Coach Ray Meyer has been a coach for so long now that what was once a mere occupation has become his first name. Coach Ray Meyer was a coach when he was playing high school basketball. Coach Ray Meyer was a coach when he met his wife, who happened to be a member of his team. Coach Ray Meyer was even a coach when he was a coach: there was a time when he would walk out of his DePaul University practice in the afternoon, step into a chauffeured limousine and ride off to help coach the Chicago American Gears that night in the old glory days of the AAU. "Now that was coaching," Coach Ray Meyer says.
Coach Ray Meyer's oldest son is a coach. His middle son is a coach. His son-in-law used to be a coach. His youngest son is thinking about it. None of the children calls Coach Ray Meyer "Father" or "Dad" or "Pop." It's always "Coach." Bobby Knight and Digger Phelps call him that. Coach Ray Meyer's wife, Marge, calls him that. "Coach isn't old," Marge says. "Coach is just, well, Coach."
Coach Ray Meyer is older than John Wooden was when he retired in 1975. He is older than Joe Lapchick was when he won his fourth and final National Invitation Tournament in 1965. He is older than Adolph Rupp was when he got to the national finals for the last time in 1966. He is almost as old as Ronald Reagan. Coach Ray Meyer was 66 years old on Dec. 18. The next day he won his 602nd game at De-Paul. And now he is No. 1. It has taken Coach Ray Meyer only 37½ years at the same school to get there. "What Coach is," says Clyde Bradshaw, one of the current Blue Demons, "is history."
Though this is the age of the born-agains, few people have been resilient enough to fade from public view and lie dormant, only to come roaring back and live again. Richard Nixon. Bobby Riggs. B. B. King. Ann Miller tapping her fabulous gams away on Broadway. We are not talking years here. We are talking a decade, a generation. Or more. And now, Coach Ray Meyer.
February 18, 1980
Long before the arrival of his current meal ticket, Mark Aguirre, before Kentucky and North Carolina and UCLA, before national rankings and Top 20s and No. Is and all that, Coach Ray Meyer and DePaul were bigtime. Maybe the biggest of the big times.
It is perhaps wise to remember this in light of present circumstances. "Joe, you've never heard such cheering," Marilyn Monroe said upon her return from the cheering troops she had entertained in Korea. "Yes, I have," said Joe DiMaggio.
In 1943 Coach Ray Meyer had a freshman named George Mikan at DePaul; Big George, the first of basketball's big men. The Blue Demons finished in a tie for third in the NCAA. The final four? No. This was before there was such a thing as a final four. In 1945 DePaul ravaged the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. Just tore it apart. The Demons played three games before an aggregate house of more than 50,000 and won the three by an aggregate margin of 85 points; in the semifinals against Rhode Island Mikan himself scored a record 53, matching the opposing team's total. Five days later in a Red Cross benefit game against NCAA champion Oklahoma A&M—a team DePaul had defeated during the regular season—Mikan fouled out midway in the first half, after which the Aggies rolled to a 52-44 upset victory.
The next season—Mikan's last with the Blue Demons—DePaul had an even better team, and Mikan was scheduled to be on the cover of LIFE. Coach Ray Meyer says the boys from LIFE took "holy man, a million pictures." Then President Roosevelt died. No cover. Later DePaul was not invited to the NCAA or the NIT, for reasons never explained to Meyer. When it rains, it pours.
Mikan went on to become the Babe Ruth of pro basketball as a member of the Minneapolis Lakers—he was voted player of the half century in 1950—while his coach spent the next 30 years establishing himself as a local institution in Chicago. Then last March, Coach Ray Meyer went national once more. The bad-knees limp. The hang-over belly. The beanbags under the eyes. The gap-toothed benevolence. (His children joke about his "sewer teeth.") That wonderfully ancient German mug with the folds of skin pouring over one another like the sands of time themselves. Here came Coach Ray Meyer again, sway-backing it across the hardwoods of the NCAA tournament like some legendary monarch, equal parts ward-heeling pol and trusty Saint Bernard. Why, this leathery old hog butcher from the Windy City was college basketball itself long before Billy Packer and Al McGuire and the other guy ever heard of the peacock. Luckily, television realized this. TV made Coach Ray Meyer—father of six, grandfather of 15, frumpy warlord of the Near North Side—a bigtime star all over again. And, as everyone who has noticed the raw and exciting young De-Paul team that will come blasting into the NCAA playoffs again next month surely realizes by now, the old man ain't finished being a star yet.
