Don Meyer wins 891 by coaching kids over basketball

Associated Press Writer

March 23, 2008

ABERDEEN S.D. – It’s impossible to win 891 college basketball games without knowing the intricacies of the sport, but Northern State University’s Don Meyer says coaching is not all about Xs and Os.

aplogoCoaching is an art not a science, and the key is finding a different way to reach every kid on your roster. Anyone can learn Xs and Os, Meyer says, but more importantly you’ve got to love kids.

“You’re just a man teaching kids how to play basketball and how to live their life,” he says. “You’re not coaching basketball, you’re coaching kids.”

Meyer’s 891 victories put him just nine shy of Bobby Knight on the NCAA list for most career wins. If Knight settles into retirement following his abrupt exit from Texas Tech this past season, Meyer could move into the No. 1 spot next season.

That’s an incredible accomplishment, says Northern State President Patrick Schloss, but what’s even more special is Meyer “does it the right way.”

The coach commits that every student who plays for him will graduate – only one of his players during the past 36 seasons has not – and he stresses hard work, self discipline, team play and respect.

Schloss says kids who arrive at Division II schools come with certain challenges, and Meyer helps players overcome them.

“If they didn’t have challenges, they’d be Division I,” Schloss says. “It’s the 7-foot-tall kid who doesn’t run the court well. It’s the point guard who has trouble with the 3-point shot.

“He does that with the assurance in his own heart that he can develop that additional skill. And by the time they’re leaving here, they’re playing at the Division I quality level.”

Meyer, 63, began his head coaching career at Hamline University in Minnesota, where he spent three years before moving to Lipscomb University in Tennessee. He posted a 665-179 record at Lipscomb, leading the Bisons to an NAIA national championship in 1986.

He’s just as well known for his summer basketball camps and academies, where he teaches coaches from middle schools and big-time D-I programs alike.

Meyer arrived at Northern State in 1999, posting a 13-14 record in his first season. By his third season, Meyer led the Wolves to the 2002 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference co-championship and was named NSIC Coach of the Year.

The Wolves have just completed their seventh straight season with 20 or more wins, losing to Division II powerhouse Winona State on Wednesday in the North Central Regional championship game.

“To turn programs around is the single toughest thing, because you have to get everybody to think the way you think they should think and to think ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘us,’ to be a servant-leader rather than a self-serving leader,” Meyer says. “And that takes a lot of time to get that mentality across.”

Sundance Wicks, who has both played and coached under Meyer, says Meyer’s on-court teachings and life lessons have helped prepare him for both basketball and life.

Meyer tells his kids that contrary to what they might have learned, life is a team sport, so they’d better learn to get along with people.

“Anyone who can graduate from Don Meyer’s program, they’re going to be all right in the world,” says Wicks, now an assistant coach for Northern Illinois University.

Meyer is a walking encyclopedia of quotes from a wide array of sources such as legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, author and journalist William Safire and the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.

Players call these “Meyerisms,” and by senior year they’re just as likely to come out of a player’s mouth.

“You’ll hear our players teaching each other on the court and it could just as well be Coach Meyer,” says senior guard Craig Nelson. The older players have “heard the same thing over and over again, so it’s just like him talking through us now.”

That buddy-system approach in which veterans teach the rookies is key to Meyer’s coaching style.

Meyer uses Biblical references to describe three classes of players: a “Paul,” who is an older guy who’s been through it, a “Timothy,” who is someone that needs teaching, and a “Barnabus,” a guy who’s your same age and has the same interests.

Meyer pairs a “Paul” with a “Timothy,” and a “Barnabus” acts as an accountability partner to a fellow “Barnabus” who won’t let you do stupid things.

Nelson, a North Dakota native with plans to teach and coach high school basketball after graduation, has seen this style through the eyes of all three characters.

“When the freshman come in, he pretty much breaks them down the first year,” Nelson says. “And I remember losing a lot confidence that first year, and I know that’s what our freshmen are going through right now.

“So as an older guy, you’re trying to help them build that back up and say, ‘You’re at Northern State for a reason. You’re a good player. Coach is getting on you because he knows you have a chance to get better.'”

Wicks respects Meyer because he respects the game, respects yet doesn’t fear his opponents, reveres the fundamentals and loves the program.

He expects much from his players, but it they work hard, they get to see another side of Meyer the prankster.

Meyer brings out a fake camera his daughter picked up for a dollar.

Instead of shooting pictures, it shoots water.

He says he likes to get a “picture” of any group that’s comes into the Barnett Center, and has even used it on such legends as Wooden and Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit.

He also uses it on recruits to find out if they take themselves too seriously.

“If they can’t take a joke, we probably don’t want them here,” Meyer said.

Nelson says players have talked little about Meyer’s coaching accomplishments during the season, focusing instead on the next weightlifting session, the next practice or the next game just as they were taught.

Wicks says he can guess what Meyer will say when it happens: “If you’re old enough, and you coach long enough, you’re probably going to win some games.”

Although he tends to downplay his career wins, he says such milestones do give him a chance to reflect.

“The things that they mean to you is they give you a chance to think about where you’ve been, who you’ve been there with, who’s influenced you, who’s helped you,” Meyer says. “James 3:13 the wisdom that comes from humility. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you, let him show it by his good life, by deeds done and the humility that comes from wisdom.’

“I’ve never met a wise person that wasn’t humble.”

One of those key influences is Wooden, and Meyer says he’s never met a more humble guy.

Wooden received the Presidential Medal of Freedom the nation’s highest civilian award from President Bush in 2003.

“I go out to see him, and it’s hanging on his coat rack. It’s hanging on his coat rack,” Meyer said. “His wife put up a triangular of his 10 national championships it made a perfect triangle but he didn’t. She put up letters from every one of the presidents.

“He didn’t, but he leaves it up because she put it up.”

Meyer says he is most proud when his kids try to embody what a real team is. Even when they lose, he says, they win by the way they act.

“The thing you learn by winning all these games is that you’re not really that good a coach. You just were fortunate had good times that played well together.

“If anything I’m proud of is that our kids, I think, have been the best team on their schedule.”

On the Net: Coach Don Meyer’s Web site: