SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Don Meyer, one of the winningest coaches in college basketball who came back from a near-fatal car accident and liver cancer before closing out his career, has died in South Dakota. He was 69.
Meyer led his teams into the playoffs 19 times and compiled a 923-324 during his 38-year career, most of which he spent at Lipscomb in Tennessee and Northern State in South Dakota.
The former Northern State coach died of cancer at 6:52 a.m. Sunday at his home in Aberdeen where he had recently gone into hospice care, family spokeswoman Brenda Dreyer said.
Four months after a near-fatal car accident and a cancer diagnosis, Meyer passed Bobby Knight as the NCAA's winningest coach in men's basketball history in 2009. The native of Wayne, Nebraska, retired following the 2010 season at Northern State and a 13-14 record — only his fourth losing season — before Duke's Mike Krzyzewski surpassed his record in 2012.
Meyer spent his entire head coaching career first at tiny Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn, from 1972-1975, then at Lipscomb and finally at Northern State in S.D.
His 1985-86 Lipscomb team won the NAIA national championship and he led the Bisons to the national tournament 12 other seasons.
His teams most often played before small crowds with very little media coverage, yet Mr. Meyer's notoriety grew and grew throughout his career mainly because of his profound success and because of the respect he garnered from his players and others in his profession.
"Upon meeting Coach Meyer and I became instant friends," said Tennessee women's basketball coach emeritus Pat Summitt. "We shared a passion for the game and were constantly pulling from each others' materials. His knowledge of the game was extraordinary and his willingness to share it with others incredible. He was an awesome teacher of the game and I always soaked up everything I could when in his presence."
When he wasn't busy winning games Mr. Meyer was producing instructional videotapes, conducting youth and coaching clinics and also relying on other methods to teach.
He produced more than 40 and 15 books and at one point had the largest camp in the world with more than 5,000 campers each summer.
"So few have been able to do what Don did," said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who faced Meyer early in his career with the Bruins. "Morgan Wootten was the coach at DeMatha High School (Hyattsville, Md.) and became a guy that was a national clinician and everybody in the coaching profession knew who he was. He and Don are the only two I can think of who became so well known even though they did not coach at a big school."
Mr. Meyer became popular for the many ways he figured out to provide instruction.
"It's tremendous success, which gives you validity, that got him started," Byrd said. "And then it was all the coaching materials that he put out. All the videos and the huge camps that he had and the people who came and worked his camp. He just developed a reputation as a guy who really studied and knew the game of basketball. There are all kinds of personalities in coaching, but there are few who are just about the game and that was Don."
Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who coached against Meyer at Northern State and worked Meyer's camps at Lipscomb when he was an assistant coach, once said, "It didn't matter if you were friend or foe. He would open up his playbook and show you his plays, and then he would turn around and beat you with that same play when your team played his."
Meyer kept coaching after being critically injured in traffic accident in September 2008. He was alone in a compact car, leading a caravan of vehicles heading to an annual team retreat, when he collided head-on with a grain truck. Multiple operations followed to remove Meyer's spleen, repair cracked ribs and deal with a mangled left leg later amputated below the knee.
He would later call the accident a blessing, because doctors also found cancer in his liver and small intestines.
Four months later — while coaching from a wheelchair — he became the winningest men's basketball coach on Jan. 10, 2009. Yet always the humble teacher, Meyer noted during the post-game huddle defensive lapses on some 3-pointers.
"How selfish it would be if I was celebrating all this stuff and they were trying to be a better team," he said at the time.
But a few minutes after the historic victory, Meyer finally smiled — and thought of his wife.
"I haven't had this much fun since Carmen and I were married," he said, standing on his right leg and leaning against the scorer's table as streamers and confetti drifted to the floor and the crowd of 6,654 listened to his postgame comments.
He was honored in July 2009 with ESPN's Jimmy V Perseverance Award, given to a member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles. It's named for former North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano, who died in 1993 after a fight against cancer. Meyer also was given the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August 2010.
Meyer was a standout baseball and basketball player at Northern Colorado. He graduated in 1967 then began his head coaching career with three seasons at Hamline in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1972.
He later moved to Nashville, where he coached 24 seasons at Lipscomb — twice being named NAIA coach of the year and leading the Bison to the 1986 title. He took over at Northern State in 1999, and two years later started a run of seven consecutive 20-win seasons.
Meyer compiled records of 37-41 at Hamline, 665-179 at Lipscomb, and 221-104 at Northern State.
He'd had other health problems in recent years, including surgery in August 2012 to implant a heart pacemaker. That came after doctors replaced three of Meyer's heart valves with mechanical ones and repaired a hole in his heart.
He is survived by his wife, Carmen, and three children.