Coach Ray Meyer says he doesn't believe all the attention he's getting now. He says he doesn't especially like it either. "Where have all of you been the last 30 years?" he says to reporters. "I'm the same guy I was then." Well, he is and he isn't. Meyer is winning a lot more, of course. And on the surface he is acting calm and kind and grandfatherly, just as he did last season when America rediscovered him.
"I've mellowed," he says. "I'm more understanding. There are other things in life besides basketball. The game isn't a war anymore."
Hogwash. On Jan. 15, the day DePaul was selected No. 1 by the wire service polls for the first time in history, the newspapermen and women descended on Alumni Hall, the little rathole on Belden Avenue where the Blue Demons play their home games. TV and radio and the magazines were there. Even the Today show sent a crew. While Meyer was cooperative and diligently humble in the interviews—"All this for No. 1? I'm shocked. I voted for Syracuse"—the commotion interrupted practice and seriously hindered preparation for an upcoming game.
The next evening, after the Blue Demons had generally lazed about the court in a haughty stupor and had squeaked by Lamar on a last-second basket, having not heard Meyer's shouts for a time-out or heeded his orders for a semi-slowdown, Meyer erupted. In the training room, he screamed. He grew red in the face. He put his tongue between his teeth and bit down, hard. (This is a sure sign somebody is in trouble.) And he characterized his players as "idiots" who didn't deserve to win, didn't deserve to be No. 1 and had proven this very night precisely why nobody should think of them as such. Meyer also pounded on a lectern and then knocked the thing over, scattering water glasses every which way.
Aguirre retaliated. "I got too much on my mind. Too much pressure. I'm leaving school," he said.
"You're not leaving this school," Meyer said.
A few minutes later Meyer was raging in front of the media. He called his team "damned nitwits" and pointed out to the assembled reporters their own contributions to the shoddy performance, namely, "sticking pencils and microphones in everybody's faces to the point we couldn't think."
Following his press conference—and fully an hour and a half after the game—Meyer was still at the blackboard. He was diagraming the plays his team had refused to run. Some cronies were sitting around. A tiny piece of chalk broke off in Meyer's hand. "Jeez, holy man," he roared at a team manager. "Someday can you get me decent size chalk just once before I die."
The friendly grandfather had turned into a fearsome godfather,' all over a two-point win. Was this in character? An aberration? Or, say, what?
The next day Meyer's son, Joey, the assistant coach, was mad. He said the pressure was getting to Coach Ray Meyer and he castigated his father for taking it out on the team in public. Marge, the matriarch, simply made a face. She had downed her good-luck V.O. and water on the rocks, both of them, at the pregame repast, but she'd had a strange feeling. "I warned Coach he was ripe to blow one," Marge said. "Wasn't he obnoxious? He kept it up later, too. You could hear him all through the restaurant that we went to after the game. He sounded like a fool."
Given the situation, nobody on the team was surprised. "When Coach is mad, he's like a monster," said Bradshaw. "We all want to stay away and hide. As far as being a teacher, Coach is real hell."
And thus he has been. No man wins so many games, makes so many friends (and a few enemies), stays for so many years in one place, survives—and, now, thrives—who is not, as Coach Ray Meyer himself might say, "one tough somofabee." (And that's just the way he pronounces his harshest epithet, an "m" replacing the "n" just as "bee" fills in for the rest of it. Cosmetic avoidance of a sin? Fear of the devil? Pick one.)
