Ray Meyer Proves Tough Act for Joe Meyer to Follow : Like Father, Like Son Is Not Necessarily True Where DePaul Basketball Is Concerned


His office is dark and warm, a welcome refuge from the slushy snow that mounts in ugly gray piles on the narrow streets of the Near North side. But there is no escape for Joey Meyer, no effective way to relieve the tension that drives him to rearrange a line of perfectly aligned pens as he leans on a table, no release for the pressure that burdens him more heavily than he ever imagined.

It is not enough that he be successful as DePaul's basketball coach: he must be as successful as his predecessor--his father--and he must do it with a team that has lost the emotional incentive that fueled it last season.

Ray Meyer retired last March after 42 seasons and 724 victories, his dream of winning an NCAA championship bequeathed to Joey, 13 years an assistant coach and four years his father's heir apparent. That dream has become obscured by the simple matters of getting from day to day, of explaining why the Blue Demons have lost to a lightweight like Western Michigan and twice to Dayton, which dropped them out of the national rankings for the first time in two years.

Meyer cannot explain why his offense and defense work only intermittently and rarely together in a season when his team was rated as high as third in preseason polls. No matter what Joey Meyer tries, the answers remain tantalizingly beyond his reach and the load almost beyond bearing.

"From a personal standpoint, the pressure has been tremendous," Meyer said recently. "It's physical and emotional, and I haven't always handled it in the best way. . . . I really need to forget it, to relax, and that's what our team needs to do but can't seem to do.

"Dealing with the losses has been the hardest thing. Obviously, I never thought we would lose that many and I haven't dealt with it real well. The kids have lost a little confidence. As a first-year coach, I feel the pressure to produce. I know a lot of it is self-imposed, but it's still there.

"It's harder to sustain things than to get to that top level. And the hardest thing for me is that it's my first year."

At least he gets no second or third guessing from Ray Meyer, known to all simply as "Coach," although his title now reads Special Assistant to the President. Coach travels the charity banquet circuit when he's not taping his weekly TV show or writing his newspaper column. And that's when he's not doing color commentary on the radio broadcasts of the Blue Demons' games or escorting generous donors to practices at DePaul's old campus gym, its own Alumni Hall.

"I'm very seldom here, and in a way, it's been a blessing because I don't have time to think," Ray Meyer said in his cluttered office across the hall from his son's. "I find it difficult to watch the games and do the radio commentary because I know they are capable of doing much better than they are. Maybe we were overachievers last year. Maybe we did better last year because of the emotion of my retiring. I don't know. But I know that last year when we were behind, we found ways to win. Now, we find ways to lose."

Meyer will never lose affection for his "kids," particularly those on the team that was 26-2 last year before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Wake Forest ousted them in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Those kids still bear his imprint, a legacy his own child cannot entirely disavow.

"It would probably have been better if I stayed away three or four years until the players that I was so close to had graduated, because I know what they're capable of doing," he said. "Joey's not like myself and I'm not like Joey. There's an adjustment period that's got to take place. Those players are used to me and they have to get used to Joey. If anybody's at a school a long time and anybody else comes in, it's going to be tough."

Perhaps never as tough, though, as it has been for 35-year-old Joey Meyer to become the first man in NCAA history to succeed his father as a basketball coach at the same school. Coach had compiled seven straight 20-win seasons, which got his teams invited to the NCAA tournament in six of those seven and to the NIT in the other. In those seven years, DePaul had the nation's best winning percentage, .857, off a record of 180-30. Joey, who played for the Blue Demons and was captain in 1971, spent two years as freshman coach before becoming his father's top assistant and a top-notch recruiter.

"My family never wanted me to go into coaching because of the stress factor," Joey said. "Coach wanted me to stay and be the next coach of DePaul, though he never really pushed me. I made my own decision." It was Joey who convinced the local playground kids that DePaul could offer a homey atmosphere and tough competition. "With Joey recruiting, I became a good coach," the elder Meyer said.

Joey downplayed his role. "Coach is a big selling point," he said, "and staying home to play for a local school. We had more here than people realized; a lot of people could have done what I did. I don't claim to be a genius. We were lucky enough to get some good people."

