March 18, 2006
CHICAGO (AP) - Ray Meyer and DePaul basketball. Hard to say one without the other.
The coach who built the program into a power over 42 years and developed players of all talent levels was the school's most visible figure and its greatest ambassador.
He still was Friday when he died at age 92.
"He was a coach's coach, he was a man's man," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who grew up in Chicago. "He was the face of college basketball in Chicago. When you think of basketball in that city, you think of Ray Meyer."
Meyer twice took the Blue Demons to the NCAA Final Four, helped develop George Mikan - who would eventually become basketball's first dominating big man - and coached DePaul to the 1945 NIT title.
The school said his family was with him when he died at an assisted living facility. He had been in failing health. The school planned to hold a moment of silence before its women's team played Liberty in the NCAA tournament Saturday in Rosemont.
Meyer died just as the NCAA men's tourney was getting under way in cities around the country - an event his teams competed in 13 times.
"He was one of the guys who helped make tournaments like this famous. He had to go through it when it was tough, really tough," former Georgetown coach John Thompson said.
Meyer was an avuncular, stout, ever-smiling presence on the court - one who favored wearing green carnations on St. Patrick's Day. He could also be loud and demonstrative when angered.
He had an eye for talent with players like Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Dallas Comegys and Dave Corzine, who parlayed their college experience into pro careers. And he also was able to get the most out of players who were not blue chip prospects when he was building the program.
"Whenever Coach had players, he was right there. Because DePaul was such a small, little Catholic school that didn't have a whole lot of funding back then, it wasn't that easy to get the players that John Wooden or Al McGuire were able to get," said DePaul women's coach Doug Bruno, who played for Meyer from 1969-73.
"He was constantly fighting those people - and beating those people - with lesser kids."
But in Mikan, Meyer had one of his greatest players early in his career.
Meyer had just been hired at DePaul in 1942 when he was introduced to a 6-foot-10 student with thick glasses.
"I saw George Mikan," Meyer recalled, "and I saw my future."
Under Meyer's tutelage, Mikan became a two-time college player of the year. A half-century ago, no one had seen someone that tall with such agility, tenacity and skill.
From the days of two-handed set shots to the slam dunk era, Meyer either coached or broadcast 1,467 consecutive Blue Demons games, a 55-year streak. He retired in 1984 with a 724-354 record and then became a special assistant to the president while also doing radio commentary.
"He was a sweetheart of a guy, who always made you feel good about life and made sure you knew you were lucky to be around this game," CBS college basketball analyst and former Seton Hall coach Bill Raftery said.
"The last time I saw him at the Final Four last year, he had the same smile I first saw 30 years ago, even though he was being pushed in a wheelchair by his grandson," he said.
Meyer's 1978-79 team reached the Final Four by beating Southern California, Marquette and UCLA. The Blue Demons lost 76-74 to Larry Bird's Indiana State team in the semifinals, then beat Penn 96-93 to finish third.
Michigan State won the title that season behind Magic Johnson. Jud Heathcote, who coached the Spartans then, was in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday to watch his old team in the tournament.
"He was a great coach, but a greater man," Heathcote said. "His longevity was unbelievable. He was a tremendous credit to our profession."
Meyer's 1943 team also made it to the NCAA Final Four. Two years later, the Blue Demons, behind Mikan, won the NIT championship.
Meyer said coaching had become mainly a job of preparation.
"A coach does less coaching than ever once the game begins. The shot clock has taken away decisions. It's all preparation now. Players are on their own when they hit the floor," he said in a Chicago Tribune interview just before his 80th birthday.
When a player shot too much, Bruno remembered, Meyer would say, "I'd hate to be at dinner with him because he wouldn't pass you the potatoes."
One of Meyer's best friends was the McGuire and Bruno recalled a DePaul-Marquette game:
"Al McGuire's locker room was next to ours," Bruno said. "Ray would be yelling, he'd pause for a second and then you'd hear Al yelling. Al would pause for a second, and you'd hear Ray yelling. It was great."
Meyer's team was ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press poll at the end of the regular season in both 1980 and 1981, and his 1982 squad ended up second. Those three teams had a combined record of 59-3 in the regular season but lost the first round of the NCAA Tournament each year.
Meyer's Demons also made seven trips to the NIT. His 1945 team won the NIT when it was the more prestigious of the two postseason competitions.
Meyer's teams posted 37 winning seasons and had 20-win campaigns 12 times. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979.
He retired in 1984 and his son, Joey, took over, lasting 13 years until he was forced to resign in April 1997 after a 3-23 season. Joey Meyer had played and been an assistant under his father.
Ray Meyer was unhappy that his son was sent packing, but he also was angry about the timing because by late April, most coaching vacancies had been filled. So, on Sept. 10, 1997, an aging Meyer quit his fund-raising and ambassadorial job for the university.
In January 1999, DePaul honored the 1978-79 Blue Demons, holding a halftime ceremony and inducting the entire squad into the school's Hall of Fame. Meyer declined to attend, still unhappy over DePaul's treatment of his son.
There were shouts of "We want Ray! We want Ray!" as the Final Four team was introduced at halftime of a game against Marquette at the United Center.
The school and its most visible athletic figure later patched up their relationship. In 1999, DePaul dedicated the Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center on its Lincoln Park campus.
On Dec. 14, 2003, the game floor at the All-Star Arena in suburban Rosemont, where the Blue Demons play their home games, was dedicated as the Ray and Marge Meyer court. Meyer became a fixture at Blue Demons home games again.
Meyer, who at one time suffered from a heart valve problem that left him short of breath, closed his Ray Meyer Basketball Camp for boys in Three Lakes, Wis., in the summer of 2001. It opened in 1947. Bob Petitt, Eddie Johnson and Dan Issel were campers.
Meyer was a standout player at Notre Dame before beginning his coaching career. His wife died in 1988.
In addition to Joey Meyer, survivors include two other sons and two daughters.
Funeral services are scheduled for Tuesday morning at St. Vincent DePaul Roman Catholic Church. Visitation will be held at the church Monday.