Through the years there has been little change. Coach Ray Meyer remains a family man. He will not go anywhere without Marge, be it road trip, convention or shopping for clothes. He stayed through bad times at DePaul a decade ago, in part to tutor 30-year-old Joey, whom he desperately wants to succeed him. Meyer remains a moralist. He agreed to pose for a certain publication's preseason issue only when guaranteed that the journal's familiar feminine shock troops would not reveal their cottontails in his presence.
Meyer remains a deeply religious man. He says his daily rosary, oftentimes in public places while fingering the beads hidden away in his pocket. He holds a team Mass before each game, home and away, though the players, the majority of whom aren't Catholic, rarely show up anymore. Meyer remains a decent and understanding man, although weighted down by the excess baggage of attitudes formed in simpler times. Contrary to contemporary convention, he calls his nearly all-black team "boys."
Above all, Coach Ray Meyer is still tough and demanding. In the '50s he made his team go out and scrimmage after a defeat. In the '60s he punished his cocky star guard, Emmette Bryant, by giving him only a minute's playing time in each of three straight games "to kick that somofabee's average down." Meyer also bloodied his own face when a chair he had hurled in the locker room boomeranged off the floor and split open his forehead. In the '70s he yanked a player named Randy Hook by the back of the neck—put the hook on Hook—upon sending him into a game, and once he was delighted to find a player's artwork depicting the coach with a glass of milk and a whip.
Coach Ray Meyer says he can't dictate to the boys anymore; he has to coddle them. He says he can't give orders anymore, just explanations. More hogwash. In various games during DePaul's so-far immaculate 20-0 season, these are things Meyer has bellowed:
•To senior James Mitchem: "Quit the whirling dervish. You look like you were born on a top."
•To freshman Teddy Grubbs: "Stonehands! How did you learn to shoot a ball when you can't even catch one?"
•To freshman Skip Dillard: "Keep shooting. Maybe you'll break your arm."
•To All-America Aguirre: "Sick? No wonder. The way those guys went around you, you probably caught pneumonia in the draft."
Aguirre says Meyer's outbursts are so strong, they "vibrate me out of the chair." Dillard says, "Boys, an insult? Boys is one of the nicer things Coach calls us."
Raymond Joseph Meyer spent his own boyhood in the days of heaven on Chicago's West Side, the youngest of nine children. His father, a wholesale confectioner, died when Meyer was in grade school. His mother passed away when he was a junior at Notre Dame. "Neither of them saw me play a game," he says.
Early in his youth, Meyer was imbued with a sense of the church as a shield against the sufferings caused by the Depression. Mrs. Meyer attended devotions every Friday night at Our Lady of Sorrows parish, and following his father's death, Meyer seriously considered the priesthood. But his love of athletics overcame that and all else. He was a 5'9" guard for St. Patrick's Academy when that school won the old National Catholic basketball tournament in 1932. In baseball he played for an American Legion team against a pitcher named Phil Cavaretta and once met Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in the dugout at Wrigley Field. Landis asked young Meyer why he was playing without socks, and the kid told him "that's the Notre Dame style."
Meyer didn't know what else to say so he just blurted out Notre Dame. To be sure, the Golden Dome was in all his dreams. Football was Meyer's best sport, and he used to sneak through the underground pipes to get inside Soldier Field for the Irish vs. the Army. Oh, to play for Knute Rockne and help old Notre Dame win over all!
Instead, Meyer enrolled at Northwestern, where he stayed only a week before returning home; there simply wasn't enough food on the table. He got a job as a messenger at the Board of Trade. He played basketball for the Hughes Council of the Knights of Columbus. He coached a team in the CYO league. (Enter Margaret Mary Delaney, a forward for St. Agatha's. Violins. Roses. Layups.) Then a break: an older brother got a good job at International Harvester, and Ray was off to college at South Bend.
