Ray Meyer is one of the most beloved figures in college basketball history.
A hall-of-fame coach who began his career by tutoring an awkward George Mikan, modern basketball’s first superstar, Meyer won 742 games over 42 seasons.
Relying mostly on homegrown talent, he led DePaul University – a small Catholic school in Chicago – to 20 postseason appearances.
A two-time national Coach of the Year, Meyer had 37 winning seasons, including a dozen 20-win campaigns.
His 1945 Blue Demon team won the NIT, and his 1943 and 1979 squads advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Meyer led DePaul to 13 NCAA tournament appearances.
“The Coach” had only five losing seasons in 42 years. When he stepped down, his 724-354 record placed him fifth in career victories among active college coaches.
When Meyer arrived at DePaul in 1942, the Blue Demons played in the shadow of the Chicago elevated train line at a drafty former theater known as the Old Barn.
By the time he retired as coach in 1984, DePaul was a perennial national power performing at the sparkling 17,500-seat Rosemont Horizon in the suburbs.
Born in Chicago, December 18, 1913, Raymond Joseph Meyer was the youngest of ten children born to a candy wholesaler.
He starred in basketball at Chicago’s Quigley Prep and St. Patrick’s Academy, winning the 1932 Catholic high school title.
Meyer attended Notre Dame, captaining the Irish as a junior and senior. After serving as an assistant coach for his alma mater, he was named DePaul head coach in April 1942, four months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The university wanted Meyer to sign a three-year contract, but he insisted on a one-year deal, at $ 2,500. “I didn’t know if I’d like the job,” said Meyer years later.
In his first season, Meyer discovered a gangly sophomore who had never played high school basketball. After being spurned by Notre Dame because his skills were so crude, George Mikan enrolled at DePaul.
Mikan, who would grow to 6’10”, was “raw material with little talent,” according to Meyer, who worked with Mikan for hours each day. “I was a slave driver and he was a willing slave.”
For three years, Mikan would rule the college game, leading DePaul to the 1945 NIT title. The game’s first dominant big man would go on to be voted the greatest basketball player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press.
Ray Meyer was old school. He made his first out-of-state recruiting trip at 69, and had coaching offers from the pros and other colleges – including Notre Dame. He turned them down, explaining, “I hate change.”
Assisted by his son, Joey, who captained the 1970-71 Blue Demons while playing for his father, The Coach led DePaul to a resurgence in the 1970s, recruiting local talent like Dave Corzine, Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings.
Originally fiery, Meyer tempered his gruffness in his final coaching years, flashing an endearing gap-toothed smile from the bench.
After laboring in obscurity for decades, “America’s Grandfather” emerged in the most important Final Four in history at the 1979 NCAA tournament before losing to Larry Bird and Indiana State, 76-74, in the semifinals.
Despite losing only one game in each of the next three seasons, DePaul could not get over the hump, never advancing beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1980, 1981 and 1982.
Meyer’s teams went 180-30 between 1977 and 1984, and was the top-ranked team in the nation in both 1980 and 1981.
The Coach was part of the Blue Demon fabric for 55 seasons, serving a coach and later basketball analyst for 1,467 consecutive DePaul games.
He retired in 1984 and was succeeded by Joey, who assisted his father for 13 seasons before serving as DePaul’s head coach for 13 more.
In 1979, Ray Meyer joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Frank McGuire as the only active coaches ever elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mr. Meyer died of heart failure on St. Patrick’s Day 2006 in Chicago. He was 92.
“He was a coach’s coach, he was a man’s man,” said Mike Krzyzewski, a Chicago native. “He was the face of college basketball in Chicago.”
On this date in 1980, Ray Meyer’s DePaul Blue Demons overtook Duke as the top-ranked team in the college basketball polls.