We Knew Him as Coach

by Lute Olson (Member of Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame)
We Knew Him as Coach

It was three years ago this week that we lost one of the great people to ever coach to this game. His name is synonymous with March Madness.

The greatest compliment you can pay can pay someone in this profession is to simply call him “coach.” Admiration, success and the respect of one’s peers are what earn a man the simple title of “coach.” Coach Ray Meyer had all of those things and more.

The passing of the legendary DePaul coach was somewhat lost in the midst of first and second round action of the 2006 NCAA tournament. Ironically that is probably how coach would have preferred it. He devoted much of his life to the game he loved, never seeking the spotlight but the spotlight most certainly found him.

For more then four decades he brought class and dignity to the sidelines at DePaul University. Twice he took teams to the Final Four and seven times he guided teams to the National Invitational Tournament, including a team that featured George Mikan. At a time when the NIT was college basketball’s crowning jewel, Mikan helped coach win the 1945 NIT and the national championship.

Thirty-seven winning seasons and 724 career wins would seem unapproachable to a young man breaking into the profession today. But among his most remarkable achievements was that his second appearance in the Final Four, in 1979, came thirty-six years after his first trip, in 1943.

It was only appropriate that he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame that same year.

Equally as impressive as his staying power was his ability to take something pretty good and make it really great. So many of his teams began the season without expectations, but by season’s end he taken the average and turned it into a winner. And he did that year after year.

But it wasn’t only basketball teams that coach would touch in a positive way. Always approachable, coach wore a smile like it was his purpose. And in many ways it was. He always made every person feel like they were special. That was his way.

Through the years countless numbers would cross paths with the legendary coach and they were the better for it. But it was coach who believed he was in fact a better person for having known you. He truly loved and admired people.

As visible as he was over the last twenty-plus years, it’s hard to believe that coach actually retired following the 1984 season. His career might have concluded in an official capacity, but he really never put down the whistle.

He would remain a fixture at the University that he alone made a household name. For thirteen years he served as a Special Assistant to the President, with a focus on special projects. He would also provide color commentary for DePaul basketball games on the radio until 1997. Even then he was never more then a mid-range jumper away from the game and the program that he loved so much.

In December of 2003, the playing surface at the University’s arena was officially named “Ray and Marge Meyer Court,” in honor of coach and his late wife. And his legacy will continue.

Quite simply, he was and will always be DePaul University.

News of his passing may have been somewhat lost in all the excitement of the NCAA tournament, but those that knew would agree that he would have had it no other way.

A true coaches coach, it was never about him. It was always about the players. Therefore it was only fitting that his passing came during one of the most exciting and entertaining first weekends that the NCAA tournament has ever seen.

Once a coach -- Always a coach.

Could a phrase ever better describe a man?