Do you ever wonder what would happen if you received a second chance at life? The story of Coach Don Meyer is a fascinating example of how one man’s perspective changed after a near-death experience.
In September of 2008, Don Meyer was poised to accomplish something most coaches dream about. After 36 years at smaller colleges in Minnesota, Tennessee, and South Dakota, Meyer had amassed 891 career victories as a basketball coach. He only needed 11 more victories to pass coaching legend Bobby Knight and become the winningest coach in college basketball.
I am sure Meyer was aware of the win totals, but I am equally as sure that he would not let you talk about it if you brought it up in conversation. He was dedicated. He was focused. He was determined. But the dedication, focus, and determination were not aimed at simply winning; they were aimed at teaching young men discipline, fundamentals, and constantly pushing themselves to be the best they could be.
Meyer coached his players like he had been raised by his father on their farm in Nebraska. As a boy, Meyer greatly craved his father’s attention and approval, but he never seemed to get it. Although he did not enjoy farming, he did take the lessons he learned on the farm and applied them to something he did love…coaching basketball by driving a relentless work ethic into his players. There was no affection, there was no room for emotions, and there was a constant drive to work day after day after day. Just like farming had been a 365 day a year job, Meyer lived and breathed coaching.
You may not recognize his name like Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, or Jim Boeheim, but Meyer was known in the coaching world for running some of the largest summer basketball camps in the country and hosting coaching clinics that did bring in well-known coaches. Meyer had coached Lipscomb College (later Lipscomb University) to an NAIA National Championship in 1986 but he resigned his duties in 1999 based on principle after a disagreement with administration over the school’s proposed move to NCAA Division I. Meyer and his wife Carmen left their three grown children in Nashville and moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota to coach at Northern State University, an NCAA Division II school.
It was a tradition for the Northern State men’s basketball team to go on a retreat at the conclusion of the first week of classes in the fall semester. On September 5th, 2008 Meyer drove the lead vehicle in a six-car caravan on the 40-minute drive to the hunting lodge where the team would hang out and learn more about each other. Meyer always arrived at work very early in the morning and often took naps in the afternoon to get rejuvenated. In fact, he had just taken a nap not long before the team left around 4:00 pm for the retreat. Meyer’s assistant coach, Randy Baruth, normally drove when he and Meyer went on trips, but Baruth had to finish up some paperwork and told Meyer that he would meet them at the retreat later on.
As the vehicles glided over the South Dakota prairie, a player in the car behind Meyer noticed the coach’s car starting to drift over the center line and, at the same time, saw a semi-truck coming directly at them. The head-on collision nearly destroyed Meyer’s car and the players rushed to their coach once his car came to a stop. Meyer was eventually airlifted to Sioux Falls where doctors saw the most obvious injury…his left leg was mangled below the knee and would possibly need to be amputated. They also discovered internal bleeding in his abdomen and as the doctor made an incision and was working to stop the bleeding, he discovered something far worse. Meyer had cancerous tumors on his liver and intestines. Carmen Meyer was overwhelmed when the doctors told her the news and had to think about the right time and manner in which she would tell her 63-year-old husband.
As Don Meyer gained consciousness following his surgery with his wife and children at his side, he motioned to them that he wanted to write something since he could not speak due to the breathing tube in his throat. His son handed him a piece of paper and a pen. The first thing he wrote was “How long before I can coach?” But then he signaled that he had something else to say and he wrote, “I luv you. I am proud of you.”
No one who knew Don Meyer would be surprised at his first statement, but many people would be shocked at the second statement. This was a profound moment of change for Don and an experience we can learn from in our own lives.
Don and Carmen Meyer had been married for 41 years and were the parents of a son, Jerry, and two daughters, Brittney and Brooke, and the grandparents of eight grandchildren. Don had achieved at about the highest level he could in his profession but there seemed to be something missing with his family. His children described him as socially awkward as he often had somewhat of a scowl on his face and rarely used greetings when talking to people. For example, on one occasion when he met with some new players for the first time he did not say “Hello” or “How are you?” but simply told them to get a notebook and started rambling away with some of his principles and philosophies.
But with his family, it was much deeper than being socially awkward. Many of us worry about turning into our fathers, and even though he was not a farmer, it appeared Don had done just that. The lives of the entire family were consumed by basketball at a year-round pace. Don was often gone for recruiting trips or working and attending basketball camps and clinics. Don Meyer loved the game of basketball and his daughter Brooke said that she never doubted that he loved his children but at times he seemed unreachable. He was always there for them if they needed help, but they desperately craved his attention and wanted more connection with him on a daily basis.
Jerry Meyer was a baseball and basketball standout who eventually played for his father at Lipscomb and dished out more assists (1,314) than any player in college basketball history. But there was conflict between father and son. After Jerry’s junior season his father removed him from the team for a violation of team rules and he would finish his career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. When Jerry was grown and had two children of his own, Don saw the strong relationship Jerry had with his children and lamented that Jerry had learned how to be a dad even though he did not have the best example. When speaking at clinics in the years that followed, Don Meyer would strongly advise fellow members of the coaching fraternity to avoid coaching their own children. He told them if he had to do it all over again he would make sure there was a boundary between the gym and home life for his son.