It is the success he helped build that has come back to haunt him, creating near-impossible expectations. "We built a monstrosity here," Ray Meyer said. "Everyone expects excellence, and while you strive for it, you don't always get it. It's awful to start at the top and work down. Most coaching changes come when coaches have had bad years, so Joey's in a completely different situation.

"I know he's down right now, and I feel sorry for him. But I know he'll grow in stature and be a better coach for everything he's going through now."

Joey Meyer claims to be less surprised than everyone else that the team is struggling, although the extent of the struggle overwhelms even him at times. Eight of last season's top nine scorers returned, including senior point guard Kenny Patterson and 6-6 forward Tyrone Corbin, who led the Blue Demons in scoring last season with an average of 14.1 points per game. But they miss one who didn't return, off-guard Jerry McMillan, and the inconsistency of junior guard Tony Jackson has forced Meyer to continually juggle his lineup.

Although the Blue Demons barely squeaked past Northern Illinois, 59-58, in their season opener, they won their next five games and climbed to No. 2 in the national rankings. But a blowout at Georgetown--they lost 77-57 after being down by only a point with less than 12 minutes to play--left them shaken. "I didn't realize how much that loomed, and still looms in the kids' minds," Meyer said.

Its aftereffects were clear in a 65-64 upset loss to Western Michigan and a nervous five-point victory over Northwestern. After routing Creighton and St. Mary's, DePaul fell to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, won four more, and lost to fellow independent Dayton on a shot that Meyer still swears came after the buzzer.

Everything seemed to fall to pieces, save for Meyer's resolve. After beating Princeton at Madison Square Garden, the Blue Demons lost at Louisville and the streak-ending loss to Dayton at the Horizon in suburban Rosemont.

A group of players whom Meyer would not name or number violated his curfew rule the night before the Louisville game, but Meyer could not bench them because "that wouldn't have let me have enough players to start a team." He did have the culprits attend a midnight practice, a punishment that probably hurt him more than it hurt those he censured. As an assistant coach, Meyer had become the players' friend and confidant, a relationship that necessarily changed when he became the man who decides their playing time.

Yet, the players say that Meyer's comfort is still available. And they say they're comfortable with him. "Before, he was the middle man and now he tells us what to do," Patterson said, "but you can talk to him and discuss why things are going wrong."

Meyer wondered if he had done the wrong thing by punishing the players, especially after the ensuing loss to Dayton. But he has become convinced that he must forge his own personality in disciplinary matters, as well as on the playing floor.

"You've got to do it your way. I'm coaching this year as if I'm going to be around a while and I've got to do it my way," he said. "If I didn't say something, maybe we would have beaten Louisville. It was nothing blatant; they were sitting in one guy's room listening to music. But the rules are that they're to be in their own rooms. I paid the price. It may have hurt us in that game, but I believe that over the long run it will help us. I'm more concerned about them graduating and being good kids.

"I've kicked myself about it since. I'm not trying to put myself on a pedestal. In the long run, I think the good things will happen because they're going to be good kids."

The players recognize Meyer's attempts to establish his personality and sympathize with the enormity of the effort Meyer must make. "I see him really feeling the pressure. We had such a great year last year, and we've got pretty much the same team, so people expected equal or better," Corbin said. "Things haven't clicked, but I think he's handled it well. You can feel sorry for yourself and think the season's over, but he hasn't.

"It was an adjustment for us because he's different from Coach. He doesn't yell like Coach did, but he knows when to let loose and when to hold it back and wait for the right time. Under the pressure he's been under he's done a good job . . . Coach Joe's ideas of how the game should be played are that he believes in a much more structured type of game. Coach would let us be a lot freer and not concentrate on the little things, like coach Joe does."

Coach has made a point of not offering his son advice, and Joey has made a point of not requesting any. "He's his own man. I wouldn't do the things he's doing and I wouldn't expect him to do the things I did," Coach said. "If he just followed the things I do, he wouldn't mature and grow. The team was used to me, and he's a different personality. . . . Adversity makes men. Maybe we had things too easy. Maybe if he starts out like this, it will be better for him in the long run. He's getting his baptism early.

"There's no question in my mind that he's a good coach and will develop into a great one. You can't judge on one or two years. You have to wait three, four or five."

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