At a luncheon in Chicago on Dec. 1, Tom Meyer took his adolescence up to the podium with him. He looked every inch the kid who had just gotten the keys to the family car for a big date. But as he'd tell a funny story, laugh lines would appear that gave his face an avuncular cast, and for a moment he'd resemble his father, Ray Meyer, the coach of ninth-ranked DePaul, who would be Tom's rival that evening.
"The last nationally ranked team we played was Wyoming, last year," said Tom, the 38-year-old coach at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, a school with an enrollment of 20,000 that is new to Division I competition this season. "We went out to one free-throw line for warmups and they went out to the other. And the arena tilted."
The court didn't list that night, even though DePaul beat UICC 78-53. But that wasn't the most remarkable thing about the first meeting between a father and his son as coaches in a big-time basketball game. No, the wonder was that the game had come off at all. If any other 67-year-old in Ray Meyer's circumstances had agreed to schedule the upstart 35 blocks down the street, there would have been speculation whether the years had caught up with him.
The conventional wisdom is that an established national power like DePaul simply doesn't give a game and, thus, credibility to the basketball program at an upstart school against which it's beginning to recruit head-to-head. Worse from the Blue Demons' point of view, UICC had the talent to make an upset entirely possible, even without Mark Aguirre on hand to help DePaul flirt with disaster. Witness Chicago Circle's defeats of Wisconsin (74-66) and Ohio U. (63-55) to win the Wisconsin Invitational later in the week. In short, the Demons had nothing to gain and everything to lose. "It's a case of Ray being as good a father as he is a coach," said Circle Assistant Coach Rick Kilby before the game.
Ray agreed in principle to play Chicago Circle when Tom approached him three years ago about a game to christen a planned 10,000-seat pavilion on the UICC campus. But a nine-week heavy-equipment operators' strike delayed construction and gave Ray a chance to beg off. Instead, he consented to move the game into the Rosemont Horizon, De-Paul's 17,000-seat home court. UICC, however, remained the home team, which meant that their game wasn't among the ones for which DePaul's 13,500 season ticket-holders automatically had seats. The crowd was a disappointing 5,222. It all was a bit like young Ron Reagan inviting his dad to the White House for a state dinner.
Tom began preparing for the game over the summer at Ray Meyer's Basketball Camp in Three Lakes, Wis., where Ray, his wife, Marge and their six kids and 17 grandchildren stay in the family lodge. "At seven every night they showed a DePaul game film, and I was there," Tom says. "I don't feel it was cheating. Then I took old DePaul films to the basement and watched them by myself."
"We wondered where he was," says Marge. "Then his sister, Barbara, said, 'What do you think he's doing? He's scouting.' Coach knew."
In the end, UICC may have been too well prepared. Nervousness appeared to be the main reason it fell behind 31-12 after 13:42, and then, despite outplaying DePaul during the middle third of the game, fatigue ultimately eliminated any chance it had of catching up. UICC made a run in the second half behind freshman Point Guard Craig (Cubby) Lathen, pulling to within 10 with 9:15 to go. But De-Paul's Bernard Randolph interred a couple of jumpers and, with them, UICC.
"After the initial kick of facing a legend and being Division I, it was just like coaching against any other guy down the sideline," said Tom afterward. Indeed, during the game, Tom and Ray never betrayed their relationship with their behavior or their styles of play. DePaul started in a man-to-man, and UICC opened in a zone; Ray's assistants leaped off the bench at unwelcome whistles, while Tom's, following strict orders, stayed put. Tom looked toward Ray just once, in the second half, when Lathen drove the lane and the DePaul bench jumped up, imploring the officials for a traveling call.
"Walking?" yelled Tom. "What do you mean 'walking'? He got killed." Clearly, this was business as usual.