It was Carmen who made the Meyer family a well-oiled machine. She made sure the kids made it to all their activities, made sure their homework was completed and handled all the discipline. After the children were grown she returned to school and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. By 2008, the Meyers had been in South Dakota for nine years and Carmen had eventually grown frustrated with some of Don’s habits. The biggest source of contention was that Don often invited coaches from out-of-town to stay at their house or would invite the team over for a meal and would fail to communicate with Carmen. In addition, they had come to the point where they were rarely seen together as they each had their own activities. “We had gotten to the point where his tunnel vision (made it difficult),” Carmen said. “He really didn’t care about any of my activities, and so I sort of got hardened. We got along fine, but it was like we were leading separate lives almost.”
Don Meyer would spend a total of 55 days in the hospital enduring an amputation of his left leg below the knee and the subsequent recovery and therapy. Eventually, his family began to look at the accident and time in the hospital as a blessing for them.
Something changed after the accident and it all started with that second note that Meyer scribbled on that piece of paper. He began to fully express himself and he started letting people know how he felt about them. This extended beyond just his wife, children, and grandchildren and included his former players, community members and even people that he met during his hospital stay. His children could not believe the words he used and the manner in which he spoke. When one of Meyer’s former players, Wade Tomlinson, arrived at the hospital shortly after the accident Meyer told him, “I love you.” Deep down he knew this to be true, but he knew that almost every player who had ever played for Meyer would be shocked that he actually said it. Another one of Meyer’s former players told Carmen Meyer after visiting him in the hospital that it was the best four hours he had ever spent with Coach Meyer.
So what lessons can we learn from Coach Don Meyer’s story? First of all, I believe Don Meyer had always been a good person with a good heart. He cared for all his players like they were his own sons. When Wade Tomlinson’s son died in an accidental drowning it was Coach Meyer who was able to help, support, and guide Tomlinson through the difficult grieving process. When his daughters each became pregnant during college (which was a big issue with Lipscomb’s strict code of conduct), it was Meyer who remained calm and helped them move forward. Meyer also taught his players to do things the right way. He made them pick up trash no matter where they were, and he had his teams constantly involved in community service activities.
But I also think Don Meyer’s change of perspective in how he expressed his feelings and his outlook after the accident is quite revealing. Many times, coaches think they have to appear tough and they have to harden their players and drive them relentlessly. For example, Meyer called Wade Tomlinson “numbnuts” and Tomlinson admitted that he would often go back to his dorm after practice and punch his pillow as he pretended it was Meyer’s face.
Was it possible that Meyer could still have taught his players discipline and pushed them to their potential without degrading them or making them run sprints for over an hour because one player skipped an English class? Could he have opened up to them and expressed his feelings about them and inspired them to play for him through love rather than fear? What if Meyer had died in the accident and he would not have had those final six years to tell the people in his life how he truly felt about them?
In 2009, Don Meyer received the ESPN Jimmy V Perseverance Award named after former North Carolina State head basketball coach Jim Valvano who died of cancer in 1993. When Valvano was dying he told friend and colleague Mike Krzyzewski that if he had to do it all over again he would not have been so fixated on achieving things and he would have done a better job of taking care of his family and being there for them. It is only my guess, but I think Don Meyer would agree with him.
When Don Meyer met his future wife Carmen in college and started spending time with her family he saw a very different approach to parenting than the one he experienced growing up. He saw parents who were more willing to show their love and ones who showed their support by being present and involved in their children’s interests and activities. Meyer noted the difference between the parenting styles and said that he believed he was positively affected by both. The question is can you combine both styles to be even more effective as a parent, coach, or leader?
I think you can push your players to reach their potential and teach them discipline through a relationship based on love rather than fear. I think you can be devoted to your job and still give some of your best time and energy to your family. I think you can have a desire to achieve but you can still have an awareness of how it is affecting the relationships with your loved ones and I think you can choose to put first things first and tell people how you really feel.
Don Meyer was one of the most heralded coaches in college basketball for what he accomplished and for what he taught his players. But it is obvious that his relationships blossomed after his perspective changed following his accident. Would Don Meyer have coached differently if he had held that perspective for his entire career? Would he have won fewer games as a coach? Would he have won more games as a coach?
For me, the story of Coach Don Meyer helps me understand that it is okay to put your family first and it is okay to tell the people in your life how you feel about them because you never know if you will get a second chance. It also inspires me to continue to seek a style of leadership, parenting, and coaching that combines discipline, focus, and relentlessness with compassion, collaboration, and love.
How Lucky Can You Be by Buster Olney
Leading with the Heart by Mike Krzyzewski
Lipscomb University Men's Basketball All-Americans: http://www.lipscombsports.com/mbasketball/allamericans/
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