By that time Meyer had banged up his knee and Rockne was dead. So the husky freshman concentrated on basketball and worked at a series of odd jobs. Still, poverty hung over Ray Meyer like a cloud. He owned one dress shirt for Sunday Mass and one flannel shirt for the rest of the week. He seldom took off his shoes in front of people because of the holes in his socks. He went his entire freshman year without being able to buy a schoolbook. Neither a borrower nor a lender be? It was a good thing there were lenders at Notre Dame.
Meyer jokes that "there has never been a day I stopped talking." However, about these days he speaks sparingly, quietly, not without urging.
Though the following should not be divulged to Digger Phelps, who is under the impression he invented the game at South Bend, in 1936 Notre Dame won the mythical national championship with Paul Nowak and Johnny Moir making All-America and Ray Meyer a sometime starter at forward. George Ireland, the future coach of Loyola's 1963 national champions, was the captain of that team—an honor that included the exclusive franchise to sell peanuts in the Notre Dame fieldhouse. Ireland employed Meyer to do "peanut sacking."
"Ray Meyer was my best sacker," Ireland says, "because he filled the bags with the least peanuts." After Meyer became captain of the Irish in both his junior and senior seasons—a distinction not duplicated until Bob Arnzen did it almost 30 years later—he says he called a lot of time-outs, the easier to push those peanuts.
The Irish went 40-6 in Meyer's last two years. Though he got the Byron Kenneally award "for proficiency in scholastics and athletics," Meyer maintains he was only a "mediocre" college player. "He was a wild man," says Marge, "the only fat one on the team." On the other hand, he was perfect as a player-coach. On one occasion, when Notre Dame Coach George Keogan became so disgusted during a game against Wisconsin that he left the bench for the second half, Keogan put Meyer in charge. The Irish went on to win, and the undergraduate Coach Ray Meyer had his first taste of victory.
Once out of college, Meyer worked for the Chicago Relief Administration helping skid row bums stay alive, until one day he received word from the office to leave his area immediately. Meyer asked why. "Because it's 5:15 and you're only insured until 5," he was told. That did it for social work.
In 1941 Meyer nearly became the basketball coach at Catholic High in Joliet, Ill., but almost immediately after turning the job down, Notre Dame called. Keogan had suffered a heart attack, and the Irish, already well into their season, wanted Meyer as interim coach. "I benched all the seniors and played all the underclassmen," Meyer recalls. "Frank Lane—the baseball guy—refereed my games, flexing his muscles in his rolled-up shirtsleeves. We never lost with Frank Lane. A kid named Art Pope played for me. Holy man, I could write the headlines, POPE WINS ONE FOR NOTRE DAME." Ah, the Notre Dame style again.
Where Meyer's "interim" Notre Dame victories over the next season and a half have disappeared to in the record books is anyone's guess—where are you, Eddie Gottlieb, now that we need you?—but in swift order, Keogan returned, Meyer departed, and Keogan suffered another attack, this time fatal. Notre Dame again summoned Meyer in the 1942-43 season, but by this time he had agreed to coach the basketball team at another Catholic college. At "the little school under the El." At a university named after a 17th-century French cleric who is called the Apostle of Charity. The place was DePaul University, and Ray Meyer was never to leave.
St. Vincent DePaul was said to have been so humble he thought himself unworthy of priesthood. He even wanted to be known as "Monsieur Vincent," and he signed his surname with the letters close together—DePaul—so that the suffix "de" would not be taken to indicate nobility. How appropriate, then, that a proper young Chicago homebody like Ray Meyer would take control of Monsieur Vincent DePaul's basketball team.
For the first few years, of course, it wasn't Meyer's or Coach Ray's or DePaul's or even DePaul's team. It belonged to a gangly 6'9" fellow with horn rims from Joliet who appeared to be the winner of a Harold Lloyd look-alike contest rather than the future most famous basketball player in the universe.
George Mikan, the erstwhile 10-year-old marbles champion of Will County, Ill., was the son of a tavern and roller-rink owner—Big George was ahead of his time in more ways than one. He had been bounced from his school team because "his feet didn't match," but he commuted 70 miles round-trip by bus every day to the DePaul campus to earn superior grades in pre-law. His lessons in basketball came harder.
Ironically, Mikan had shown up at Notre Dame when Meyer was coaching there. "Coach said I'd make a better student than a player," Mikan, now a successful travel agent in Edina, Minn., recalls. "He said I was so uncoordinated I tripped over the lines on the court. When I went out for the team at DePaul and there he was, I thought, 'Oh no, here we go again.' "
Mikan's first scrimmage in Chicago—on what he calls the "gunfodder squad"—lasted 3½ hours. After that, things got rough. Meyer made Mikan skip rope and box and dance. He made him run with the track team and jump over chairs and alternate playing catch with medicine balls and tennis balls. He ran him through a myriad of drills—hook-shooting, rebounding, dribbling and a special number to learn touch, in which Mikan, stationed under the basket, would push off his left foot and shoot with his right hand, then catch the ball and push off his right foot and shoot with his left hand. Big George did the drill first. Then the guy down the street did it. Then probably you and I, oh, along about the seventh grade, did it, too. It was called the Mikan Drill. It should have been called the Meyer Drill.
"Coach taught me to think for myself," Mikan says. "He was concerned with my studies. He involved himself in all our problems—girls, money, eating. He taught me the game. I'd be nothing without him."
John Kundla, who later coached Mikan and the Lakers to five professional championships, once said he always enjoyed scouting DePaul "because it was such a show to watch Mikan pout." But there couldn't have been an awful lot of that, since DePaul rang up 62 victories in 74 games during Mikan's last three seasons. The team became known as Mikan U or Big George DePaul. As pranks, teammates like Gene Stump used to steal livers and gizzards from biology lab and sneak them into Mikan's shorts or climb ladders in the locker room and sing in a falsetto: "Mikan's girl is 10 feet tall; she sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall."
Bob Hope once cracked of the man nicknamed Scaffold: "It's interesting to see a control tower that breathes."
All Mikan would do is get mad, pin his scapular inside his DePaul Blue Demon trunks and go out and get another 50. Mikan took the curse out of being tall, he made a mockery of the contemptuous word "goon," and he earned the respect of over-achievers everywhere, not the least of whom were his teammates. When Big George showed up on St. Patrick's Day in a green hat and orange tie, all the DePaul players went out and dressed themselves in similar livery.
If George Mikan made basketball at DePaul, not to mention all over the nation, and Coach Ray Meyer made George Mikan, well....
Well, what? Did the good Vincentian fathers of DePaul (current enrollment: 12,000) appreciate Meyer? "The priests used to only tolerate basketball around here," says one man in the athletic department. "They never realized what the game did for the school." And a chuckling Meyer says, "I go along with the old saw that priests take the vows of poverty and the people who work for them live it."
Meyer began his career at DePaul on a salary of $2,500; by last season he had worked his way up to 21 grand. His rewards for the Blue Demons' success in 1978-79 amounted to a $10,000 bonus plus a $10,000 raise. In other words, paradise with a lakefront view. In the old making-ends-meet days, however, Meyer had started a summer camp on a picturesque Wisconsin lake, and he took a job coaching the College All-Stars in a postseason tour against the Harlem Globetrotters. "We always said Abe Saperstein bought our first house," says Marge. Back then such barnstorming trips were legal according to the NCAA; for 15 years Meyer traveled with them all: Cousy, Heinsohn, Gola, the works. And he discoverd how well these players had been taught by their coaches. "I found out who were the real coaches," says Meyer. "And who weren't." He also discovered that the All-Stars meant business one evening when Gola, tired of being shown up by the tricky stuff, elbowed Leon Hilliard, breaking three of the Trotter dribbler's ribs.
The barnstormers would have come in handy at DePaul during the predominately lean years between Mikan and the Muffin Man (that being just one of the accurate pseudonyms under which the Demons' fabulous fatboy, Aguirre, labors). Between 1946 and 1976, DePaul appeared in only 11 postseason tournaments, winning just six games.
