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The Game of His Life

Dec. 15, 2008
Dec. 15, 2008

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Dec. 15, 2008

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The Game of His Life

He lost part of his leg in a near-fatal accident and learned he has cancer, but Northern State's Don Meyer is courtside again in Aberdeen, S.D., doing what he loves best and poised to set the NCAA men's record for wins

A BLESSING. EVEN now, three months after the accident that nearly claimed his life, Don Meyer calls it a blessing. "You can't look at it any other way," he says. It was a blessing to crash into a semi that was carrying 90,000 pounds of grain while driving to a team retreat on Sept. 5. It was a blessing to lose his left leg below the knee, to endure eight surgeries, to spend weeks in the hospital fighting pain so intense that he would croak church hymns as tears streamed down his face. It was a blessing, Meyer says, and here's why: If the wreck hadn't happened, if the doctors hadn't performed emergency surgery to remove his spleen and reattach his diaphragm, they wouldn't have discovered the cancer burrowing into his liver and small intestine until it was too late.

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 2008 issue

It was a blessing to survive, to know what he's facing and now, more than anything else, to coach again. "I just wonder sometimes because I shouldn't be here," says Meyer, the coach at Division II Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., the man who, with 898 career victories at week's end, needs just five wins to pass Bob Knight as the alltime leader among NCAA men's basketball coaches. "There's no realistic way I should be here right now, when you get down to it, unless there's something I've still got to do."

And that task, wheelchair be damned, is to continue teaching. He may be the greatest coach you've never heard of, but that doesn't mean the 63-year-old Meyer is unknown to legions of his famous brethren. During Meyer's 24 years at Lipscomb University in Nashville, his teams won an NAIA national title in 1986 and set what still stands as the collegiate record for victories in a season (41, in 1989--90). But he also built an empire teaching the game. His youth basketball camps have become among the best-attended in the country, drawing several thousand participants every summer. His annual Don Meyer Coaches Academy has attracted some of the biggest names in college hoops to rural South Dakota, including Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Tubby Smith, Pat Summitt and even John Wooden. And Meyer's vast oeuvre of instructional videos is a staple of staffs from middle schools to the NBA.

"He's been so incredibly successful, and he's one of the most respected clinicians in the country," says Summitt, the alltime NCAA wins leader (with 989) and an old friend. "You can't sit there [with him] and not learn and be inspired. That's just who he is." Arizona associate head coach Mike Dunlap, who led Metro State of Denver to two Division II national titles, remembers cold-calling Meyer in 1996 to ask about attending his coaching academy—and receiving an invitation to stay at Meyer's house, even though they had never met. "Take the greats, and he's right there with all of them," Dunlap says. "He just knows how to teach: anybody, anytime, anywhere. He has a knack for it, like a horse whisperer."

While Meyer hasn't been able to resume all his duties since rejoining the team on Oct. 31—assistant Randy Baruth runs most of the practice drills—it's not hard to figure out how Meyer became a hardwood Mr. Chips. You can see it during one of his daily 5:30 a.m. practices at Northern State's Barnett Center, where Meyer lectures on fundamentals to his players, all of whom keep detailed notebooks, a nod to Knight and NFL coaching legend Paul Brown. ("You can be competitive like a mad dog in a meat house, and all you're going to get is a bullet between the eyes eventually," Meyer says. "But if you're a mad dog that's smart, you're going to be O.K.") You can see it when Meyer summons the energy to blow his whistle, rise up in his wheelchair and holler, his hands pushing down on the armrests like a gymnast on the parallel bars. ("Brett! Have you got eyes on your butt? See the ball!")

