Earlier this week the Penn State University trustees declared the late coach Joe Paterno, his statue still greeting visitors to Beaver Stadium, to be a failed leader.
I couldn't help but recall the pandemonium on Penn State's campus some months ago. Upon hearing the news that coach Paterno would retire amid controversy, students took to the streets and paid tribute to their beloved coach.
One held up a sign that read: "Two of my favorite 'J's in life: Jesus and JoePa."
While State College may be embroiled in a disturbing cult of personality, one statue-less coach from Chicago had only one favorite "J." DePaul University's late men's basketball coach Ray Meyer was almost Father Meyer. "I never dreamed of becoming a coach as I was growing up," Meyer wrote with Ray Sons in his autobiography Coach, "I originally intended to become a priest."
Meyer was born into a Chicago where "religion was a strong force in people's lives, with much of the social life centered around churches and synagogues." As a young man, Meyer was encouraged to attend Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary on the city's Near North Side. But after two years of hitching rides from a priest to class, Meyer "found a focus for [his] life" in basketball.
Yet as Meyer recounted to Thomas O'Toole in Champions of Faith, faith and basketball weren't mutually exclusive. "The players used to call me 'the man with the beads,' as I was never without [a Rosary.]" Meyer attended Mass every game day; and on the occasion that he forgot, Meyer managed to find a priest to say Mass no matter where they were. After forty-two seasons at DePaul, Meyer retired with a record 724 wins and 354 losses.
I first met Coach Meyer at his funeral. He died on St. Patrick's Day, 2006. As a young DePaul freshman, I knelt before Meyer laying in his casket and reflected on his son Joey's eulogy: "he'll be remembered more for the type of person he was than the coach he was." Six years later, Joey's words rang true in special way.
One of Meyer's lesser-known players, my grandfather, helped me understand them while watching the Blue Demons play on this year's Men's Basketball Alumni Day. Papa was a Blue Demon in the late 50's and while he spent most of his time on the bench, he valued his time with Meyer. "He made us boys into men," Papa recalled, "and there aren't too many Ray Meyers around anymore."
Before the game, I found some pictures from Papa's playing days. A media guide described him as having limited experience, but "shows promise."
Papa's promise didn't end up being on the court, but I think he turned out just fine.