Hey, Ma, come see this. Nostalgia Theatre is on again. It's your old sentimental-journey favorite, the Coach, Ray Meyer. Here he comes one more time, with another enigmatic DePaul team. Same kind of bunch, chopping up the celebrity teams, barely escaping the puffballs. Beat St. Mary's, whoever she is, by two. And look at this. The old man's running out UCLA. Typical Blue Demons. Hold it! Is that a lavender shirt and white sports coat Coach has on? Does Coach look skinny to you, Ma? Who does he think he is, Richard Gere? Old Ray looks like he's been studying up on his GQs or sleeping in a cholesterol-deprivation tank or something. Must want to look good at the retirement party. And who are these players? Corbin? Patterson? Dallas Comegys? Who's he—America's Center? Yuk, yuk. Where's George Mikan? Where's Mark Aguirre? Wait a minute! If old Ray says this team, his last team—his very last team, for sure, promise—might be the most cohesive, unselfish, quickest and best team he's ever had, and they're undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the polls, and he's worried again about all the attention and the pressure, how come nobody ever heard of any of these guys? This is amazing, Ma.
Not really. If a 70-year-old man can ride his stationary bike half an hour each day, cut out between-meal snacks and lose 41 pounds inside of four months, he surely can teach a basketball team with no stars to win 16 games in a row. If this ancient mariner is ancient enough to predate television time-outs and magazine polls—not to mention television and magazines—he should be allowed to moan and groan about a No. 2 ranking. And if the same vibrant fellow can remain the same vibrant coach at the same school for 42 years, he sure ought to know how to lead his team into hostile territory, beat the stuffing out of the opposition and flat embarrass them in front of their loved ones, and lovely Veronica Hamel as well, and then turn on the gap-toothed charm and be as gracious as can be.
That is approximately what grand old Ray Meyer and his brand-new DePaul Blue Demons did to none other than UCLA last Saturday afternoon, as they came roaring out of anonymity to hand the Bruins their second-worst defeat ever in Pauley Pavilion, 84-68. "This is a fine UCLA team. The Bruins are in Pac-10 play now, and the game probably didn't mean as much to them," Meyer had the nerve to say. Uhhuh. In your fifth coaching decade, Ray, and you're still trying to con the public.
No amount of Meyer solicitousness could lessen the harshness of the reality DePaul exposed in L.A.: UCLA is now a mediocre team in a mediocre league and a mere skeleton of aggression past. Led by no-hustle forward Kenny Fields, who missed 10 of 15 field-goal attempts, gazed on oodles of loose balls and somehow gathered in all of two rebounds, the Bruins played as if they'd invented the fashionable sports disease, burnout.
Moreover, after the devastation, in which the Blue Demons outmuscled and outquicked their once-proud rivals and shot 60% from the floor while seldom being guarded, Meyer can no longer conceal the myriad skills of Kenny Patterson, DePaul's New York-bred, maturing junior point guard who scored 14 points, passed off for eight other baskets and consistently penetrated the UCLA defense to get the ball inside to forwards Tyrone Corbin and Kevin Holmes—two more previously hidden talents—who combined for 14 baskets and 13 rebounds. UCLA can be forgiven for overlooking co-captain Corbin, solid, smart, oh-so-precise and elegant in his movements. He was, says Meyer, "an afterthought" recruit out of Columbia, S.C. and unexpectedly has turned out to be an indispensable team leader in points, rebounds and class. But in the other corner the Bruins might have recognized Holmes, an Angeleno, as a bouncer who worked the rock concerts at the Forum in L.A. last summer: The Police et al. That is, they might have recognized him if he'd stopped bouncing all over UCLA's Gary Maloncon for easy buckets long enough for the Bruins to get a good look at him. Holmes was the King of Pain to UCLA, scoring 17 points, nearly twice his average.