And you could even see it on that awful day in September. Riding alone in his gray Toyota Prius, Meyer was leading a six-car caravan west on State Highway 20 to a hunting lodge for the Wolves' annual retreat when his car started drifting over the center line. "I was looking for the turnoff," Meyer recalls, "but then I must have fallen asleep." An oncoming semi going 50 mph slammed into the left side of Meyer's car, the impact sending the driver's-side doors hurtling skyward as the Prius spun into a ditch. When his players reached the car, Meyer was still conscious, but his left side was battered. Yet instead of panicking, the players summoned the poise that Meyer had already cultivated in them. One of them called 911. Senior captain Kyle Schwan asked a few veteran players to help the younger players form a prayer circle, then joined graduate assistant Matt Hammer and sophomore guard Brett Newton next to Meyer.

Schwan grabbed Meyer's hand, and the young men fell back on the slogans of the practice court. We've gotta be tough, Coach! It's the fourth quarter! Dead-ball breathing! Narrow focus! NBA! Next Best Action!

"They saved my life," says Meyer, who was airlifted to an Aberdeen hospital after a 30-minute wait.

"It's a testament to Coach," Schwan says. "In essence he saved his own life because of the way he taught us."

BEFORE THE start of practice Meyer wheels over, the still-healing stump stretched out over a pillow. (He calls the stump—which his wife of 41 years, Carmen, cleans and dresses three times a day—Little Buddy.) Meyer has lost 20 pounds since the accident, and he can't raise his voice, the result of a side full of broken ribs and a collapsed left lung. But he has grown remarkably adept in his short time using a wheelchair, learning how to maneuver in tight spaces and even rise for the national anthem.

"What kind of pen are you using?" he asks.

Come again?

"Pilot G2," he says, inspecting the implement. "That's a good pen. They make another one called the G6. It's got a bigger grip on it. That's a good one too."

Meyer is famously particular about his learning tools. He became so renowned for stopping his clinics to ask coaches about their pens that LSU women's associate head coach Bob Starkey sent out a mass e-mail after the accident requesting that colleagues send pens along with their cards and letters. (A box in Meyer's office now overflows with well-wishers' writing instruments.) Then there's Meyer's ever-present dictaphone, a digital recorder that he'll pull out of his pocket—during practices, conversations, even games—whenever he makes an observation or encounters a new idea. "If he was going to meet with Barack Obama, he'd probably pull out that recorder if Obama said something cool," says Meyer's son, Jerry.

Meyer developed his capacity for hard work while growing up on a farm in Wayne, Neb., but he gravitated instead to baseball and basketball, which he played at Northern Colorado. The intricacies of basketball, in particular, fascinated him. Summitt can recall driving with Meyer to a clinic in West Virginia once when they talked hoops "literally the whole way up there," she says, with Meyer taking verbal notes on his recorder the entire time. That thirst for ideas hasn't abated, even as Meyer has kept winning, grown older and changed schools. (Meyer resigned from Lipscomb in 1999 because he thought the school's move from NAIA to NCAA Division I would put financial stress on the school.)

Meyer has always relied on the bedrocks of man-to-man defense and motion offense, but he isn't afraid to adapt: After the introduction of the shot clock and the three-point line in the 1980s, Meyer cranked up his slow-down offense so much that his teams started averaging more than 100 points. "A lot of times you get people who've coached a long time who just do the same thing," says Northern State athletic director Bob Olson. "Coach is always on the cutting edge."

"Every single day he wants to learn something new," says Baruth. In the world of Don Meyer, ideas are oxygen. "When you're through learning, you can forget it," Meyer says. "When you're not learning about your profession or how to deal with people or life, then it's over. All windows are shut. Whether you're 15 or 50 or going down the homestretch, you've gotta keep learning."

That was the same approach that Meyer brought to his hospital recovery. One of his coaching friends sent him the book You Gotta Keep Dancin', in which author Tim Hansel details his response to 20 years of chronic pain following a mountain-climbing accident. "It talks about God using pain to teach," Meyer says. There was certainly an excess of pain for Meyer to learn from, most of all after doctors amputated his left leg six inches below the knee two weeks after the accident. ("If you need to take the leg, take it," Meyer told them. "I can coach without it.") The most excruciating moment came the first time they changed the dressing on Meyer's leg, pulling the gauze off the exposed muscle and nerve tissue so it could be washed out in a whirlpool. Oh, the pain. "On a scale of one to 10 it was a thousand," says Meyer, who sang the hymn Peace, Perfect Peace during the ordeal.

