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The giant-sized life of Don Meyer: Not even the silver screen can hold it all

There are two American college basketball courts named after Coach Don Meyer. Make no mistake, though: there could never have been more than one Don Meyer. As most longtime Nashvillians are well aware, the much-awarded coaching legend took the Lipscomb Bisons to a 1986 national NAIA championship title and a dozen additional national tournaments. Collectively, his teams won 665 games, losing only 179 in Meyer’s 24-year tenure as men’s basketball coach.

Legendary former Lipscomb coach Don Meyer coaching at his team at Northern State University. PHOTO COURTESY NORTHERN STATE ATHLETICS

Legendary former Lipscomb coach Don Meyer coaching at his team at Northern State University. PHOTO COURTESY NORTHERN STATE ATHLETICS

Between 1975 and 1999, a period during which the name of David Lipscomb College was twice altered, Meyer remained busy transforming the lives of a few hundred men via his now-much-emulated program. After moving on to Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, he would do more of the same, in the process breaking the reigning record for wins held at that time by Bobby Knight.

Meyer, who died of complications from cancer at age 69 on May 18, 2014, left a great deal behind him, including three adult children and countless other people who are carrying forward a pursuit of excellence that testifies to Meyer’s mighty, faith-informed influence. “My Many Sons,” a film biopic about Meyer that was largely shot in Nashville and surrounding areas, is so titled because of the father-like role the coach had in the lives of his players.

According to co-producer/actor Casey Bond, the makers of the movie “wanted to focus on his relationships with his players, ’cause that’s where the real character building, the servant leadership and mentoring really took place. He put a lot of his life into these guys—the players, the program, basketball—and that takes a lot of your time,” notes Bond. “Different sacrifices are made with family members. [The movie covers] the journey of seeing what’s important in life, and what happens through that journey.”

“This is not a cradle-to-the-grave story,” explains Bond regarding the necessity of compressing Meyer’s story into movie form, “but I think we get some good insight toward the end of [Coach Meyer’s] life, after the wreck; how he sees things.” A former Lipscomb student-athlete himself, Bond portrays Meyer’s son, Jerry, a one-time Bison team member who still holds the college record for assists. Actor Judge Reinhold (“Beverly Hills Cop,” “Ruthless People”) was cast in the role of Coach Meyer, a man whose complexity, intensity and eventual softening after a near-fatal auto accident and subsequent cancer diagnosis in 2008 would be a tall order for any actor.

Steve Smiley, a former Northern State player who is depicted in “My Many Sons,” is among the NSU Wolves alumni who consulted with the film’s writer and producers on matters of detail and accuracy. Smiley, whose memoir “Playing for Coach Meyer” served as source material for the movie’s script, remembers that the coach “honestly didn’t care about the [personal] recognition” a biopic would bring.

Don Meyer receives a framed memento commemorating the naming of Don Meyer Court at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena in December 2011. PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS

Don Meyer receives a framed memento commemorating the naming of Don Meyer Court at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena in December 2011. PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS

Smiley remembers Meyer’s anticipation that “any publicity was gonna be great to help get students in the door, to help admissions [at Northern State]. He was always excited about that.” Smiley says Meyer felt especially encouraged that the film could “bring recognition to Northern and Lipscomb, good places and good people, and I think he was all for that.”

Meyer’s daughter Brittney Touchton says her father was on board with the film project for two main reasons: “He was hopeful that the movie could help people. And he also wanted the movie to portray how much he changed after the wreck, how much it changed him.” While Meyer’s sterling reputation for his servant-first leadership style and its far-reaching impact could well be heightened as a result of the film, Touchton feels that capturing her dad’s complete story is a task beyond a typical movie’s reach.

In particular, the profound emotional and spiritual deepening Meyer underwent after his accident is an aspect of his life that his family believes isn’t likely to come across in the movie as potently as it did in reality, over his final five and a half years of life.

Meyer was known as an uncompromising and often blunt man whose unorthodox coaching methods included pre-dawn practices, requiring his players to take extensive notes and delivering team-wide consequences if a single player made an irresponsible choice. His demeanor warmed when connecting in one-on-one settings, something Touchton says he was excellent at doing.

Don Meyer and his family on the Lipscomb campus early in his coaching tenure, circa 1978. From left: Don Meyer, children Jerry, Brooke and Brittney, and Carmen Meyer PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS AND THE MEYER FAMILY

Don Meyer and his family on the Lipscomb campus early in his coaching tenure, circa 1978. From left: Don Meyer, children Jerry, Brooke and Brittney, and Carmen Meyer
PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS AND THE MEYER FAMILY

“Dad liked helping people find their purpose and their gift.” Philip Hutcheson, a standout Bison player between 1986 and 1990, remembers Meyer sitting more than once “with a first-year middle-school coach, drawing up play after play on a Captain D’s napkin. There were plenty of times,” he says, “when there was no camera, no reporter, nobody in the room, almost, who would know he was doing something nice for somebody.” Hutcheson, who is convinced such acts were the fruits of Meyer’s deep-rooted Christian faith, says that the coach preferred to “walk the walk” without revealing his spiritual motivation in the form of words.

He could come off, Hutcheson says understatedly, as “pretty straightforward.” Often criticized by the coach on the finer points of his playing technique during his college career, Hutcheson—a four-time All-American and one of college ball’s all-time high scorers (with 4,106 points)—would “sometimes just leave [practice] thinking ‘it’s hopeless.’”

Both Hutcheson and Smiley would come to recognize the benefits of his demanding program, and both enjoyed a close friendship with Coach Meyer after they graduated. “We were a lot tighter, I think like a lot of those guys, after I played for him,” says Smiley, now a college coach. “Whenever I would have a problem with my team, he was the first guy I’d call.” Smiley made it to Meyer’s Sioux Falls hospital bedside just after the NSU coach underwent the below-the-knee amputation of his severely damaged left leg in mid-September 2008, two weeks after his Toyota Prius had crashed nearly head-on into a semi.

“He was in pain, but he was very at ease,” Smiley remembers. “He wanted to pray with you, he wanted to tell you how much he loved you—things he didn’t do before the accident. He was always a very stone-faced guy, he didn’t want to let people too far in, and that totally changed.”

Don Meyer with Lipscomb’s current athletic director Phil Hutcheson, one of the highest-achieving Bison team players ever to play Lipscomb basketball for Meyer. PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS

Don Meyer with Lipscomb’s current athletic director Phil Hutcheson, one of the highest-achieving Bison team players ever to play Lipscomb basketball for Meyer. PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS

When Philip Hutcheson visited Meyer in the hospital, the former Bison player was entertaining an offer to become Lipscomb University’s athletic director. When a still-critically injured Meyer got wind of this, says Hutcheson, “he asked someone to give him his notebook, and he starts writing down things [for me] to think about. I remember thinking, ‘This is better medicine than almost anything else,’ because it helped him again connect to one of his real purposes, which was trying to invest in other people.”

Even more healing for Meyer was the resulting reconnection with Lipscomb. In 1999, he abruptly left the university after officials decided to transfer from small-school NAIA Division II status to NCAA Division I, a move Meyer had outspokenly opposed and one that, for a time, alienated a portion of Bison boosters who felt Meyer was too important to lose.

“He had such great things going with their current status in NAIA, and he just didn’t feel like he could run a competitive program [in Division I],” explains his daughter. “I mean, that was tough, him leaving Lipscomb. He’d been there for, gosh, 24 years. The whole reconciliation . . . it came because of the wreck,” says Touchton. “He was on his back, Philip Hutcheson comes up and talks to him about this opportunity . . . it was just a moment of enlightenment for Dad.”

Hutcheson remembers his friend and former coach “talking about how much Lipscomb had meant to him, and how much the people there had meant to him. I think he felt like [my taking the athletic director position] was one of the ways he could kind of reconnect with Lipscomb.” Touchton agrees. “I think he saw it to be a resurgence of the old days, just in the ways that Dad built character, and his program, and all the rules. It had to feel somewhat validating for him that Philip would bring some of those things back to the program.”

Don Meyer with Chicago Cubs baseball legend Ernie Banks, special guest at the 6th annual Don Meyer Evening of Excellence held in April 2014. Meyer attended the Lipscomb University event only a month before succumbing to carcinoid cancer.  PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS

Don Meyer with Chicago Cubs baseball legend Ernie Banks, special guest at the 6th annual Don Meyer Evening of Excellence held in April 2014. Meyer attended the Lipscomb University event only a month before succumbing to carcinoid cancer.
PHOTO COURTESY LIPSCOMB ATHLETICS

Steve Smiley finds it inspiring that “Phil Hutcheson is back there as AD, and that before Coach passed on, they really mended those fences. That was a really important thing in his life, that he was able to mend that.” The first annual Don Meyer Evening of Excellence, a Lipscomb fundraiser honoring Meyer in April 2009, “felt very much like a coming home,” says Touchton. Full closure to the old wounds came in December 2011, when Lipscomb named its court for Meyer, a move Northern State had previously made.

Meyer returned to the NSU court, coaching from a wheelchair while battling inoperable cancer before retiring in 2010 with a then-record-breaking 923 wins. Touchton says that she and sister Brooke Meyer Napier “always thought that he would die coaching; literally, in a game, have a heart attack, hit the floor and die. He was so intense, and he had a history of cardiac problems,” she says. “It was just hard to imagine him being anything other than a coach.” As Steve Smiley points out, though, Meyer always functioned as more than an athletic coach. “What he really stood for, it wasn’t really about basketball,” Smiley asserts. “It was about him teaching guys to be successful in life. I mean, what coach really does that?”

The NSU Wolves congratulate Coach Meyer on his NCAA record-breaking 903rd win after a victorious game in January 2009, shortly after his post-accident return to coaching. PHOTO COURTESY NORTHERN STATE ATHLETICS

The NSU Wolves congratulate Coach Meyer on his NCAA record-breaking 903rd win after a victorious game in January 2009, shortly after his post-accident return to coaching.
PHOTO COURTESY NORTHERN STATE ATHLETICS

Touchton says that after her father left coaching and began conducting motivational seminars around the country, “He realized his team now was so much larger. It no longer was made up of 15 college-age boys. But,” she continues, “it was every corporation he went to talk to, it was every church group he would talk to . . . he really expanded to where he coached life, and he had a much broader audience. Being able to help and influence people beyond the basketball court was what kept him alive as long as he was.”

While “My Many Sons” will celebrate Meyer’s life in capsulized cinema form, it’s those sons themselves, Touchton believes, who will continue to tell the most comprehensive version of her father’s story. “He’s going to live on, not so much from people knowing him as from people knowing those whom he’s had an impact on. You know, it’s all those former players that he poured his heart into who are now carrying on his message. That’s why he’s a legend. It’s not so much just what he did, but what he planted in other people.”

Editor’s Note: More information on the movie, still unreleased when this story went to press, can be found at Don Meyer Movie on Facebook.

1 Comment

  1. John Tharpe

    As a student at David Lipscomb College (1986-1991,) I had the distinct privilege of watching Coach Meyer in action, during his “prime-time.” While I was not a student athlete, I can attest to the authenticity of Coach Meyer’s ability to inspire all that he came in contact with, and his encouragement to enrich the lives of all who came in contact with him, and not just those he coached. As Phil Hutcheson said, “Coach Meyer was a person that “preferred to walk the walk.” And what a “walk” he had! Excellence at its finest, and a legacy that is almost untouchable.