And it was another Californian, San Francisco's Tony Jackson, who came out of a slump and off the bench to ignite De-Paul's 17-6 surge midway through the second half. Two Jackson climbing-and-gliding-in-air baskets helped turn a 50-46 contest into a 67-52 rout and moved his fiancée, Allison McCovey (daughter of Willie), to take an exuberant seventh-inning stretch.
"We can't keep winning without help from Jackson," Meyer had said earlier of the graceful 6'5" swingman who had lost his starting position to co-captain Jerry McMillan and had scored only 25 points in DePaul's last five games. Jackson had 11 Saturday and didn't miss a shot.
"We were four-point underdogs," Holmes said. "Can you imagine that? Number Two and they had us underdogs."
Remember, too, DePaul did all this without much help from its future bellwether, the freshman Comegys (COMMA-geez), who was named for one city, grew up in another (Philadelphia), matriculated in a third (Chicago) and has now bombed in a fourth (L.A.: five points, four rebounds). Meyer will typically bring on the 6'9" Comegys, usually a deadly shooter and shot-blocker, after starting center Marty Embry has dismembered the opposition with his musculature. Amid some of his already legendary sleepathons, Comegys found time to collect 27 points and 19 rebounds in DePaul's previous two most impressive victories, 63-61 over Georgetown and 98-63 over Alabama-Birmingham. In the midst of the Demons' 15-point comeback against the Hoyas, Patrick Ewing rejected one of Comegys' shots and then sent some verbal trash his way. On the next play Comegys drilled a turnaround jumper in Ewing's face. Reverse news-break: DALLAS FINALLY NAILS EWING. "We knew we had a player right then," says DePaul assistant coach Joey Meyer.
DePaul's ferocity last Saturday may have emanated in part from the Demons' feeling they weren't getting a whole lot of respect—the UCLA announcer introduced them as "the Blue Devils," and the fans in Pauley shouted "High school!" at the DePaul cheerleaders. Perhaps the Bruins are now, as one DePaul man put it, "too California cool" to back up such taunts, much less the great UCLA tradition, with hard play. Surely the Demons were aided by a brilliant and decisive scouting report by Meyer fils, who refers to himself as "the error apparent," which means he's the next coach. More important, DePaul was motivated to extend its streak by a desire to give its wizened mentor a memorable last hurrah.
"We can feel the nostalgia everywhere we go," says Corbin. "Coach tries to set it aside, but we all know it's there for him. The man wants to win so bad. He's much more active this year. It's like an obsession. It's the last go-round.... He wants us to get after it every time."
Just as it has overshadowed everything else the Demons have done this season, the Meyer-retirement factor tended to Obscure the DePaul-UCLA rivalry, which against all odds has become one of the more fascinating in the land. In one corner we have obscure Catholic concrete institution under dingy E1 tracks amid snow, slush and urban blight. In the other we have huge, glamorous state university sprawling among palms in glorious sunshine. The Phyllis Diller and Jennifer Beals of colleges. How do they connect? Obviously, only through the grace of the NCAA tournament and the magic of television.
The two teams never had played each other before 1974, but the competition turned tenacious by 1979, when DePaul upset UCLA in the West regional. That Demon victory enabled Meyer to reach the NCAA Final Four for the only time in his career. The following season the Bruins returned the favor, using DePaul as 'a second-round springboard for their most recent trip to the finals. The revenge-minded Demons blew out the Bruins in an early home game during the 1980-81 season, but in the last two years the Bruins had come from behind to defeat DePaul twice in games Meyer felt his troops gave away. Because this has turned out to be the Blue Demons' payback season—before Saturday DePaul had already knocked off Ohio U., Illinois State, Georgetown and Purdue, all of which had beaten it last year—UCLA must have known it was a prime target. McMillan calls these retaliation numbers "redeem games."
Not that the old man on the bench needed any redemption, or any more tributes, gifts or plaques. When Meyer announced his intention to hand over the reins to Joey—one hopes that when the younger Meyer, now 34 and a father himself, becomes head man, he might become simply Joe—Coach must have realized this season would be one long goodby and a whole lot of keepsakes.
