One of the most successful father-and-son acts in the country is stagings its performances these days in a small gymnasium in Chicago and a number of larger basketball palaces around the college circuit.
For Ray Meyer, De Paul University's irrepressible 66-year-old head coach, and son Joe, his no. 1 assistant since 1971, the past year has been a magic carpet ride to the top of the college basketball world. The trip reached a new plateau two weeks ago when the Blue Demons were voted the nation's top team in both wire service polls - the first time in the history of the school that its team had been No. 1. They're still up there, too -- unanimously at this point in the AP voting and just one vote shy of that honor in the UPI poll.
The sports world first focused in on this latest chapter of the Meyer story last spring when DePaul reached the NCAA's Final Four and became a strong sentimental favorite to win the national championship before losing to Larry Brid and Indiana State in the semifinals.
So far this season, the Blue Demons have been even more successful, currently ranking as the nation's only major undefeated team with an 18-0 record that includes big wins on the road against Marquette and UCLA.
De Paul, a Catholic university of some 14,000 students, plays its home games in alumni Hall, an arena with a seating capacity of jsut 5,308. The blue Demons are the hottest ticket in town these days, and their games have been sold out since last May.
Meyer, a charistmatic, grandfatherly figure now in his 38th season as head coach, has a 614-333 won-lsot record and has already been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He has even become known affectionately, in some circles, as "America's Coach."
Despite his many achievements, however, Ray didn't really begin to attract widespread national attention until De Paul's NCAA Tournament successes a year ago and, more recently, when his team was voted No.1.
Typically, Ray places much of the credit for his team's rising curve of success in the past few years with someone else: son Joe.
"Hiring Joey was clearly the best coaching move I've ever made," Meyer told the Monitor in a telephone interview from his Chicago office. "He has been the one most responsible for the recruitment of the players who have taken us to where we are today. I'm not a better coach than I was 10 years ago. We simply have the better players."
Ten years ago Meyer's best player was that same son, Joe. Unfortunately, the younger Meyer didn't have much of a supporting cast and the team finished below .500 for only the fourth time in his father's career. The following season, with Joe serving as captain, the Blue Demons compiled a woeful 8-17 record, worst in the school's history.
"Our program was at low ebb," recalled Joe, who nevertheless was drafted by Buffalo of the NBA. "The school jsut hadn't kept up with the times with the basketball program. There was no recruiting budget, no full-time assistant coach, no help at all for my father. As a result, we were getting clobbered."
so Ray Meyer, then 58 and increasingly distraught at the deteriorating situation, asked school officials to make a decision. While privately flirting with the idea of retirement (he now says, ironically, that he hopes to coach another two or three years at least), Meyer told the administrators they would have to commit some funds if they hoped to have a successful program. they agreed, Ray received a recruiting budget, and he immediately hired Joe as his first full-time assistant coach.
"I think one of the advantages of being his son," Joe told the Monitor, "is that I'm able to question him, maybe stick my neck out more than someone else might be able to do. He has listened to me more nad more in the past several years, and that has given me a great deal of added confidence."
"Joey has become a great organizer," offerd his father. "He maps out the recruiting strategy, plans our scouting assignments, and -- most important -- calms me down when I get excited. He's the one who has brought in the great players. We wouldn't be No. 1 without him, I know that."
Certainly there can be no argument that the talent coffers at De Paul are full. The Blue Demons boast a loaded front court that features 6 ft. 7 in. sophomore March Aguirre, who led last year's team in scoring and is currently pouring in an average of 25.9 points a game. Aguirre, a gold chip forward from Chicago's Westinghouse High School, has parlayed a soft outside shooting touch with a thunderous inside game into night after night of All-America performances.
But DePaul isn't just Aguirre. Clyde Bradshaw, a stylish senior who leads the Blue Demons in both steals and assists, and sophomroe Skip dillard, a high school teammate of Aguirre, comprise a polished and potent backcourt. Up front Jim Mitchem, a 6-9 senior, joins 6-9 Terry Cummings and 6-8 TEddy Grubbs, a pair of dazzling freshmen from Chicago, to provide such a productive blend of talent that it is virtually impossible for foes to successfully overplay Aguirre.
Coaching skilled big men is nothing new to Ray Meyer, who had the great George Mikan on his 1945 NIT champion team. More recently he tutored 6-11 Dave Corzine, nwo with the Washington Bullets, who led De Paul to a 27-3 recordand a berth in the NCAA playoffs in 1977-78. The recruitment of Corzine, a Chicago native, helped foster the current backyard pipeline that has reaped Aguirre, Dillard, Cummings and Grubbs. According to Joe Meyer, Aguirre has also been something of a Pied Piper.
"Mark has been an incredible resource for us," says the younger Meyer. "There is no question that he was a big factor in helping us convince kids like Cummings and Grubbs to stay home and go to school. When he talked to them he told them if they planned on returning to Chicago after their college careers that they would be smarter to stay in the city, where their recognition factor would ultimately be much greater."'
Certainly the national attention the school has received recently won't harm the Meyers' recruiting efforts in other parts of the country either. But according to Ray the glare of the spotlight has a few drawbacks also.
"In the first week after we were voted No. 1," says Meyer, "our coaching schedules were totally disrupted. With all the phone calls and interviews it was as though an avalanche had hit us. I ended up watching game fils at 11 o'clock each night. The pressure is so much more intense. All of a sudden people are asking, 'why didn't you win by more"' instead opf saying, 'nice win.'
"But as Ella Fitzgerald says 'it's better to be rich than it is to be poor.' And the kids like the recognition. I think they're working harder than ever because they want to stay on top."
Meyer doesn't think his team will go undeafeated, but he doesn't appear to regret that either.
"One of the nice things about our players is that they don't think they can lose," he claims. "They're plahing with a great deal of confidence and I think we'll be a very strong team around tournament time. But I think we'll probably lose a game sometime soon. And that's OK. We didn't think we'd go undefeated. As long as we win our last game, I'll be happy."