It was a moment that would have seemed improbable 12 years ago — longtime coach Don Meyer walking onto the basketball court at Lipscomb University, with friends and university officials there to celebrate the naming of the court in his honor.
As Meyer spoke while surrounded by dozens of his former players, his voice choked with emotion — not just because of his love for them, but also his love for the university at which he worked from 1975 to 1999 before leaving because of a bitter disagreement over athletic affiliation.
“I made a lot of mistakes coaching here, but we did a good job of getting the right kind of guy to come to Lipscomb,” Meyer told the crowd during halftime of a Lipscomb-Kennesaw State game at Allen Arena on Lipscomb’s Nashville, Tenn., campus.
“All these guys are important to me,” he said. “As you get old and you can’t coach anymore and you’re sitting around drooling on your afghan, you think back to some of the stupid things that happened and you just laugh and you feel good inside.
“Life is all about relationships, and we’re so fortunate to have had 24 years here with people at Lipscomb and the players here. … I’m glad Lipscomb is still Lipscomb. That’s the important thing.”
As Meyer’s daughter, Brooke Meyer Napier puts it, the naming of the court after her father is “a story of redemption and things coming full circle.”
‘HEALING IN THE ACCIDENT’
Although he is highly respected in the coaching world — UCLA’s John Wooden and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt are among those who spent time at Meyer’s summer basketball camps at Lipscomb — Meyer’s story was little-known to most basketball fans outside Tennessee and South Dakota, where he spent 11 years coaching at Northern State University after leaving Lipscomb.
That is, until Sept. 5, 2008.
On the verge of breaking the NCAA record for career coaching wins — then held by Bob Knight — Meyer was involved in a horrific accident on a South Dakota highway while driving to an annual retreat for the Northern State basketball team. During emergency surgery after the accident, doctors discovered slow-growing, inoperable cancer in his liver and small intestine.
Meyer underwent eight surgeries and had his left leg amputated below his knee, but he returned to coaching within weeks of the accident, breaking Knight’s record the following January.
Meyer retired after the 2009-2010 season with 923 wins.
Meyer’s story went viral. Sports Illustrated
published a feature on him. He was presented with the “Jimmy V Award for Perseverance” at the ESPY Awards in July 2009. He became the subject of a book written by reporter Buster Olney. “How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer” chronicles Meyer’s career and his life after the accident.
Those closest to Meyer say the change in his perspective on life is evident.
“I think there was healing in the accident,” Napier said. “I think time heals wounds. There was a lot of bitterness that was gone after the wreck. When you’re staring death in the face, you sort of put things in perspective.”
One of those things was his relationship with Lipscomb. While there, Meyer won 665 games and guided the Bisons to the 1986 national championship in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, a league of small colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada. Meyer also coached three NAIA players of the year and the two top scorers in college basketball history — Philip Hutcheson and John Pierce.
In the late 1990s, university officials began discussing a possible jump from the NAIA into NCAA Division I — a huge leap in terms of competition and resources that would have to be spent. In early 1999, university officials announced the move despite strong opposition from Meyer, who cautioned that Lipscomb would no longer be able to compete for national championships.
Meyer resigned that May, choosing to send his resignation letter through the campus mail, delaying its delivery to Lipscomb administrators until after he’d spoken with local media.
‘THE GUY WHO PUT LIPSCOMB ON THE MAP’
After the university moved to the NCAA, many of its former players “felt like (Lipscomb) didn’t want to have anything to do with us,” said Wade Tomlinson, who played for Meyer in the 1980s. “Moving up to another division meant moving on.”
Lipscomb’s hiring of Hutcheson as athletic director in November 2008 helped bridge the divide between Meyer and the university. The hiring was an acknowledgment by the university that it wanted to embrace its past as an NAIA power while looking forward to the future, Tomlinson said.
In Hutcheson’s first year, he started the “Don Meyer Evening of Excellence,” an annual athletic fundraising event that has included speakers such as Meyer and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Since then, Meyer has gradually become reintegrated into Lipscomb, even while still living in Aberdeen, S.D., where he and his wife, Carmen, attend the Aberdeen Church of Christ.
“A lot of people had love for Lipscomb and coach Meyer and hated to see what was going on at the time in terms of the turmoil,” Hutcheson said. “Personally, I always felt a bit like Switzerland in World War II. I felt like a neutral party, just observing. I don’t know that I thought, ‘This will never get changed.’ I was hopeful it would.”
Businessman and Lipscomb booster Jim Allen — for whom Allen Arena is named — credited Hutcheson with the idea to name the court after Meyer.
Allen, who once served as Lipscomb’s chief financial officer, said it was easy to support the decision, especially after Northern State also named its arena floor in honor of Meyer.
Meyer “was the guy who put Lipscomb on the map athletically,” said Allen, who supported Lipscomb’s move to Division I. “There was a past feeling we wanted to get beyond, certainly, but more importantly, we wanted to give tribute, to give honor, to someone who’s been a big part of the university. It was past time that something be done like this.”
‘GOD HAS A PURPOSE FOR YOU’
Meyer, now 67, says he’s come to terms with everything that happened at the end of his tenure at Lipscomb and sees how God worked in the situation to bless all parties. He and Carmen moved into a good situation in South Dakota, where they’ve been able to positively influence people at Northern State.
Meanwhile, Lipscomb has found its footing in Division I under Meyer’s successor, coach Scott Sanderson, having posted winning records in six of the past seven seasons and winning at traditional power Indiana in December 2008. The Bisons played in the National Invitation Tournament in 2006, and Lipscomb’s women’s basketball team made the NCAA tournament in the university’s first season of eligibility in 2004.
“I think God has a purpose for you, and your lives take a different path sometimes,” Meyer said. “I don’t understand why things happen the way they do, but down the road, you get a better idea. I think things turned out the way they were supposed to turn out. It’s been an opportunity for us to help both schools.”
Don Meyer will be the featured speaker Jan. 20 at the Oklahoma Christian University Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Oklahoma City. For more information, see www.oceagles.com.