Don Meyer finds himself in an unfamiliar territory these days. After 38 seasons and 923 wins, the winningest men’s basketball coach in college history is now retired from the game and spends his time working as a professor, speaker and author. In the first edition of Coaches Corner, Championship Productions editor Adam Warner sits down with the coaching legend and learns about Meyer’s life after retirement, his coaching philosophy, helpful advice for coaches and players, and what exactly he wants people to remember most about his truly remarkable career.
You’re now retired from coaching, what’s the feeling like being away from the bench?
I don’t really miss it at all because I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t have the physical stamina and emotional reserves to deal with it. When I got out of coaching, I realized just how much I put into it, and you don’t realize that until you retire. I said to myself, “How was I able to do that for so many years?”
I watch the games and I see mistakes and they make me upset sometimes. But I know basketball can’t be played perfectly and it’s none of my business, but I still watch and enjoy seeing the game played. I don’t go to practice anymore. It’s not the right thing to do, especially with a new coach and a new program. In my last few years, I knew I didn’t have it, and I knew retiring was the best thing for the team.
When did you know that you wanted to be a coach?
When I knew I wasn’t good enough to go pro. I also liked teaching. I had a baseball job at Western St. College and was also an assistant basketball coach. I received my masters at Northern Colorado when I finished playing. Although I thought I did, I didn’t understand basketball yet. I was lucky to get into the game and learned a lot under Bill Foster at Utah. I also liked coaching at the college level more than at the high school level, so I knew that was the right place for me. There’s less parental influence and more teaching. Everything changes though, but that’s the only constant thing, the teaching in coaching.
What do you think is the greatest aspect about being a coach?
The most fun was to see kids develop into a team, become team players, play team basketball and just team everything — players that look out for each other and help one another on and off the floor.
Over 38 years, I only had one player who didn’t graduate. That talks about what you do on and off the floor. You work with a kid individually on how he can execute or help the team win a game. I enjoyed seeing the team play hard, smart, together and having fun while doing it.
How do you think you’ve changed as a coach over the years?
You get humbler the longer you coach. I don’t think I ever looked the other way. I used to sleep on problems a bit and then come back the next day having thought things over. But some things you have to deal with immediately, like if players fight, things like that. There’s a lot of facts you need in situations before you make a decision. And as a young coach, you can’t have procrastination. You have to deal with things as soon as it’s wise to do so.
How would you define your coaching philosophy?
After a while, it’s less about the on-paper stuff and more about feeling it in your gut. You have to have a concept in your mind about how you want kids to behave before you worry about how you want them to play. How they behave is how they end up playing.
I’m a big believer in courtesy, concentration, communication, competing and consistency. The ability for kids today to concentrate is tough. You snap your fingers and they are gone and so teaching them to concentrate is doing a great service.
With courtesy, it’s about please and thank you, things like picking up trash and cleaning up hallways and cleaning up after other people. Communication is about teaching on the floor and off the floor and resolving problems before they become a big deal. Meanwhile, people that don’t compete, complain. True competitors are too busy looking to win and don’t have the time to complain. And all of these things lead to consistency. It’s about doing the right thing and the next right thing right. We will always make mistakes, but the next thing must be right.
Also, treat people right who can’t do anything to you or for you. We far too often ignore those who can’t do things for us.
As a coach, where did you draw inspiration from?
Coach (Bob) Knight was a great teacher. Dick Bennett, Pat Summitt, Rick Majerus and Mike Krzyzewski are all great teachers. More often than not, the biggest inspiration comes from the small-time coaches, the one’s that are really into teaching and have it figured it out, like Bob Hurley and Morgan Wootten.
What’s the best advice you can give to a new coach?
Don’t ever take a job for the money. Also, you can expect to get fired. There are two types of coaches: been fired or about to be fired. Actually, the best coaches get fired because they take a stand, especially at high school or college.
Can you talk about one of the most successful plays you’ve used throughout your career? What was it called and what made it so effective?
You need an inside game and an outside game. You need to get to the rim on offense and also be able to hit the pull-up shot. If you can do all four, you will be impossible to guard. How good you are defensively determines whether you’ll be good offensively. If you’re bad at defense, you have no chance. It starts with the stop and then the score.
We modified a drill from coach (Gregg) Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs where “Team A” goes up against “Team B.” Basically, if you get a stop and a score, you win the game. You can’t win big games without stopping the other team and if you can’t defend, you won’t be playing in March.
Is there a particular drill you’ve always used throughout your career?
Joe Paterno once said that a coach’s job is to replicate game situations in practice. My son (Jerry) also has a good saying, “Make practices like games and games like practices.”
To me, it’s about being a skill coach and not a drill coach. It’s about learning how to play the game and then properly execute the fundamentals that are part of the game. Just look at the game itself, it’s all about passing, catching, dribbling and shooting. Then you add moving without the ball and screening. That’s when you work on one of those things at a game tempo once you’ve taught them in order to get good at them. Our practices were always geared to make everything game-like.
Talk about some of the in-season conditioning programs/routines you instituted over the years. Why did you choose them and why were they effective?
I believe there’s too much preseason training and plyometrics. That’s why there are so many injures to athletes now. We have trainers looking for injuries everywhere. I believe the best way to get in basketball shape is to just play basketball.
Talk about some of the most common mistakes you see being made in the game today.
It’s no different from when I was coaching. The pros often set a bad example for college players and college players set a bad example for high school players, and so on. It’s the disintegration of playing the game through class.
Take for example all the chest bumping, arguing with refs or tapping chests. For myself, if I went back and coached, I would try to be sounder about how the game was taught. We’d play the way that was the best way to win and we’d be more solid in terms of integrity, academics and behavior. We’d also be simpler. The sounder we play, the better we play. Things have taken a funny path and have changed a lot over the past 30 years, and that’s not too long ago. It’s all a microcosm of society and a reflection of how people are today.
Besides talent, what are some of the most important key ingredients needed to have a championship-caliber team?
First is humility. Then you need players that are willing to listen and can play the game together as a team. Butler was a great example of this last year. It was a team that wasn’t as talented as the others, but they enjoyed playing together, had a system and believed in it. They played team ball and did the little things they had to do in order to make the team successful.
Also, I’m a believer that you should lean toward the defensive side of things as a coach. It’s remains true in every sport: You must be able to defend.
What do you look for in an ideal basketball player?
Toughness. Being mentally and physically tough is so important. You can’t put a value on that. After that, if they are athletic, that helps. Also, it’s important that they have the ability to learn and pick up skills. It’s impossible to know for sure with any player at the onset the way recruiting is structured. As a coach, it often comes down to a gut feeling you have about an athlete. You ask yourself, “Will I like or dislike coaching this kid?” Then comes the reality of coaching and finding out for real.
Looking back on your career, is there a feat or accomplishment you are most proud of?
If you like what you are doing and if you work with great kids, that’s a great blessing. I’ve been fortunate.
The other thing is serving other people. Being a servant leader is what life is all about. Our guys would get shirts with T.E.A.M.S. written across them. The T is for toughness, E is for effort, A is for attitude, M is for motive and S is for servant leaders. If you could be servant leaders, that said it all, and all the other things would lead into that.
What do you want people to remember most about your coaching days?
It’s my hope that the kids who played for us can help others and held some of those values that we held into our coaching and went out and used them. Your legacy as a coach is what kids accomplished when you worked with them. I give the kids all of the credit. They came in with great values and hopefully they were okay when they left. And you accept that.
The whole legacy of a coach is his players. Hopefully, you can also have an impact on the game, the way it was played and the treatment of others. Wins and losses do not mean a whole lot in the big picture, but you do have to win if you want to keep on coaching. But the accumulation of wins doesn’t mean much. It’s all about how kids come out of the program and what they do down the road.