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. She added that Meyer’s wife, Carmen, said, “He’s running in heaven.”
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.
Some of the greatest names in college basketball were his biggest fans, including Krzyzewski, who once said Meyer did “a wonderful job of giving back to our great game.”
Former Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt, who holds the all-time win record for college basketball, has called Meyer “truly one of the best teachers in the history of the game.”
Praise also came from opponents, including Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who coached against Meyer at Northern State and worked Meyer’s camps at Lipscomb when he was an assistant coach.
“It didn’t matter if you were friend or foe,” Miles once said. “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 the car 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 postgame 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, Tennessee, where he coached 24 seasons at Lipscomb – where he twice was NAIA coach of the year and led the Bison to the 1986 title. He took over at Northern State in 1999, and two years later started a run of seven straight 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 and three children.
AP sports writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Eric Olson in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this story.