EDITOR’S NOTE: Legendary college basketball coach Don Meyer lost his battle to cancer today at the age of 69 years old. Having coached at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee and at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, Meyer is near the top of the list for college career victories.
Almost 5 years ago, I contacted coach Don Meyer to request an interview. Having recently won the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPY awards, he was just getting back into the swing of things. He was receiving treatment for cancer and physical therapy for the car accident injuries suffered, yet he was kind enough to agree to answer some questions.
In addition to his success on the court, I wanted to interview him because of some his insights into coaching. I had been reviewing quite a few quotes from notable basketball basketball players and coaches, and the ones that caused me to pause, were all attributed to Don Meyer. A couple of my favorites were: “Shout praise and whisper criticism” and “Your program must have an overriding purpose, which is clearly visible and which teaches lessons beyond winning.”
The game of basketball lost a great one today, but his legacy lives on.
Here then is “The Don Meyer Interview” revisited.
Is Don Meyer the best-kept secret in basketball? Despite passing Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp on the all-time NCAA men’s college basketball coaching victory list, would average basketball fans recognize the name Don Meyer? Probably not, but they should.
Currently coaching at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Meyer also earned victories at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee and at Hamline University in Saint Paul. The national basketball spotlight doesn’t always shine brightly on these basketball locales, so Meyer’s amazing 903 career victories were earned with little national fanfare.
Last year, some may remember the video clip shown and speech he gave at last year’s ESPY awards when he won the Jimmy V (Valvano) award for perseverance. The video detailed his car accident on September 5, 2008, in which he lost the bottom of his left leg and suffered many other injuries. During emergency surgery, cancer was discovered in his liver and intestines. After recovering from surgery and rehabbing, he was released from the hospital on October 30, 2008. The next morning at 4:45 he was back in his office working on the season ahead. He didn’t miss a practice or a game the entire season.
Meyer has had 26 seasons where he won over 20 games in his 37 years of college coaching. Highly regarded amongst his coaching peers, Meyer’s coaching clinics and resources have taught thousands of basketball coaches. Perhaps his most impressive stat relates to the success of his players in the classroom. In his 37 years of coaching, one player — only one — hasn’t graduated.
Sports Feel Good Stories:In youth basketball programs across the country, parents volunteer as coaches frequently with only high school playing experience (or less). What three tips might you suggest for youth coaches as they begin seasons with their teams?
Don Meyer: You will usually only have one hour to practice, so keep it simple and fundamental. Start with fundamentals, move the fundamentals to the next section with competition, and finish with scrimmage. No more than four trips up and down before critiquing the play — praise, correct, and then play some more.
SFGS:From your experience, what are the important qualities that separate the good coaches from the bad?
Don Meyer: Character…Servant’s heart…Love for kids…Love of the game…Desire to improve and bring it every day.
SFGS: Some coaches seem to be able to quickly adapt key learnings from other coaches. What couple of coaching tips, strategy-wise or tactical, have you picked up from other coaches and found really valuable?
Don Meyer: You have to get all the good ideas but you cannot use all the good ideas. Study other coaches, leaders in any profession and determine how they motivate, instruct, and drive athletes to high levels of performance. How do they build teams?
SFGS: For young basketball players intent on improving their games, what advice might you give them on how to improve their driveway workouts?
Don Meyer: Start slow, get a rhythm and then go fast enough to make a mistake — mistakes are your friends if you are going at a game speed. You learn what you can do at game speeds and you overload your mind and body. That is how you improve. After you have worked on something and know what to do compete with yourself by time or score or both.
SFGS:What suggestions could you provide coaches who are encouraging players to take some risks during game play, e.g. how to encourage players who will only dribble with their right hands to dribble with their left hands during games?
Don Meyer: You work on it in practice and look for time in blowouts to concentrate on some of those skills. Confidence comes from demonstrated ability and that comes first from practice.
SFGS:What do you find most rewarding about coaching basketball?
Don Meyer: Seeing individuals and teams improve and play to the highest level of their competence. Overcoming difficulties and combating adversity whether it’s on or off the floor for yourself, players, and teams.
SFGS: What’s your favorite basketball drill in practice and why?
Don Meyer: I have no one favorite drill. We try to use drills that simulate game situations and require concentration by the players and coaches. We like to use stop and score a lot. You must get a defensive stop and a score to win the game. We like to play three possessions when we do this. Short games accentuate the pressure and make each possession important. We also like to play 4 on 5 to promote ball movement, defensive rotations, and develop athleticism in our players.
SFGS:Your comeback to coaching after the terrible car accident and cancer diagnosis is a great inspiration. In addition to the great support you received from family, friends and supporters; what helped you through this incredibly difficult time?
Don Meyer: The desire to come back and coach a team. The desire to be part of a team is very important to me. Bible study and prayer were big keys for me. You think about the things that are really important when you are flat on your back.
SFGS: How have these events changed your approach to coaching?
Don Meyer: I am more intense and try to squeeze more into each day. I am hungrier and I believe more understanding and appreciative of great efforts. You are always looking for ways to win on and off the floor. You can’t have one personality while teaching on the floor and another off the floor.
SFGS:Linking the learning of basketball skills with understanding some important life lessons is a specialty that you excel in. How would you explain to a beginning coach how to go about doing that?
Don Meyer: You are constantly looking for teachable moments, times for informal learning, and ways to use “soft rain” to get life lessons across. Jesus is referred to as “teacher” in the Bible more than any other descriptor.
Check out Coach Meyer’s site at http://www.coachmeyer.com/. It’s a great resource for basketball coaches at all levels. Books, tapes and DVDs are available. Also, check out the Players’ Corner, Coaches’ Corner and Parents’ Corner sections.
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