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Coach Ray Meyer has been a coach for so long now that what was once a mere occupation has become his first name. Coach Ray Meyer was a coach when he was playing high school basketball. Coach Ray Meyer was a coach when he met his wife, who happened to be a member of his team. Coach Ray Meyer was even a coach when he was a coach: there was a time when he would walk out of his DePaul University practice in the afternoon, step into a chauffeured limousine and ride off to help coach the Chicago American Gears that night in the old glory days of the AAU. "Now that was coaching," Coach Ray Meyer says.
Coach Ray Meyer's oldest son is a coach. His middle son is a coach. His son-in-law used to be a coach. His youngest son is thinking about it. None of the children calls Coach Ray Meyer "Father" or "Dad" or "Pop." It's always "Coach." Bobby Knight and Digger Phelps call him that. Coach Ray Meyer's wife, Marge, calls him that. "Coach isn't old," Marge says. "Coach is just, well, Coach."
Coach Ray Meyer is older than John Wooden was when he retired in 1975. He is older than Joe Lapchick was when he won his fourth and final National Invitation Tournament in 1965. He is older than Adolph Rupp was when he got to the national finals for the last time in 1966. He is almost as old as Ronald Reagan. Coach Ray Meyer was 66 years old on Dec. 18. The next day he won his 602nd game at De-Paul. And now he is No. 1. It has taken Coach Ray Meyer only 37½ years at the same school to get there. "What Coach is," says Clyde Bradshaw, one of the current Blue Demons, "is history."
Though this is the age of the born-agains, few people have been resilient enough to fade from public view and lie dormant, only to come roaring back and live again. Richard Nixon. Bobby Riggs. B. B. King. Ann Miller tapping her fabulous gams away on Broadway. We are not talking years here. We are talking a decade, a generation. Or more. And now, Coach Ray Meyer.
Long before the arrival of his current meal ticket, Mark Aguirre, before Kentucky and North Carolina and UCLA, before national rankings and Top 20s and No. Is and all that, Coach Ray Meyer and DePaul were bigtime. Maybe the biggest of the big times.
It is perhaps wise to remember this in light of present circumstances. "Joe, you've never heard such cheering," Marilyn Monroe said upon her return from the cheering troops she had entertained in Korea. "Yes, I have," said Joe DiMaggio.
In 1943 Coach Ray Meyer had a freshman named George Mikan at DePaul; Big George, the first of basketball's big men. The Blue Demons finished in a tie for third in the NCAA. The final four? No. This was before there was such a thing as a final four. In 1945 DePaul ravaged the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. Just tore it apart. The Demons played three games before an aggregate house of more than 50,000 and won the three by an aggregate margin of 85 points; in the semifinals against Rhode Island Mikan himself scored a record 53, matching the opposing team's total. Five days later in a Red Cross benefit game against NCAA champion Oklahoma A&M—a team DePaul had defeated during the regular season—Mikan fouled out midway in the first half, after which the Aggies rolled to a 52-44 upset victory.
The next season—Mikan's last with the Blue Demons—DePaul had an even better team, and Mikan was scheduled to be on the cover of LIFE. Coach Ray Meyer says the boys from LIFE took "holy man, a million pictures." Then President Roosevelt died. No cover. Later DePaul was not invited to the NCAA or the NIT, for reasons never explained to Meyer. When it rains, it pours.
Mikan went on to become the Babe Ruth of pro basketball as a member of the Minneapolis Lakers—he was voted player of the half century in 1950—while his coach spent the next 30 years establishing himself as a local institution in Chicago. Then last March, Coach Ray Meyer went national once more. The bad-knees limp. The hang-over belly. The beanbags under the eyes. The gap-toothed benevolence. (His children joke about his "sewer teeth.") That wonderfully ancient German mug with the folds of skin pouring over one another like the sands of time themselves. Here came Coach Ray Meyer again, sway-backing it across the hardwoods of the NCAA tournament like some legendary monarch, equal parts ward-heeling pol and trusty Saint Bernard. Why, this leathery old hog butcher from the Windy City was college basketball itself long before Billy Packer and Al McGuire and the other guy ever heard of the peacock. Luckily, television realized this. TV made Coach Ray Meyer—father of six, grandfather of 15, frumpy warlord of the Near North Side—a bigtime star all over again. And, as everyone who has noticed the raw and exciting young De-Paul team that will come blasting into the NCAA playoffs again next month surely realizes by now, the old man ain't finished being a star yet.
Coach Ray Meyer says he doesn't believe all the attention he's getting now. He says he doesn't especially like it either. "Where have all of you been the last 30 years?" he says to reporters. "I'm the same guy I was then." Well, he is and he isn't. Meyer is winning a lot more, of course. And on the surface he is acting calm and kind and grandfatherly, just as he did last season when America rediscovered him.