Don Meyer, a legend of college basketball, died Sunday in Aberdeen, South Dakota, at the age of 69. Meyer fought carcinoid cancer in the last years of his life.
A purist who loved teaching and basketball but was not interested in navigating the complications attached to Division I basketball, Meyer spent his career working at small colleges -- Hamline in Minnesota, Lipscomb University in Nashville and Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. In January of 2009, Meyer set the mark for most wins for any men's coach in NCAA history, and when he retired after the 2009-2010 season, he had 923 victories, a mark that has since been surpassed by Mike Krzyzewski.
He died at 6:52 a.m. at his home in Aberdeen, where he had recently gone into hospice care, family spokeswoman Brenda Dreyer said.
"He won his greatest victory and is now running again and gearing up to pitch nine innings,'' the Meyer family said in a statement. "The family appreciates the outpouring of love, prayers and concern.''
Jerry Meyer played for his father at Lipscomb from 1989-1992, and credits his dad's success with a seamless, on-and off-court philosophy that lent itself to an exciting game.
"He was a tough coach to play for, very demanding physical and mentally. But that's what made him a great coach, and that's why all his players, he influenced their lives so much and produced so many coaches,'' Jerry Meyer said.
Lipscomb won an NAIA national championship under Meyer in 1986, and the two highest-scoring players in the history of college basketball, John Pierce and Philip Hutcheson, played for Meyer. The Lipscomb team of 1989-1990 is the highest scoring team in college history. He was presented with the John Bunn Award at the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Hutcheson, now Lipscomb's athletics director, said it wasn't hard to see the coach's legacy at the school -- "that's well-established and it's enormous.''
"It's trying to determine -- given all those he touched as a coach, a camp director, a clinician, a professor, a speaker and a friend to people all across the country and even in other countries -- where his impact ended,'' Hutcheson said.
But Meyer's renown within the coaching community was built on more than those milestones.
His summer camps at Lipscomb, the largest in the country at the time, drew hundreds of coaches interested in the pursuit of excellence, and Meyer produced a highly popular series of instructional videos. He hosted a coaching academy and spoke at seminars about team-building, about doing the right things for players and programs.
He served as mentor to coaches at every level, including Tennessee's Pat Summitt, and through the last days of his life he would field calls from coaches looking for advice on how to solve a problem, whether it was how to break a press or help with a troubled player. What he loved about coaching, he said, was to see improvement in players -- in their ability on the court, and as people.
On Sept. 5, 2008, Meyer was leading a caravan of players on team retreat when he fell asleep at the wheel. His car drifted across the yellow lines and he collided head on with a semi that was hauling 33 tons of corn. Badly injured, Meyer was life-flighted twice in the hours that followed -- and as a trauma surgeon worked to stop his internal bleeding, he discovered previously undiagnosed carcinoid cancer in Meyer, a terminal condition. When Meyer first awoke after his initial surgery, he scrawled a message: When can I coach again?
As word of Meyer's accident spread, Louisiana State assistant Bob Starkey sent word out to the coaching community and asked them to show their support by sending pens to Meyer, whose handwriting was precise and loved to try different pens. Thousands of pens arrived, along with notes from coaches ranging from John Wooden to Bob Knight to Krzyzewski to Bill Self.
Because of the injuries suffered in the crash, Meyer's left leg was amputated below his left knee. Less than two months after the accident, Meyer was released from the hospital -- and was back at work at 4:45 a.m. the next morning in a wheelchair, in which he coached the entire season.
Meyer immediately came to view the accident as a blessing because of the time and renewed conversation shared during his recovery with his wife Carmen, his three adult children, and friends, and because of the connections he subsequently made with people during his rehabilitation.
At the time of Meyer's initial cancer diagnosis, he was told that he probably had two years remaining -- but he lasted much longer than that. After he retired from coaching in the spring of 2010, Meyer's schedule was filled with speaking appearances -- some about basketball, some about coaching, some about leadership. But mostly, Meyer talked about being a better person and helping others.
He'd had other health problems in recent years, including surgery in August 2012 to implant a heart pacemaker. That came after doctors replaced three of Meyer's heart valves with mechanical ones and repaired a hole in his heart.
Some of the greatest names in college basketball were his biggest fans, including Krzyzewski, who once said Meyer did "a wonderful job of giving back to our great game."
Summitt, who holds the all-time win record for college basketball and has called Meyer "truly one of the best teachers in the history of the game," also paid tribute to Meyer on Sunday:
My heart goes out to the family of my dear friend, Don Meyer. May we celebrate his life as a man of integrity and a legend in our game.
- Pat Summitt (@patsummitt) May 19, 2014Praise also came from opponents, including Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who coached against Meyer at Northern State and worked Meyer's camps at Lipscomb when he was an assistant coach.
"It didn't matter if you were friend or foe," Miles once said. "He would open up his playbook and show you his plays, and then he would turn around and beat you with that same play when your team played his."
He was honored in July 2009 at the ESPYs with ESPN's Jimmy V Perseverance Award, given to a member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles. It's named for former North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano, who died in 1993 after a fight against cancer. Meyer also was given the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August 2010.
Meyer was a standout baseball and basketball player at Northern Colorado. He graduated in 1967 then began his head coaching career with three seasons at Hamline in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1972.
Meyer compiled records of 37-41 at Hamline, 665-179 at Lipscomb, and 221-104 at Northern State.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.