At a luncheon in Chicago on Dec. 1, Tom Meyer took his adolescence up to the podium with him. He looked every inch the kid who had just gotten the keys to the family car for a big date. But as he'd tell a funny story, laugh lines would appear that gave his face an avuncular cast, and for a moment he'd resemble his father, Ray Meyer, the coach of ninth-ranked DePaul, who would be Tom's rival that evening.
"The last nationally ranked team we played was Wyoming, last year," said Tom, the 38-year-old coach at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, a school with an enrollment of 20,000 that is new to Division I competition this season. "We went out to one free-throw line for warmups and they went out to the other. And the arena tilted."
The court didn't list that night, even though DePaul beat UICC 78-53. But that wasn't the most remarkable thing about the first meeting between a father and his son as coaches in a big-time basketball game. No, the wonder was that the game had come off at all. If any other 67-year-old in Ray Meyer's circumstances had agreed to schedule the upstart 35 blocks down the street, there would have been speculation whether the years had caught up with him.
The conventional wisdom is that an established national power like DePaul simply doesn't give a game and, thus, credibility to the basketball program at an upstart school against which it's beginning to recruit head-to-head. Worse from the Blue Demons' point of view, UICC had the talent to make an upset entirely possible, even without Mark Aguirre on hand to help DePaul flirt with disaster. Witness Chicago Circle's defeats of Wisconsin (74-66) and Ohio U. (63-55) to win the Wisconsin Invitational later in the week. In short, the Demons had nothing to gain and everything to lose. "It's a case of Ray being as good a father as he is a coach," said Circle Assistant Coach Rick Kilby before the game.
December 14, 1981
Ray agreed in principle to play Chicago Circle when Tom approached him three years ago about a game to christen a planned 10,000-seat pavilion on the UICC campus. But a nine-week heavy-equipment operators' strike delayed construction and gave Ray a chance to beg off. Instead, he consented to move the game into the Rosemont Horizon, De-Paul's 17,000-seat home court. UICC, however, remained the home team, which meant that their game wasn't among the ones for which DePaul's 13,500 season ticket-holders automatically had seats. The crowd was a disappointing 5,222. It all was a bit like young Ron Reagan inviting his dad to the White House for a state dinner.
Tom began preparing for the game over the summer at Ray Meyer's Basketball Camp in Three Lakes, Wis., where Ray, his wife, Marge and their six kids and 17 grandchildren stay in the family lodge. "At seven every night they showed a DePaul game film, and I was there," Tom says. "I don't feel it was cheating. Then I took old DePaul films to the basement and watched them by myself."
"We wondered where he was," says Marge. "Then his sister, Barbara, said, 'What do you think he's doing? He's scouting.' Coach knew."
In the end, UICC may have been too well prepared. Nervousness appeared to be the main reason it fell behind 31-12 after 13:42, and then, despite outplaying DePaul during the middle third of the game, fatigue ultimately eliminated any chance it had of catching up. UICC made a run in the second half behind freshman Point Guard Craig (Cubby) Lathen, pulling to within 10 with 9:15 to go. But De-Paul's Bernard Randolph interred a couple of jumpers and, with them, UICC.
"After the initial kick of facing a legend and being Division I, it was just like coaching against any other guy down the sideline," said Tom afterward. Indeed, during the game, Tom and Ray never betrayed their relationship with their behavior or their styles of play. DePaul started in a man-to-man, and UICC opened in a zone; Ray's assistants leaped off the bench at unwelcome whistles, while Tom's, following strict orders, stayed put. Tom looked toward Ray just once, in the second half, when Lathen drove the lane and the DePaul bench jumped up, imploring the officials for a traveling call.
"Walking?" yelled Tom. "What do you mean 'walking'? He got killed." Clearly, this was business as usual.
"I'm very happy the game is over," said Ray when it was. "I was kind of hoping, at the end, that the score would get a little closer." Quite an admission from a man who says he walks the streets, unable to sleep, after losses. Tom himself barely slept the night after the game, but the 25-point final margin notwithstanding, he knew his father had done him and his fledgling program a big favor. Illinois at Chicago Circle, which is named after the confluence of expressways around its concrete campus, at least had found someone to give it a lift onto the off-ramp from obscurity.
The UICC basketball team has all the Division I trappings—the scholarships, the schedule and, soon, the arena—everything, that is, except a nickname. The 16-year-old school once called its teams the Chikas, after an Indian tribe thought to have inhabited the shores of Lake Michigan. When it turned out that the tribe may never have existed and that Chikas was pronounced just like chicas, Spanish slang for young women, the school, which has a goodly number of Hispanic students, dropped the name. So now its teams are simply known as the Chicago Circle.
"What's our mascot going to do," asks 7'2" Center Dave Williams. "Go out on the court and run around in circles?" The administration is searching for a name and presumably isn't interested in the irreverent (the Chicago Seven), cutesy (the Chi-lini) or witty (the Vicious Circle, which the pep club calls itself). It prefers, instead, something "marketable."
Locally, at least, UICC is beginning to make a name for itself without a nickname. The credit goes to Tom's top recruiter, Willie Little. He joined the Circle staff in 1980 from nearby Manley High, where he had won a state title that year, and Chicago's fertile high school gyms are his bailiwick. Among his products at Manley was 6'10" Purdue sophomore Russell Cross, who almost decided to enroll at UICC at the last minute. Two weeks ago, Little and Meyer got an oral commitment from 6'9" Andre Moore of Carver High the day after he'd visited Ray Meyer and his 32-year-old recruiter son, Joey, Ray's heir designate at DePaul.
The three Meyer boys—the youngest is Bob, a/k/a Binky, who was one of the TV announcers for the DePaul-UICC game—grew up with a man who admits he was more a coach than a father. Like everyone else in the family, they called him Coach.
Joey was always the talented one, shy and introverted but a local high school star. No one is surprised that he is eighth on the DePaul alltime scoring list. Tom, on the other hand, had his high school career retarded by rheumatic fever, but he worked diligently with weights and eventually found a role as a shooter on his father's teams in the mid-'60s. He began coaching while in college—at St. Benedict's High during his senior year—and had winning records at two other Chicago-area high schools before accepting the UICC job in 1977. Tom goes through every conditioning program he prepares for his players; two of them suffered heat exhaustion doing a preseason running drill he'd tested himself. It's not uncommon for Tom's wife, Mary, to retrieve him from some byway where he has cramped up while running.
"Coach is portrayed as a mild-mannered person," says Tom, "but if you were sick, you had to hide. He understood pneumonia, but there was no such thing as a cold. Coach himself never admits to pain, never admits to feelings. We were religious because Coach was religious, and the things we did we were expected to do. If you had problems—with a girl friend, say, or with finding the money for a car—Mom took care of that. I saw that movie The Great Santini and had to laugh. Coach ran things like that."
On the evening Coach had been more than just a coach, Tom knew exactly what he wanted to tell him. He met Ray more than halfway up the sideline after the final buzzer had sounded and said, "Thanks for playing me, Dad."