He may be the greatest coach you have never heard of.
Don Meyer of Aberdeen, S. D., set an NCAA record Jan. 10, becoming the winningest men’s basketball coach in NCAA history.
His 903rd career victory came at home, as his Division II Northern State Wolves trounced the University of Mary of Bismarck, N.D. 82-62.
The event capped an inspirational return to coaching for Meyer, a member and sometimes-preacher at the 20-member Aberdeen church.
The 64-year-old coach, who spent 24 years of his career at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., survived a devastating car crash last September, with doctors amputating his left leg below the knee and removing his spleen. During one surgery, they found cancer in his intestines and liver.
But no obstacle has been able to keep this dedicated Christian from returning to the game he loves.
“I’m a small-college coach,” he told ESPN.com. “That means when you’re on the road in hotels, you take the soap … you take it one day at a time.”
Meyer is known as tough and demanding on the court. His team practices at 5:30 a.m., and players are required to keep detailed notes on his lectures.
A native of Wayne, Neb., Meyer grew up on a farm, dreaming of becoming a major-league baseball player. He played baseball and basketball at the University of Northern Colorado, excelling at both, but earning NCAA All-American honors in 1966 on the basketball court. He graduated one year later.
He met his wife, Carmen, during college, and the couple has celebrated 41 years of marriage.
“It was pretty much love right away for both of us,” she said.
After college Meyer coached men’s basketball at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., before moving to Nashville to coach the Lipscomb University Bisons, then competing in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
During his tenure the Bisons competed in 13 national tournaments and won the 1986 NAIA national championship.
Meyer moved to Northern State prior to the 1999-2000 season, as Lipscomb transitioned from the NAIA to the NCAA’s Division I.
The Meyers are active in their congregation, teaching and hosting others in their home. With no elders or full-time minister, Meyer, church treasurer Paul Darling and two other men alternated preaching on Sundays — until the coach’s accident last fall.
Carmen Meyer said her husband often weaves sideline experiences into talks from the pulpit.
“His sermons are kind of like coaching clinics, but he can always bring it back around to be a spiritual lesson,” she said. “And his coaching clinics can be kind of like a sermon.”
Aberdeen residents embrace the family and have been especially supportive during months of hospital stays and treatments.
“My word!” said Pat Meyer, no relation to the coach. “Everybody here thinks they’re the best! You couldn’t find anyone in the town who would say a bad word about either of them.”
Meyer’s recovery and ongoing battle have been nationally publicized, and the family has used television and print interviews to discuss what a blessing the crash was.
A blessing to fall asleep and collide with a tractor-trailer rig hauling 90,000 pounds of grain? A blessing to lose part of your left leg, to endure eight surgeries and to spend eight weeks in a hospital fighting pain so fierce that he could only croak hymns as tears covered his face?
“You can’t look at any other way,” said Meyer, who believes that without the crash and the surgeries, the doctors would never have discovered his cancer until it was too late.
Meyer credits Scripture, his wife and family — three children and eight grandchildren — his players and thousands of well-wishers with inspiring his recovery.
When news of his condition spread across the nation, legions of former players and famous coaches called, e-mailed or rushed to his bedside. He never spent one night alone in the hospital.
Tears, frustration and uncertainty are an occasional part of his recovery. “But you can’t change what’s happened, and you have to let all that go,” Meyer told The Christian Chronicle.
It’s been a long and painful journey back from the brink. And it isn’t over: His left leg hasn’t yet healed enough to be fitted with a prosthetic leg, and decisions must be made about various courses for cancer treatment.
Whatever happens in the game of his life, the Meyers know their faith will anchor and sustain them.
“You have to know that everything doesn’t depend on this life,” said Carmen Meyer. “This life is about preparing us for being with God.”
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Meyerisms — courtesy of John Papendick, Aberdeennews.com .
Have character; don’t be one.
Go from good to great because good is the enemy of great.
All glory to God.
Prepare, plan and practice like you just lost your last game.
If the farmer and his family can get up at 5:30 every morning to milk cows, surely we can get up at that time to practice basketball.
The only thing success should do is make you more humble.
What you accept in victory, you must accept in defeat.
We always want our players to do five things: Defend well. Take care of the ball. Take great shots. Get offensive rebounds. Play hard.
To those whom much has been given, much is expected.
Time doesn’t fly when you are not happy.
Winning a post-season game is like winning five regular season games.
All battles are won before they are fought.
Failure is often the first necessary step toward success.
If you think small things don’t matter, think of the last game you lost by one point.
Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.