"We gave him a very high dose of intravenous morphine, and it did not even touch his pain," says Dr. Jonathan Stone, Meyer's rehabilitation specialist at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls. "It was probably as severe a pain as anybody could possibly experience."

YET MORPHINE isn't the only antidote for pain. From Day One of his hospital stay Meyer's support system kicked in as word spread among his former players and the coaching community. Carmen spent all eight weeks by his side in Sioux Falls, a three-hour drive from Aberdeen. Meyer's three children, seven of his eight grandchildren, and dozens of friends and former players made the trek to his bedside. "He never spent a night alone," says Carmen. Wade Tomlinson, who played on Lipscomb's record-setting 1989--90 team, flew in from Indiana the day after the wreck. Meyer had been there for Tomlinson after his toddler son, Riley, died in a drowning accident in '99. "When Coach found out, he dropped everything, came to my house and stayed to [speak at] the funeral," says Tomlinson. "There's no way I could repay him for all the things he's done for me."

Plenty of obstacles remain. "You can judge a man by how he responds to a challenge," says Schwan. "Coach has always said that. Now he's living it." Once the amputation wound closes, Meyer will be fitted for a prosthetic leg and, in time, ditch the wheelchair. Then he'll start treatment for his cancer, a slow-growing carcinoid that his oncologist says shouldn't be an imminent threat to his life. The struggles of coaching a basketball team may seem minor in comparison, and yet the chance to face them means everything. "The thing that keeps you going is the idea that you can come back and coach," Meyer says, his voice catching in his throat. "You don't realize how much you enjoy teaching until you lose your team."

Now the old coach has his team back. Northern State is consistently near the top of Division II in attendance, and on Nov. 18 an adoring crowd of 4,454 saluted Meyer as he wheeled onto the court for the Wolves' home opener against Mount Marty College. Northern rolled 98--57, bringing Meyer one win closer to breaking Knight's record. It was a reminder that Meyer may well be the antithesis of the title character created by another Aberdeen resident, L. Frank Baum, in The Wizard of Oz. In that story the figure behind the spectacular facade turns out to be just an ordinary man. Don Meyer's lesson: You never know when the man behind the ordinary facade turns out to be a giant.

To Meyer, IDEAS ARE OXYGEN. "When you're not learning about your profession or how to deal with people or life, it's over," he says.
"[Meyer] is one of the MOST RESPECTED clinicians in the country," says Summitt. "You can't sit there and not learn and be inspired."

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PAT SUMMITT
TENNESSEE
989 WINS

BOB KNIGHT
ARMY, INDIANA, TEXAS TECH
902 WINS

JODY CONRADT
SAM HOUSTON ST., TEXAS-ARLINGTON, TEXAS
900 WINS

DON MEYER
HAMLINE, LIPSCOMB, NORTHERN STATE
898 WINS

DEAN SMITH
NORTH CAROLINA
879 WINS

PHOTOPhotograph by David E. KluthoASSIST LEADERS Meyer, an All-America guard at Northern Colorado, credits his players with saving him after the car wreck.PHOTOCOURTESY OF NORTHERN STATE ATHLETICS[See caption above]PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOFUNDAMENTAL SIMILARITIES Following the lead of Knight—whose mark he hopes to break—Meyer has the Wolves keep detailed notes before practice.PHOTOGREG NELSON (SUMMITT)PHOTODARREN CARROLL (KNIGHT)PHOTOJAKE SCHOELLKOPF/AP (CONRADT)PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (MEYER)PHOTOJERRY WACHTER (SMITH)