Meyer bottomed out in 1970-71, when his team went 8-17, defeating just one school—Xavier of Ohio—in the university division. And that season bottomed out when the Villanova Wildcats of Howard Porter and Chris Ford embarrassed DePaul 99-59 in a game during which Meyer refused to call a time-out in the second half. "Old Meyer philosophy," he says. "When getting tail kicked, get out of gym as soon as possible."
In the year leading up to that debacle, Meyer had several offers from other schools—including Notre Dame many times over—but he never had the urge to leave. At the turn of the '70s, however, he wouldn't have needed to jump. Lines were forming of all those who wanted to have Meyer pushed out of DePaul.
College basketball had changed. Huge glittering arenas were being constructed all over America. Meyer recalls reading one year that 92 colleges had built new places to play. Massive funds were being funneled into the sport, or rather into "programs." And there was something else, too, something called recruiting.
In the face of all this, here was beloved old Coach Ray Meyer sitting in his cramped little office on his dingy little campus under the El tracks. No budget. No secretary. No full-time assistant coach. Because of high rent and sparse crowds DePaul's games had long since been moved from 20,000-seat Chicago Stadium into 5,308-seat Alumni Hall, where the basketball team still shares its locker room with the track team, not to mention, in an anteroom on game nights, the referees. DePaul's players were local high school second bananas or neighborhood kids dragged in off the playgrounds. But a man couldn't win games with his brains or his coaching anymore. He had to have talent.
"We were playing the Kentuckys with an intramural team," Meyer says. "Rupp called me one time. He says, 'I need you.' I say, 'Adolph, we can't even play.' He says, 'I need you.' I say, 'O.K.' We get buried. Another time my starting center says, 'Coach, don't put me in. I can't do it, I'm afraid.' I say, 'You're all we've got.' He plays. Holy man. We get buried again."
After the 1970-71 season, an emergency meeting was held. The administration. The faculty. Some DePaul alums, players from the old days. And Coach Ray Meyer. One priest, honing his hatchet, equated the team with "a bad limb on a tree." The alternatives were to deemphasize down to Division II or to spend some money and become competitive again. Cook or get out of the kitchen. Meyer said he wouldn't coach in Division II. DePaul decided it was whip-out time.
Soon the inner-city campus' first dormitory and cafeteria were built. Now that he had something to recruit to, Meyer needed someone to recruit with. He first approached his oldest son, Tom, who had played on three DePaul tournament teams in the '60s. But Tom was building a coaching reputation in the Chicago secondary schools, and he wanted to wait another year. Next in the line of succession was Joey, the just-graduated captain of that '71 gang, Meyer's worst team. And so Joey it was; the second son became his father's first full-time assistant.
"I wanted to help," Joey says today. "There was all that talk about the game having passed Coach by, and I think he was beginning to doubt himself. But I knew he still had it in him. All he needed was someone to beat the bushes. If we worked, we could get the players. The best part of all this is that I was always afraid Coach would go out a loser. Now that won't happen."
Joey became "the man who turned the Blue Demons black," and Coach Ray Meyer became a winner again very quickly. Twelve victories, 12, 14, 16, 15, the magic 20. DePaul's distinguished music department is where Ramsey Lewis once studied jazz and where trombonist James Pankow met pianist Robert Lamm to form the genesis of the rock group Chicago. When another musician, a portly high school trumpet player named Bill Robinzine, enrolled at DePaul, Meyer made an NBA basketball player out of him.
Meyer's magic was working again. The old man even adjusted his regimen so that a gangly 6'11" center, Dave Corzine, out of Arlington Heights—where the Meyers had just built a new home—could wear his hair in a scraggly Afro, walk barefoot to class and do other wonderful things like shoot his middle finger at the refs.
"Andy [Pancratz] just fouled out. You ready, Corzine?" Meyer asked on the bench one night.
"Right, Coach. Who do I go in for?" Corzine asked back.
