Rivals, supporters all agree in the merits of honoring former Lipscomb coach

Monday, November 8, 2010 at 10:45pm
Don Meyer

Don Meyer never coached for Belmont, but he beat the Bruins plenty of times during his 24 years as head coach of rival Lipscomb.

On Tuesday, Belmont will hold the Don Meyer Classic as the Bruins host Northern State, one of three schools Meyer led during his 38-year coaching career, in a contest broadcast live on ESPNU.

Not only is Meyer the all-time wins leader in men’s college basketball with 923, he also has gained national renown for his recovery from a near-fatal car crash in 2008. The accident led to the amputation of Meyer’s left leg below his knee and to the discovery of terminal cancer.

After he read an advance copy of How Lucky You Can Be, a book about Meyer — the 2009 recipient of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance — by ESPN The Magazine senior writer Buster Olney, ESPN executive John Skipper wanted to televise a game in Meyer’s honor. Thus came the idea of matching the two schools Meyer coached for the majority of his career. So in August, ESPN contacted Lipscomb athletic director Philip Hutcheson with the idea that the Bisons host Northern State, a Division II school, in an exhibition game.

“He is a Lipscomb legend and a Nashville sports legend,” Hutcheson, who played for Meyer from 1986-90, said. “I’m happy whenever he gets recognition for the work he has done.”

The problem was that Lipscomb’s plate already was full the day that ESPN wanted to have the game, the same day Olney’s book lands in stores.

Allen Arena already was booked with a volleyball match — Lipscomb against Belmont — the regular-season finale and senior night for that program. The possibility of moving that contest was discarded because of scheduling conflicts related to the floods in May.

Undeterred, Olney, a Vanderbilt graduate who covered Lipscomb and Belmont in the late 1980s and early ’90s for the now-defunct Nashville Banner, crafted a Plan B: He called Belmont basketball coach Rick Byrd.

“It took him about 0.4 seconds to say, ‘We have some things we need to sort out with our own complications, but we would love to do it,’ ” Olney said. “Basically, I think it speaks a lot to his respect for Don.”

Byrd, now in his 25th season at Belmont, felt like it was a way for “Nashville and an old rival in Belmont to pay tribute to Meyer’s career and, particularly, to pay tribute to his courage.”

“The way he has responded to his accident and his discovery of cancer is just a great lesson for all of us,” Byrd said. “I think if we can’t learn from other people’s, in this case, a traumatic experience, then we’re not paying much attention. … I don’t think I could have come close to having the kind of attitude Don has had since that.”

Meyer, who turns 66 in December, spent the last 11 years coaching at Northern State and retired after last season. He still works for Northern State as a Regent Distinguished Professor, helping with recruitment and fundraising for the school. Those responsibilities, along with speaking engagements and appearances at coaching clinics, regularly send him around the country.

“It’s not nearly as tough as coaching,” Meyer, who will attend the contest and sit in on the broadcast, said.

The event has been promoted as the inaugural Don Meyer Classic, but it is uncertain whether ESPN will put together a similar event next year. Hutcheson said Lipscomb, which created the Don Meyer Evening of Excellence two years ago as a fundraiser, would be interested in being involved if ESPN makes it an annual game. He added that the school hopes to have an event correlating with the book in December or January but is still working on setting a date.

By no means has Lipscomb forgotten a man who brought it an NAIA national championship in 1986. It’s just that on this night, Belmont gets to honor a local sports icon.