Legendary basketball coach Don Meyer captivates during speech in Lemmon

LEMMON, S.D. — Becky Engel was holding up the line.

Everyone behind her would have to wait though. The man who had just spoken for an hour was now listening intently to her.

Engel, an 18-year-old senior at Faith (S.D.) High School who is in remission from leukemia, was one of hundreds who listened to legendary basketball coach Don Meyer speak Tuesday afternoon at the Lemmon Armory.

Meyer, one of the winningest college basketball coaches of all time and a cancer survivor, spoke for about an hour on the subjects of leadership and character.

“It was nice to know that he still has the encouragement with all that he has gone through, and he gives me encouragement too,” said Engel, who was diagnosed last August. “… It helps me see that you have to stay strong through it all and keep going.”

The 67-year-old captivated an audience of mostly northwest South Dakota schools high school students and Lemmon community members with anecdotes, jokes and motivational talking points.

He struck a chord with Engel, however, because of his backstory.

The former men’s basketball coach at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., lost his left leg below the knee following a September 2008 car accident. A short time after the accident, he learned he had liver and intestinal cancer.

He is the subject of the book, “How Lucky Can You Be?” by ESPN’s Buster Olney. He signed several copies before and after his speech.

Meyer retired from coaching after the 2009-10 season with a record of 923-324. His wins total, compiled over 36 seasons at Hamline University (Minn.), Lipscomb University (Tenn.) and Northern State, is better than Bob Knight’s and was surpassed by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski this season.

Meyer now spends the bulk of his time doing inspirational and motivational speaking engagements, mostly in the upper Midwest.

“I don’t think I’m that inspiring,” Meyer said. “I think the ideas and the talks can be inspiring. I don’t talk about the wreck. But I try and give them things that they can do and that they can utilize to help their lives. That’s the important thing.”

Meyer enthralled the audience with anecdotes about sports figures both great and not-so great that served as lead-ins to his motivational points.

His tales included success stories of New York Yankees superstar Derek Jeter, and legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, as well as the hardships surrounding former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf because of the choices he made.

“There’s been a lot of dumb decisions made because people didn’t stop and think about it first,” Meyer said.

He shared his 5 C’s for success — concentration, courtesy, communication, competing and consistency — spoke about the importance of mental discipline in one’s life and closed with the poem “God’s Hall of Fame.”

At one point, Meyer asked for a student volunteer to come down to the floor and pick three friends he would “want in his foxhole,” as a way of relating to the audience how important it is to surround yourself with the right type of people.

“You’ve got to know who the toughest, most trustworthy people are in your business, team, family,” Meyer said. “Know who needs to be in your foxhole.”

Lemmon Sports Booster Club President Pat Delzell, a Northern State alumnus, set up the event. Lemmon High School athletic director Brent Dirk called it a privilege for Meyer to speak to the community.

“He’s got a fantastic message that relates to all ages,” Dirk said of Meyer. “We had some senior citizens here, kids all the way down into the fourth grade. It’s a great message. … Looking around — I was standing off to side today — people were listening all the way through it. You don’t get that all the time when you bring in a presenter.”

Basketball isn’t much at the forefront of Meyer’s mind these days. He still watches it, he said, but not like he used to.

“I don’t study it intently,” he said. “I see a lot of things I’d do differently, but I don’t really watch it as closely as if we had a team and I was coaching.”

Meyer said he can’t physically coach anymore, though he still participates in coaching clinics.

Carmen Meyer, his wife, said driving her husband to what he expects to be more than 100 speaking engagements this year is much easier than watching him coach. She said watching him speak is “a great alternative.”

“I’d rather be a chauffeur than have my stomach all gut wrenched because of the ballgames,” she said with a hearty laugh.

Meyer said he intends to keep doing speeches as long as he can do them well.

“Just like coaching, once you can’t do it effectively then you need to do something else,” he said with a hint of a smile. “I’d like to keep doing it.”

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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