With his star space cadet in the pivot for four years, along with an influx of black guards—Ron Norwood, Gary Garland and Bradshaw—from the playgrounds of East Orange, N.J., Meyer roared to the top again. From 1975 to '78 DePaul won 77 games and reached the NCAA regionals twice. "Forget the basketball," Meyer says. "My greatest accomplishment was Corzine going out of here a man."
But the '70s were not all flowers and brass sections for the Meyer family. Marge was told she had cancer and was given five years to live. She licked it. Meyer was invited to lunch and told he had been removed as athletic director. He came to grips with it. Moreover, during the Corzine years a new athletic director, Gene Sullivan, had savage battles with Meyer over scheduling, finances and the direction of DePaul basketball. "We had it out," says Meyer.
Sullivan, a former assistant coach at Notre Dame and a terrific promoter, put together a healthy TV-radio package, spruced up Alumni Hall and hustled some heavies back onto the DePaul schedule. More significantly, a Sullivan man says that the athletic director "rid the school of all our inferiority complexes." But Sullivan appeared to have designs on Meyer's coaching job, and the family was suspicious.
"Gene is a good man and a hard charger," says Dr. Ken Sarubbi, the chairman of the DePaul phys ed department and another Meyer assistant coach. "But he'd been on the bench all his life, and I think he saw an opening because of Coach's age. When Coach started to win big again, their war was all over." Sullivan soon left to go up the lake and become the athletic director at Loyola.
This brought in the Rev. Robert H. Gielow, CM., formerly the team chaplain, who has firmly placed himself on the ornery side of Meyer for the last year and a half. Father Gielow, 36, wanted the team to change shoe brands. He wanted the players to stop eating meals at Meyer's favorite restaurant, The Seminary down on Fullerton Avenue, and go back to the cafeteria days. After DePaul won the 1979 Western regional over UCLA, he gave the team all of five bucks a head for dinner money. Back home, when Meyer finally heard of this, he halted practice and marched off to Father Gielow's office after vowing to the Blue Demons he would "throw the somofabee off the balcony." Old Grandfather Wonderful was on the rampage again.
Meyer's image continues to be a mockery to his children. Tom, 36, the coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, says: "I have to laugh. I could tell stories to infinity about how calm and sweet he is. I remember him fixing my bike when I was little. Coach tried and tried and couldn't do it. 'I can't fix this,' he screamed, and—boom!—he broke it over his knee. Growing up, we always understood Coach's job and heard that he was this wonderful guy. But we hardly knew him. He was always gone away, coaching."
Marge, Joe, the other children, agree. "Coach never talked to us," says Joey. "We found out what he wanted through Mom." Coach Ray Meyer didn't even coach his boys until they reached college. Once Marge woke him up in the middle of the night and said, "For God-sakes, Coach, you coach everybody else, but your own son doesn't know how to protect the ball when he dribbles. Get down there and show him." So Meyer got out of bed, woke up Tom and coached him right then and there in the garage.
There was a time, when Tom was at DePaul, Joey was in high school and Bob (nicknamed "Binky" by Coach; don't ask why) was playing CYO ball, during which Marge attended the younger kids' games and sat in the stands with a portable TV tuned in to the Blue Demons.
Joey was the real player in the family—he averaged more than 20 points in that lost DePaul season. But Tom, driven by the same competitive demons that possess the old man, was a shooter who made himself into a player. For familial peace, Marge made certain the two brothers never played against each other, one-on-one. Marge did this. Not Ray. Never Ray. "Coach was not involved with us at all," says Joey.
Recently, Ray Meyer talked about Emmette Bryant's injury-plagued career at DePaul and how one of Indiana's Van Arsdale twins accidentally broke Bryant's leg in a game in 1963. Meyer did not mention that the player who took over for Bryant, thus beginning his own stellar career, was Tom Meyer.
"It is not in Coach's being to show pride in his offspring," says Tom. "Only through Mom's efforts has it occurred to him to give Joey some publicity for all this success at DePaul. Not that his own ego is overflowing. He never told us about his days at Notre Dame. I would never have known Mikan played for Coach if I hadn't read it in the papers."
