Some folks leave a big mark on your life. This post, from May 21, 2014, is about one of them for me.
Luke began his Gospel two thousand years ago with these words:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.......
That's kind of the way I've felt these past four days since the passing of Don Meyer early Sunday morning. There have been countless tributes and comments about the legendary coach, maybe more than I've seen for someone who is not famous in the way many define celebrity. I find it fascinating that so many of these remembrances, by people I know and people I don't, are so similar to mine. If you are not really into the world of basketball, you might not have known much of Don. A great basketball and baseball player from a small town in Nebraska, Don Meyer turned coaching into an art form at three not so big colleges (Hamline in Minnesota, Lipscomb in Tennessee, Northern State in South Dakota) and spread the word through summer camps, coaching clinics, and instructional films. His fame grew in recent years when he won an ESPY honoring Jim Valvano after he battled backed from a near fatal car crash and the discovery of cancer to become college basketball's all-time winningest coach. With reluctance due to feeling very unqualified for the task, let me share a few thoughts about the coach who changed so many lives.
I met Don Meyer in the summer of 1983 when I drove to Nashville to coach at Lipscomb's summer camps, the largest in the US. I had been coaching at Georgia Christian School with Mike Roller who worked at the Lipscomb camps in the summers and he convinced me to give it a shot. My life has never been the same. The first person I met on campus was Greg Glenn, now my boss and cherished friend. In fact, a number of coaches I've worked with in schools either played for Don or were in the Lipscomb program as student assistants. (Keith Edwards/John Wild/Greg Brown/Ralph Turner) Two of my high school baseball players, Jerry Bridges and Duwain Houston, were Bisons as well. After that first summer, I was hooked and I never looked at basketball or life in the same way. For fifteen consecutive summers, I spent at least one week working camp and sometimes as many as five. I've written here before how the Meyer family took me in when it was too far for me to go home on the weekends and how Don tracked me down by phone in St. Louis the day my dad died. I related how his players looked after one of my my former players who was almost killed in a car accident and had to spend the summer at Vanderbilt Hospital. Let me share some observations and things I learned from Don which without my realizing, became part of who I am.
I learned from Don that coaching, and thus teaching, is a process that can be broken into five minute logical sequences that lead to success. Well, I should say excellence, a term he much preferred. Each part of the game led into the next part of the game and he made it fit together. He was the first coach I saw who really borrowed from other sports and could make correlations from baseball/football/tennis/golf/etc which benefited his squad. He was interested in everything- nothing seemed dull or unimportant to him. He asked me questions- me, who was a novice coach and had been only a slightly better than average player. I was honored and appalled concurrently- why would my opinions matter to him? Don wrote everything down. Once, we were going down the road and I mentioned something we were doing with my baseball team during batting practice back at GCS; at the next stop sign, he pulled out his Day-Timer and wrote it down. Speaking of Day-Timers, I used one for years because of Don, that is when I could find it. (He never broke me of that habit.) But also for years, my players used them in the summer because he showed us how the company would send free three month samples to the kids on our teams. Don moved on to Franklin Planners but I never made the corresponding move. He was the most detail oriented person I know. One week of camp, he had me follow him around and write down EVERYTHING he said. At night, I would rewrite it and give it to the lovely Barb Anderson, and Barb, who really ran the program, would type them up. My favorite quote of the summer which to this day, I have no clue of the meaning, was this:
"Note to John Kimbrell: The good old boy has gone the way of the buffalo."
I wish now I had asked for a translation!
Greg and I have talked quite a bit the past two days as he is one of the speakers at Don's memorial in Nashville the Sunday after next. Greg made a statement in response to something I said which was insightful. He told me that "Coach didn't do Hellos and Good-byes until after his accident." AMEN. I remember once when I had not seen him for months- I actually only saw his teams play maybe three or four times in all the years I knew him. I walked up to him and the first thing out of his mouth was, "I don't know, Steve. I think we're playing hard but......." No how have you been? or good to see you. He always cut straight to the chase. Don slept less than anybody I've ever known and he thought all coaches kept that schedule. Once, the phone rang at 5:45 AM one pre-dawn summer morning and that's often a harbinger of bad news. I picked the receiver up hesitantly and this is what I heard:
"Steve. Don. Need you to work camp next week."
Through my grogginess, I'm still not sure who it is but of course, I worked camp. He gave me opportunities to speak and I think I did the Wednesday night camp devotional for every camp session I worked for those fifteen years. From Don, I learned the value of traditions in a program. We celebrated William James Day each session of camp and I wrote a short piece for our school paper about it which became the first chapter in the book I wrote which became the impetus for this blog. His teams kept notebooks so mine did too. Many of the daily handouts came from his files which he gladly shared with anyone searching for deeper understanding of the game and especially as it related to working with kids. His wealth of knowledge was never hoarded- I think he saw himself as a distributor of a philosophy which taught life concurrently with the game he cherished and desperately wanted to see played in the right way. Everybody picks up trash. Everybody take notes. You have to have guys on your team willing to do the dirty jobs. These Meyerisms became ingrained in a generation of coaches and by repetition, in the players of those coaches as well.
He would speak anywhere. He would come free of charge to the camp for girls I started with my team in Tennessee. I started running because of Don. He really stressed reading the Bible and sang the praises of the One Year Bible from Tyndale. Every year since 1987, all of my players have received a One Year Bible from me for Christmas so that, too, goes back to Don. He told us to start dressing like coaches in practices instead of like we were still players- I was guilty. I started ordering stationery with my team's logo and information and started writing notes constantly; I guess you can guess where that came from. Truthfully, I could go on for hours and many of us can share similar tales but let me close with one more story.
Don unnerved me somewhat, especially in the early years I knew him. His questions would absolutely come out of left field and were sometimes personal. I can still remember one like it was yesterday. We were working in a gym at Brentwood High due to an overflow at the Lipscomb gyms. He showed up as we were beginning the ten minute bus ride back to the main campus. He showed up, rolled down the car window, and told me to get in. I obediently did and if I recall correctly, he was eating a bag of frozen fruit. He wanted to show me the house Michael Jordan was thinking of buying- the rumor was Jordan would play with the Nashville Sounds, a White Sox minor league affiliate, in his baseball adventure. Out of nowhere, Don asks me, "Steve, are you happy?" Nobody in my life has ever asked me that and it caught me off guard. I'm not really sure I answered but he opined that he thought I was because of my family. Well, he might have taken me by surprise back then but I'm ready to answer now. I'm happy I knew you, Don, and that you took interest in inexperienced coaches like me. I'm happy for all the kids who know what triple threat is and how to do the shooting progression and why we holler WOLF! because you taught the men and women who coached them and mentored them like you mentored us. I'm happy you left the world a better place and a bunch of us better teachers and citizens and Christians. And most of all, I'm happy that while we weep down here, you are finally home. Let's stack it up.
Applicable quote of the day:
"To be a team you must be a family."
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org