Coaching legend Meyer speaks in Jamestown

Don Meyer refers to himself as a small-college coach. But in his 38 years of coaching, he's made a big-time impact. Meyer, a former coach at Northern State University, is the winningest men's basketball coach in NCAA history after concluding almo...


Don Meyer refers to himself as a small-college coach. But in his 38 years of coaching, he's made a big-time impact.

Meyer, a former coach at Northern State University, is the winningest men's basketball coach in NCAA history after concluding almost four decades of coaching with a record of 923-324 -- a winning percentage of .740.

But months prior to setting the all-time record, which was previously held by legendary coach Bob Knight, Meyer suffered a major setback.

On Sept. 5, 2008, Meyer fell asleep at the wheel and veered into the path of a semi hauling thousands of pounds of grain. The two vehicles collided head-on, nearly costing Meyer his life. It did, however, cost much of his left leg, which was amputated from the knee down.

But in the aftermath of the near-fatal collision, more devastating news was uncovered.


While in the process of removing Meyer's spleen hours following the accident, doctors discovered cancer in his liver and small intestine, later diagnosed as carcinoid cancer.

"The first three or four days, (doctors) were just trying to keep me alive," said Meyer, who was in Jamestown as a featured speaker for the James Valley Youth for Christ "Report to the People" Banquet. "They tried to keep the leg, but the leg was poisoning my body. ... I just took it step-by-step just to try to make it, but it was tough."

Meyer spent just 55 days in the hospital, and on that next morning -- at 4:45 -- he returned to work.

"That's how I got out of the hospital, having a team there waiting to work with," Meyer said. "I probably left (the hospital) too soon, but I probably would have gone crazy if I didn't."

Later that season, Meyer reached the wins milestone when his Wolves took down Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival University of Mary 82-62 on Jan. 10, 2009 in front of a packed crowd inside the Barnett Center in Aberdeen, S.D. -- the home of the Wolves.

"I was glad to get it over with, and my biggest concern was with my team," said Meyer. "The idea was to get better every game. That was the biggest thing I was concerned about."

Meyer's passion for coaching transceded his love for basketball itself.

Despite having to patrol the sideline in a wheelchair, Meyer was determined to continue his role as Northern State's leader. After setting the new mark for career wins, Meyer led the Wolves to NCAA Division II Central Region tournament later that year.


Meyer returned to his post as Northern State's coach for one more season before stepping down and retiring from coaching following the 2009-10 season.

"When it was all over I thought, 'Man, how have I done this for 38 years?" he said. "I thought I would like to do it again, but I had to let it go."

Meyer spent three seasons at Hamline University and 24 seasons at Lipscomb University before closing out his career at Northern State.

Coaching took up majority of his life for almost four decades, but for the farm boy out of Wayne, Neb., it was what he was meant to do.

"I knew I would be a terrible farmer, that was the biggest reason," Meyer joked, with his wife Carmen sitting by his side at a table inside the Civic Center. "But I love sports. ... I always felt like the worst day coaching is better than the best day doing anything else."

ESPN honored Meyer at the ESPY Awards with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance following the 2009 season, where he received a standing ovation from an audience that included athletes and A-listers such as Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Danica Patrick, Maya Moore, Ben Roethlisberger and the award presenter Rob Lowe.

"It was sort of fun," Meyer said, trying to downplay the honor. "Carmen had fun; she got to visit with Maya Moore and all the big shots.

"But (Los Angeles) is a little too big for me."


Meyer's never been interested in the bigger cities and colleges. Even when it came to coaching, his heart was always with the smaller communities.

"I've always liked small schools more," said Meyer, who also took time to talk with the Jamestown College men's basketball team prior to Monday's Banquet. "I think there's more emphasis on teaching and being a team."

Meyer still works with Northern State as the assistant to the president, where he helps raise enrollment and some money for the University.

"I really believe I've been put in a place where I'm doing the thing I should be doing right now," said Meyer. "This is what I should be doing -- as long as I can do it."

And with his background, he will.

"Getting out of coaching, the only way to make it less painful is knowing that you can't do it physically or emotionally the way you want to do it," Meyer said. "If I could do it, I would probably still be doing it.

"I think I'm probably really doing what I should be doing in my life."

Sun sports writer David Griswold can be reached at (701) 952-8462 or by e-mail at . Follow him at

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