When former Lipscomb basketball coach Don Meyer passed on to that great basketball court in Heaven Sunday, he left behind a legacy that few people in sports can hope to match.
Count the number of players that Meyer coached during his tenure at Lipscomb. Add the number of players who played for Meyer at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D. He coached 38 years.
That alone puts the count in the hundreds. Add the number of coaches who coached under him through the years.
Perhaps his greatest sphere of influence came from Meyer’s summer basketball camps. They came in all sizes, shapes and abilities. They came to learn the game. Meyer was the high priest of how to play the game.
Meyer was not like many basketball coaches. He actually was hands-on with his campers. He selected their coaches, many of them former players. They got their instructions from Meyer and delivered his message.
Those camps were filled every session. Imagine the experience and lessons learned from camp that carried on in life as they grew older.
Meyer’s influence in the college coaching profession was profound. It was nothing for Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski to pick up the phone and call Meyer. They would talk basketball. If Coach K wanted to know how Meyer broke a zone press, Meyer would send him the appropriate tape.
Bobby Knight was a familiar voice on the Lipscomb basketball office telephone. There were dozens of others. He lived and shared basketball with those who matched his passion for the game.
Meyer loved to take people to lunch, even sports writers.
If Meyer invited you to lunch, there were no options, no restaurant recommendations. With Meyer it was Captain D’s, if you please. Or if you didn’t please, that’s where you wound up. Meyer would bring enough Captain D’s coupons to cover him and his lunch companions.
He was the first basketball coach I ever saw use a tape recorder. I sat with Meyer at a high school basketball game one night. As we talked I saw him take the tape recorder out and record our conversations. I asked him why he was taping me. He said because I said some things that he liked and wanted to remember.
I don’t think I ever saw him without a recorder with him. I can’t imagine how many hours he devoted to transcribing tapes. But that was Don Meyer.
He was always learning and teaching, whether it was life lessons or basketball. His mind was always in motion.
Meyer applied when Tennessee Tech was searching for a basketball coach. A who’s who of basketball coaches called on Meyer’s behalf.
Tennessee Tech officials thought they needed someone who had coached on the NCAA Division I level, that Meyer’s NAIA credentials weren’t up to the NCAA standard. How wrong they were. He could coach winning basketball at any and every level.
Instead of Meyer, Tech hired Mike Sutton, who had been a third assistant coach at Kentucky.
Former Vanderbilt and South Carolina basketball coach Eddie Fogler lived close to Meyer when Fogler was at Vanderbilt.
“My relationship with Don Meyer was cordial, respectful,’’ Fogler said Sunday. “My first memory was when I would come out of my house early in the morning going to work and Don would leave some stupid note on my windshield, things like “Your yard looks horrible. You need to do something about it. Don.’’
“I also think of his longevity, all those years. When you look at his body of work, what all he has done and he did it all at small schools. … He was a great promoter of the game, very creative and smart.’’
Meyer also made lifelong relations with several members of the Nashville media.
When Buster Olney was a young reporter at the Nashville Banner, we assigned him what we called the “city college basketball’’ beat. It consisted of covering Belmont, Trevecca and Lipscomb University basketball.
Olney is now one of ESPN’s top baseball analysts, but he and Meyer formed a strong relationship. It was Olney who was by Meyer’s side while Meyer was recovering from a horrific wreck in 2008. In reality, Meyer should never have recovered from falling asleep at the wheel and getting hit head on by a grain truck. The left side of his body was crushed. He eventually had his left leg amputated below the knee. Doctors learned during the number of operations that Meyer had cancer. It was a slow moving case, but inoperable.
Olney stayed in touch with Meyer until he died. There was never an age barrier. They shared a love for sports that sealed their respect for each other.
Meyer also played a pivotal part in former player Wade Tomlinson’s life. Tomlinson’s 18-month old son Riley, drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool.
“I was working on something in the garage and Riley got away from me. At that age it only takes a second or two for them to go off. I found him in the pool,’’ Tomlinson said.
At Tomlinson’s darkest hour, Don Meyer was there for him.
“Coach always said he wasn’t big on going to weddings,’’ Tomlinson recalled. “He said you learn more at funerals than weddings. But he stayed with us three or four days in the middle of recruiting. He did the service and gave a great message. He really helped us through it. I credit anything I learned from Coach.’’
You can find Riley’s Playground in Salem, Ind., today. More than 2,000 volunteers helped build the massive city playground. People from other towns came to help. Some men from New York City left on 9/10 to help with the project, one day before 9/11.
“It was hard to think real clear during that time,’’ Tomlinson said. “Coach called and checked on me all the time. He helped me get through that.’’
That was Don Meyer.
He fought to the end, just as he coached his players to do.
Contact Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.