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, died Sunday 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 Aberdeen, S.D.
The former Northern State coach died Sunday morning of cancer at his home in Aberdeen, where he had recently gone into hospice care, family spokeswoman Brenda Dreyer said.
“He won his greatest victory and is now running again and gearing up to pitch nine innings,” the Meyer family said in a statement. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love, prayers and concern.”
Meyer spent most of his coaching career at Lipscomb (1975 to ’99) but also coached at Hamline (1972 to ’75) and Northern State (1999 to 2010).
Four months after a near-fatal car accident and a cancer diagnosis, Meyer passed Bob Knight as the NCAA’s winningest coach in men’s basketball history in 2009. The native of Wayne, Neb., retired following the 2010 season at Northern State and a 13-14 record — only his fourth losing season.
Some of the greatest names in college basketball were his biggest fans, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who surpassed Meyer’s record in 2012 and once said Meyer did “a wonderful job of giving back to our great game.”
Jerry Meyer played for his dad at Lipscomb from 1989 to ’92, and credits his dad’s success with a seamless, on- and off-court philosophy that lent itself to an exciting game.
“He was a tough coach to play for, very demanding physical and mentally. But that’s what made him a great coach, and that’s why all his players, he influenced their lives so much and produced so many coaches,” Jerry Meyer said.
Praise also came from opponents, including Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who coached against Meyer at Northern State.
“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 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 that had to be amputated below the knee.
He later called the accident a blessing, because doctors also found cancer in his liver and small intestines.
Four months after the accident — while coaching from a wheelchair — he became the winningest men’s basketball coach on Jan. 10, 2009. Yet always the teacher, Meyer noted during the postgame huddle defensive lapses on some three-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 told the crowd, standing on his right leg and leaning against the scorer’s table.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Memorial services will be held at Lipscomb and Northern State.
He is survived by his wife and three children. His son Jerry said: “He competed to the very end, literally.”