The other patriarchs of college basketball—Allen, Rupp, Iba and Wooden—are dead or retired, but Ray Meyer of DePaul endures. He is 64 years old, he has been at the small Catholic school on Chicago's Near North Side for 36 seasons, and he has won 566 college games, more than any other active coach and more than all but six men who ever diagrammed a play. And now, in what could be his next to last season, he may have his best team of all.
After defeating Wisconsin-Green Bay, a Division II school that had won 23 straight, and intracity rival Loyola last week, the Blue Demons were 22-2 and ranked eighth in the nation. They have beaten Notre Dame and Creighton on the road and Providence at home. They have been defeated only at LSU (where even Kentucky lost) and at Marquette (where everybody loses). Two more points here and seven more points there, and DePaul would be unbeaten.
Meyer refuses to say that this is the best team he has ever had. Until three weeks ago he had not even voted for it in the UPI Coaches' Poll. But he does say that he has never enjoyed coaching a team more, though 14 of his squads have played in postseason tournaments. "We don't have as much talent as a lot of other teams," he says, "but this is more talent than I've ever coached. In other years I had to fire them up with pep talks before every game. This one wins on ability."
Meyer has changed in more ways than curtailing his locker-room oratory. Although he can still tear into a referee, he claims he has mellowed over the years, that he relates to players better, that he does not demand as much from them. "I was a dictator," he says. "Before a big game I might scrimmage for two hours. After a loss I might wait until the gym cleared and make the team practice." He chuckles. "Mikan might not even recognize me the way I am now."
Mikan. Always there is the specter of 6'10" George Mikan, who played on Meyer's first four teams, 1943 through '46, and was the first of the dominant big men in both college and pro basketball. The Mikan era, forever hallowed at DePaul, produced 81 wins and an NIT championship—when an NIT championship was very special. Those years are a convenient gauge against which to measure the last four seasons, because during that time another very tall player, 6'11" Dave Corzine, has led the Blue Demons to 72 victories.
The current DePaul players tire of the comparisons between Mikan and Corzine, and the four other starters marched into Meyer's office recently to remind him that Corzine was not the only player on the team. But it is not the coach's fault. Comparisons—and confusion—are inevitable.
For instance, last week, referring to a plaque on his desk that reads: DESIRE DETERMINATION DEDICATION THE WINNING EDGE, Meyer said, "Mikan gave me that. No, I mean Corzine." Mikan, Corzine. What's the difference?
There is no confusing the impact Corzine has had on DePaul basketball. "He turned our program around," Meyer says. "He's the first high school All-America we've ever had, so I knew we'd be good the minute we got him. He has far more natural ability than George had, but George worked harder and developed more. I've always told Dave he could do better."
Corzine went to DePaul because he wanted to play college ball close to his suburban Chicago home. Though he was generally considered a prize catch, some schools questioned his desire. That reservation seemed well founded when, as a sophomore, Corzine told Meyer that too much was being expected of him. His progress since then has proved him and his critics wrong. This season he is doing everything that could be expected of a player, he leads the Demons in scoring (20.2), rebounding (11.2) and assists (4.5) and is shooting better than 50% for the first time in his career.
"Dave never believed he could be as good as he is," Meyer says. "This is the first year he has thought he could really play pro ball."