Because his own thresholds were so high, Meyer always expected his children to be unyielding physically and emotionally. The Meyer kids never knew such things as flu, colds, sickness. When one broke a nose at the camp in Wisconsin, Meyer set it with Popsicle sticks. When one broke a hand, Coach Ray Meyer refused to have a cast put on it because the season was coming up and he needed a player.
As a freshman at DePaul, Tom contracted rheumatic fever for the second time. Ankles collapsing, knees swollen, he barely made it to the gym to notify his father. "Why are you late?" the elder Meyer demanded. Tom said that he was sick, that a doctor had ordered him to drop out of school, that he was supposed to enter a sanatorium immediately. "Well...well...." Ray Meyer stammered. "Holy man, are you going to make practice today or not?"
Their strong Catholicism was a bond among the Meyers. Mass every Sunday. Dad and Mom in line with the children, oldest to youngest, proud and sparkling, in tight formation along the pew. The Meyer eight. Eight was enough. Then one Sunday, as the Meyer parents stepped aside to let their children, some of whom were in their 20s, enter the aisle for communion, one by one—Barbara, Tom, Pat, Marianne, Joey, Bob—right down the row, they all refused. Finally, the last one, Binky, then eight, said no as well. "What the hell could you do?" the other children said to Binky in unison. Kidding or not, they were referring to the fact that a Catholic usually passes up communion only when he has committed a serious sin.
Not that Meyer could ever be swayed from the faith. His children say his dependence on religion is "frightening." Sarubbi says that without pregame Mass, Meyer would go "berserk."
Meyer once heard game-day Mass in a men's room. He once heard it after walking two miles in a snowstorm at six in the morning. The church door was locked. He went through the basement. At his induction into the Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass. last year, Meyer was standing in the lobby with some coaches, Wooden and Henry Iba among them, when he began working the beads in his pocket and silently moving his lips. Marge got him in a corner fast. "For Chrissakes, Coach," she whispered, "cut out the rosary. They'll think you're senile."
To the contrary, considering what this marvelous old panda has been through, the puzzlements of modern times are hardly a challenge. He bends without breaking. He communicates without compromise. He has bridged the gaps—white to black, old to young, firm to funky. Why, Meyer's bright and energetic staff is straight out of a pop-art fairy tale: the bespectacled Joey, quiet and studious, a dead ringer for Toad in American Graffiti; the swarthy Sarubbi, the very model of a Vegas croupier in the mufti of a Ph.D.; young Molinari, the polite law student whose good looks take the girls' breath away.
Ray Meyer is no dummy. He must have drafted this crew by position.
Joey gets most of the credit for recruiting the Aguirres and Bradshaws and Terry Cummingses to DePaul, but all of them had to face the old man somewhere along the line and to appreciate what they saw. There is some fear there among his boys; respect, admiration, love, too. Oh yes, and some astonishment on both sides. "Holy man," Meyer says after another close escape, "these boys will drive me to the nut house."
Sophomore Aguirre, who, as the father of a 3-month-old daughter ("Dough-Baby?") by his high school sweetheart, could use the money, is presently the target of slick agents and pro scouts who tell him how he could tear up the NBA in just a few easy lessons. Yet what the Muffin Man says about making an exit is only this: "Coach promised me all four years, and I'm going to hold him to it." Meaning it's Meyer, not Aguirre, whom he's concerned about staying at DePaul.
Were the Blue Demons to remain unbeaten and win the national championship, there is the feeling that Meyer would see it as the ideal opportunity to pack it in. That under such circumstances he should pack it in. Surely every mother's son and daughter will be rooting for him, just like last time. Meyer in the Final Four again would be an affair of the heart; he'd be the biggest favorite since John Wayne on Iwo Jima.
So, would he leave? Aguirre says no: "Right now, Coach is just overcoming his age." Meyer says nothing. Right now, holy man, Coach Ray Meyer is just enjoying coaching.