I am getting to the age when my mentors are all departing and the mentoring torch has been placed in my own hands. I have had the pleasure of sitting under the teaching of John Wooden, Jim Valvano, Al McGuire and Don Meyer.
Meyer was perhaps the one who most influenced my life as a coach. One time I can remember that he sat me down when I was ready to end my coaching career too soon. I was feuding with an athletic director and I was losing the battle.
Meyer who was then coaching at Lipscomb University in Nashville told me, “Wrestling with an athletic director can sometimes be like wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” He also told me that if I was willing to quit over something like that, it wouldn’t be fair to my kids to keep coaching because you have to live what you coach.
This man was an ESPY award winner for perseverance and gives a tribute on the back cover of my book “A Warrior’s Heart.” He won 923 collegiate basketball games. On a very cold week in Michigan, just before my Varsity season began, he called and told me that he was going to be doing a coaching clinic at Saginaw Valley University.
I knew he was, and I knew that he was very sick, but I was preparing a new team for the start of a grueling year and I didn’t know if I could find the time. Something in his weakened voice made me change my mind and I told him I’d be there. It was the last public coaching clinic that he would ever speak at.
I entered SVU and watched some new drills by the Varsity coaches there and was asked to evaluate them. Most of them knew I was a 5-Star veteran coach and a hall of fame coach in Michigan. They also knew that I was a student of the Don Meyer teaching on life.
When I entered the room and saw him, I was shocked at how thin he’d become. I talked with him after he addressed the men’s Varsity players in a private session. He told me he wasn’t doing well and asked if I’d have my church say a prayer for him.
When it was time to take the court as I had seen him do many times, things were different. He walked slowly out to a spot in the middle of the court where one of the assistants put a chair down for him. The coach then told all of us that he was too sick to coach any drills.
Meyer commented, “I just want to talk to you guys for a little while.”
His body was failing and he was wracked with cancer and weak from three heart valves that they had recently implanted. And it was a coaching clinic like none I’ve ever been to. All of us hung on each word he spoke while seated in the hard, metal folding chair for three hours.
He passed on his wisdom and I knew that he was passing the torch that he had carried since his early twenties when he humbly picked it up from his mentors. We listened to him talk about the three “f’s,” faith, family, friendship. We learned about how close he was to heaven and that he was sure that he still had a purpose or God would have taken him home in the car accident. The crash took his lower leg, but during the surgery, they found out he had cancer.
He said it was a miracle because it gave him a sense of the time he had left and caused him to better teach on the things that were essential to life, even as he was facing death.
He challenged us to be “spiritual servants” and to leave a legacy. To leave a place “Better” than when we found it. He spoke about his three rules, everybody takes notes, every day of their life. Everybody says “please” and “thank-you.” Every day of their life.
And the third thing.
One of the simplest and most profound things he told us was not about picking, screening, shooting or sealing a zone defense. Nor was it about winning games in the crunch. But from the room where pins could be heard dropping to that cold wooden floor, he quietly looked into our eyes and said, “pick up trash.”
It was in that moment that I learned again for the first time, it’s not what they hear you say, but what they see you do that will leave the deepest footprints. Life is rolling up your sleeves and making sure to wear your work boots.
I watched a man come to coach in his own special way to a handful of coaches a thousand miles from his home and family, in the midst of his adversity, a trip he didn’t really have to make. And it wasn’t his reputation or the words that impressed us as much as seeing him show up to make a difference just one last time. We were watching a man give everything he had left to people who could give him nothing in return.
He spoke about us being living epistles being read by all men. “And,” he said, “You will learn a lot about a person when he’s getting his butt kicked.”
We watched a man receive his reward from the passion that he gave himself to... the chance to talk about God and family and friends. Life. Death. And basketball.
His pulpit was his basketball court; his calling was to his athletes and others who had a passion for the game. I left that night and reconnected with what he tried to tell us all for years. “They’ll all be watching to see what we do, especially in the storm.” He left nothing on the court when he departed. Except an old rusted torch.