you about the late Don Meyer, who originally put the Lipscomb basketball program on the map as a dominant NAIA program.

 

The inscription stands out more than any other: “You did a great job. It’s a very good start. Now finish. You never do. Coach Don Meyer”

See, with every book I’ve been a part of – about 26 – that’s either written with someone or about someone, I get that person to sign one for me. Yet, out of the 26 books, which include about 35 inscriptions, Meyer’s is the only one that I remember verbatim.

Maybe it’s because it threw me off a bit. What did he mean “Now finish. You never do.” How does he know I never finish? I always finish! But then the light bulb in my 26-year-old brain flashed. It wasn’t an indictment of my work habits, it was more of Don Meyer being, well, Don Meyer.

It took me awhile to gain great appreciation of Meyer’s sayings and how much he cared about the people around him. On the exterior he came off as a tough and gruff man who just got out of the Marines. Keep in mind, I first met Meyer when I was a 19-year-old sophomore at Lipscomb. And my introduction to him was as the radio sideline reporter on the basketball broadcasts, listening during each of Meyer’s timeouts and then being a fly-on-the-wall in the locker room during his halftime and post-game talks. Because he was such an intense coach, there were times I’d swear the purple and gold paint on those cement walls was peeling off.

As I got to know Meyer better and be around him in some unique settings, it became apparent that the gruff exterior was a combination of intense focus with an incredibly dry sense of humor. His intensity as a coach was from a deep care for each player in that locker room.

“You can tell he’s interested in (his players) as more than just players,” the legendary John Wooden said of Meyer. “He has a caring personality that shows them that. … When youngsters care for you and really know that you care for them, I think they make a little better effort.”

Meyer taught his players three-ring binders full of life lessons. Literally. Each player filled a notebook each season with game and practice notes but, more importantly, those life lessons. The main one is simple.

“If you give 100 percent, you won’t be upset with yourself no matter where you finish,” John Pierce, one of Meyer’s star players who’s now coaching in the Nashville area, said several years ago. “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s not the winning or losing that matters, but whether you gave 100 percent or not.”

That’s not to say Meyer didn’t win on the court. His teams did. A lot.

His Lipscomb teams, in addition to winning the 1986 NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, put together a remarkable 41-win season in 1989-90 and became the winningest program in college basketball during 1986-95 with an astonishing 212-23 record. He took 13 Lipscomb teams to the NAIA national tournament. His teams also produced several individual record holders, including the top two scorers in college basketball history, Pierce and Philip Hutcheson, who’s now Lipscomb’s Athletics Director.

“He [had] a vision for the big picture with his goals – team goals and how to reach those on a daily basis,” Hutcheson said. “There aren’t many people who are good at both: seeing the big picture and knowing how to get there.”

That might be part of the reason Meyer and Lipscomb had a difficult breakup in 1999. The school was exploring a move to the NCAA (“exploring” as in headed there). Meyer, who wouldn’t be able to conduct camps and clinics the way he had, and wouldn’t be able to go to the postseason due to NCAA restrictions at the time for schools moving from the NAIA to D-I, ultimately resigned. He started coaching at Northern State, an NCAA Division-2 school in South Dakota, where he ran off a streak of seven consecutive 20-win seasons. Along the way, in January 2009 he won his 903rd game, making Meyer the NCAA’s all-time winningest coach at the time. (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski passed Meyer in 2012.)

“Well, if you coach enough games, either you’re going to win some or you’ll get fired,” Meyer told me by phone two days after the milestone. “I’ve been lucky enough to win some. That’s all. It’s a test of time.”

“Lucky.” Perhaps a fitting word. “Miracle” might be a better one to describe the fact that Meyer even reached 903 wins. Four months before getting the milestone win, Meyer fell asleep at the wheel of his Toyota Prius while leading a caravan of vehicles, taking his team to a bonding retreat at a hunting lodge. He crossed the center line and an oncoming semi-truck loaded with grain rammed into the driver’s side of Meyer’s car.

Meyer suffered multiple life-threatening injuries. He endured eight surgeries and the amputation of his left leg below the knee during a 55-day hospital stay. Ironically, though, the other part of the miracle actually happened because of the accident. While removing his spleen that night, doctors discovered carcinoid cancer in his liver and small intestine. Carcinoid is a slow-growing cancer that eventually can affect the heart and lungs. Before the accident, Meyer didn’t have any early signs that cancer was invading his body. So, chances are, without the accident, the doctors wouldn’t have found the cancer in time to even consider any type of treatment plan.

“It was (a blessing), no doubt about it,” Meyer said of the accident.

As with coaches, though, who have the CARE characteristics, on day 56, the morning after his hospital discharge, Meyer was back at school, ready to coach. See, for Meyer, it came back to helping his players on and off the court.

“I love to see how a team can improve and how kids can improve,” he once said. “That’s why I coach. There’s nothing better than that. It just eats you up inside how lucky you can be coaching kids.”

In a move spearheaded by Hutcheson, Meyer, who was the 2009 recipient of ESPN’s Jimmy V Perseverance Award, and Lipscomb University, the school he loved and put on the college basketball map for 24 years, reconciled. As part of that, the court at Allen Arena is now called, “Don Meyer Court.”

Meyer went on to win 923 games in 38 years as a head coach before retiring from Northern State in 2010. But from 2010 until his death in May 2014, he never stopped coaching. Never stopped teaching. Never stopped trying to make a difference in the lives of the people around him.

“You’re never done,” he told me 15 years after that inscription. “It’s never over. You just gotta keep trying to get better.”

Favorite Don Meyer quotes

Here are 5 of my favorite life and leadership lessons from Meyer:
1. “Sometime, somewhere you must meet someone who expects greatness from you.”
2. “There’s a big difference between excellence and success. Success is what people put on something; excellence is what you know you’re doing and you know you’re doing it right.”
3. “What you do speaks a lot more loudly than what you say.”
4. “It all starts at the top. If you’re screwed up, they’ll be screwed up. If you’re trying to do the right thing, they’ll try to do the right thing.”
5. “Successful programs consist of people working hard, working together, while never worrying about who gets the credit.”

 

If you’d like to watch Meyer’s 2009 Jimmy V Award speech at the ESPYs, click here.

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