Marge Meyer says, jokingly, that she took her husband out of the gutter and put him on the curbstone.
Now, at 65, Chicago-born and-reared Ray Meyer has taken himself the rest of the way from the curbstone to the top of the heap in college basketball.
For 37 years he has been coach at De Paul University and it is now, at the end of that 37th season, that the stars are shining brightly on West Belden Avenue and Sheffield Street in Chicago, the home of this 12,000-student Catholic university.
A master tactician, skilled recruiter and funny and delightful man, the portly Meyer has finally fulfilled what he calls his ultimate dream. He has brought his team to the final four. "Now we are rubbing elbows with the elite of college basketball," he likes to say.
It is surprising to many who have not seen the Blue Demons play that this collection of basketballers has emerged as champion of the Western Regional, having beaten Southern California, Marquette and UCLA to get to the semifinals of the National Collegiate Basketball Championship tournament semifinals here next Saturday.
Their opposition will be undefeated Indiana State, the Midwest champion.
Eastern champ Pennsylvania will play Mideast champion Michigan State in the other semifinal game. The final will be Monday night.
The Blue Demons started the season Nov. 25 at Pauley Pavilion and were buried, 108-85, by UCLA. They played UCLA again, exactly 17 weeks later, last Saturday, on a neutral floor at Marriot Center in the West final.
De Paul won this time, 95-91, for its 25th victory in 29 games since that first defeat at Pauley.
This is Meyer's team and there is no doubt about it. He put it together, he nurtured it, rounded the edges and adjusted the fine tuner. Now it is as sharp as ever.
"It's the kids who are making me look good," Meyer said. "They've been doing it all season long."
"The kids are five young men who play practically 40 minutes a game every game. They are all black and Meyer often refers to them simply as "My boys."
"He calls us that because he loves us, and we love him," said senior guard Gary Garland, the team's leader and chief confidence builder.
"Gary Garland is the most confident player I've coached," Meyer said "He thinks he can beat anybody."
"Oh, there's no question we're going to win it all now," Garland said. "I said before the UCLA game that if we beat them we were going to win it all. Nothing has changed."
Don't mistake Garland's attitude as a sign of cockiness or arrogance. None of the Blue Demons are braggarts. They just believe in themselves and in each other. They play and act like gentlemen at all times. They are outgoing; unselfish, articulate and students of the game. Meyer would have it no other way.
De Paul's strength, as a team, is its quickness.
The Blue Demons had 20 steals in one game.
The leading De Paul scorer is a chubby freshman named Mark Aguirre, who says he loves to eat. He's 6-foot-7 and weighed 255 pounds when the season started. He's down to about 235 now and is a talented basketball player.
Because of his wide in the hind portion, it is practically impossible to deny him the ball once he gets position underneath. But he also has an accurate 15-17 foot jump shot and he is a good ball-handler, as are all of the Blue Demons.
Aquirre, from Westinghouse High School in Chicago, was the leading freshman scorer in the nation this season, with a 24.1 average.
"I've always been a scorer, but he (Meyer) taught me how to play defense, how to pass and how to be aware of all the other players on the floor," Aguirre said.
"He may be an old man, but he's no dummy. He never had a running team in his life before, but he has one with us and he changed his style to fit what we can do."
It is only because his first choice, UCLA, didn't want him that Aguirre went to De Paul.
"I really wanted to go to UCLA, but they never recruited me," he said. "My high school coach even wrote letters for me, but I never heard back.
"I stayed in Chicago because of the people De Paul had coming back from last year's team. The fact that UCLA didn't want me had a bearing, too. I felt that if I went to De Paul, it would prove to other Chicago players that they don't have to leave home to play for a national power."
The other De Paul starters are the 6-5 Garland, 6-6 Curtis Watkins 6-0 Clyde Bradshaw and 6-9 center James Mitchem.
Because they play so well as a team, their individual skills are often overlooked.
Watkins, who injured his knee against UCLA and is questionable for the Indiana State game, is smooth, rhythmic and exceptionally quick and slick around the basket. He also guards the opposition's top offensive forward. That means Larry Bird will be his man Saturday.
Even if De Paul plays a zone, Watkins works the baseline, the same area Bird likes to work.
Watkins shot nine for 10 from the field, six for six from the foul line and had eight rebounders and three assists against UCLA. His knee is a big question mark now. It was knocked out of joint when Aguirre fell late in the UCLA game. The team doctor put it back in, but the ligaments have been strained and Dr. Robert Hamilton said a determination will be made later in the week whether Watkins can play.
Garland came to De Paul from East Orange, N.J., shooting 40-footers. He has cut back to 30-footers, "but only when they are there." He has also turned into an ideal leader and together with Bradshaw, who is also from East Orange, gives De Paul probably the best defensive guard line in the country.
Mitchem is unpretentious but steady. He can look awful for games at a time and then all of a sudden explode. Against Marquette in the regional semifinal, he shot one for five from the field, so UCLA's strategy was to let him shoot. He made his first four shots from 17 feet and then shelved the Bruins' defensive game plan.
De Paul runs on offense and presses on defense, harassing the opposition all over the floor.
Meyer does not use his bench for a number of reasons. "I always want my first five on the floor because they play so well together," is one reason. The fact that the bench is suspect is another.
De Paul reserves have played a total of only 11 1/2 minutes in the three tournament games so far and no reserve has scored.
The only reason Meyer substituted at all against UCLA was because Watkins couldn't play in the last 1:33 because of his knee.
Surprisingly, fatigue is not much of a problem for the Blue Demons, thanks to Meyer.
"I seldom call timeouts in the first half because I want to save them for when we get tired late in the game."
As an indication of Meyer's coaching skill, he got his team to the final eight last year before losing, and that was with a Dave Corzine-led deliberate style of playing.
In one season, Meyer adapted to a running, pressing team and is in the Final Four.
Before the UCLA game, Meyer was saying that it was his lifelong dream to get to the Final Four. "Then some of the guys did a little research and found that I had qualified for the Final Four back in 1943. I can't even remember going, but I knew the NCAA isn't anything like it was then.
"I'm not only forgetful, I'm not very smart sometimes, either," Meyer added. "Earlier in the season I had a chance to watch Indiana State practice for two hours down in Tulsa, but I didn't even take any notes because I never thought we would ever play them.
"I guess I should be more like Gary Garland. Then I would have known it."