Everywhere DePaul has played—including Japan, where Meyer inadvertently put his finger through the paper wall of an ancient religious shrine—"Holy man!" Coach huffed, his favorite phrase finally attaining some relevance—Meyer has been lavished with praise, honors and travel vouchers. The Philadelphia Big 5 schools are sending Meyer and his wife, Marge, to the Caribbean. The host at one game, the University of South Florida, came through with a trip to Tampa. "The man gets to go back where we just came from," said a puzzled McMillan. Even the UCLA student section chipped in with a gag pass to Sun City, a California desert retirement enclave. Naturally, St. Mary's in Moraga, Calif. gave him wine, a loaf of bread and a 14-minute pregame eulogy during which Comegys fell fast asleep on the bench and others wished they could. "We tend to drift during the award ceremonies," says Corbin.
The team drifted so far off course against the Gaels on that night of Jan. 9—Comegys was scoreless if not z-less; Embry admitted that his controversial tip-in that won the game 76-74 could have been offensive interference—that afterward an incensed Meyer pulled the team into a corner of the San Francisco airport and read the riot act. "You want to hear some fuming," says Joey Meyer. "Coach blew it all out. He didn't save a soul, he ripped everybody." Meyer, who in days gone by was said to prefer a loss to lessen the pressure on him and an undefeated team, took the St. Mary's experience as just that—a loss. He purged the Demons of the demons of defeat and with that, segued into the final act.
Ah, and such a marvelous act it is, such an ideal team with which to climax a career. "A team spelled in italics," says UCLA assistant coach Kevin O'Connor. This DePaul edition isn't one of Meyer's "superstar teams," as he labels the gangs featuring the likes of Mikan, Aguirre and Terry Cummings. Nor is it an 8-17 whipped dog like the 1970-71 outfit, captained by, uh, Joey Meyer. But it's the perfect one. Multidimensional athletes. Superb runners and leapers. Role-players. Fierce fighters—they've won six games by three points or less. Cooperative, teachable, hungry. "I've gone through three years' worth of doubters," says Patterson. "To satisfy everyone, we have to get to the finals in Seattle."
There's a finely honed sense of balance here. Corbin, averaging 14.0 points, is the only double-figure scorer, but five others are between 8.8 and 9.8. So it's a waste of time for opponents to concentrate on stopping any individual. Oh, on occasion Meyer will have reason to bellow: "You butterfingered idiot! How do you even eat with those hands?" But all in all, Coach says, "These are fine boys, concerned with one another, the most fun bunch I've had." And one set of tough competitors. Just like the old man.
Can there be any doubt about that after Meyer captained a team of dieters in a weight-loss competition for charity last autumn? Beginning at 260 pounds, he zoomed down the stretch, limiting himself to a cup of soup on the final day. He came in at 239 as his team won easily. He's at 219 now, full of pride, healthier and still counting. "Almost down to playing weight," says Marge.
It's fitting that as the pounds roll off and the clock winds down on Meyer—after years of putting up with spoiled whiners and slick self-promoters—his final team is in his own brave, gritty image. McMillan, a senior, says: "I came here a high school star, but Coach showed me there are other ways. Individually, we're incapable of a lot of things. But the team structure is the superstar here. We're just now realizing how good we can be. We'll take a loss personally. Coach won't let it be any other way. This man hates to lose—down to his bones."
Losing. Winning. The log keeps rolling—now at 713-351, fifth on the all-time list of winningest coaches. In L.A. Meyer was asked what he'd miss most upon leaving. He didn't skip a beat. "The competition," he said. "Yeah, the battles. I've tried to put the retirement out of mind and not dwell on it, but now as I go to these places for the last time—Pauley here, Notre Dame, Dayton...yes, I guess I am feeling melancholy. Hey, but it's time to go. I've had enough. With Joey there'll be no transition whatsoever—just one guy getting out of the chair and another guy getting in it. The game's getting too old for me anyway."
Why, of course. And everybody always thought it was the other way around.