The Image: He is the Mr. Chips of basketball coaches. A sweet, lovable old man. Everybody's grandfather. Ray Meyer is America's Coach.

The Reality: America's Coach yells at his players almost constantly. If you told him he was sweet and lovable, he would growl. De Paul's basketball coach still is tough and hard at 66. A week ago, he called his players, who are 16-0 and ranked first in the nation, "nitwits." Publicly.

The Image: Ray Meyer, miracle worker, De Paul, rags to riches overnight. Life begins at 60. They come to play at De Paul because they love the old man.

The Reality: Nine years ago, Meyer told the priests who run the 12,500-student Catholic university on Chicago's North Side that if they didn't come up with some money he saw little point in continuing coaching. He was getting his head beaten in because he had no assistants, no recruiting budget and nothing to sell. The priests relented -- grudgingly.

The Image: Joe Meyer, 30, Ray Meyer's kid, is obediently following in his father's coaching footsteps, trying to learn at the feet of the master.

The Reality: De Paul is the No. 1 basketball team in the nation today because the first thing Ray Meyer did in 1971 when he was given some money was hire his son. Joe Meyer -- "Joey" to his dad and friends -- is responsible for the presence of Mark Aguirre, Clyde Bradshaw, Teddy Grubbs and Skip Dillard in the De Paul lineup. They are responsible for De Paul being No. 1.

"It is amazing," said America's Coach, tongue planted firmly in cheek, "how much your coaching improves when you have talented players."

Joe Meyer describes himself as "Meyer's kid." Actually, Ray Meyer is "Meyer's dad."

The Image: Everyone loves Ray Meyer.

The Reality: Almost everyone loves Ray Meyer.

It was shortly after noon on game day. The coach sat in his tiny, cluttered office on the third floor of De Paul's Alumni Hall staring bemusedly at the pile of messages on his desk.

As he spoke, he interrupted himself frequently to cough. Behind him, there was a constant, "thud, thud," as racketball players knocked shots off the thin wall between their court and the coach's office.

Four days after his team had been ranked No. 1 in the nation -- his first top-ranked team in 38 years as a coach -- Ray Meyer had a number of things on his agenda.

He had a TV interview at 2 p.m., live at a local studio. "I'll take the subway down there," he said. "I can use my senior citizen's card and get on for 25 cents." [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] brother about a speaking engagement. "Some people think because you're a basketball coach, you work just two hours a day," Meyer said, shaking his head.

Then, there was a matter of top priority, something his secretary (he has had a full-time secretary less than a year) was nagging him to get done.

"I turned 65 over a year ago," Meyer said sheepishly. "I still haven't filled out my Medicare application. She's bugging me to get it done. I guess she's right. I just forget these things all the time."

After the TV show, it would be back to the office to film a spot with NBC's "Today" show. When his assistant coach, Jim Molinari, told him the camera crew from NBC was coming at 1 p.m., Meyer looked up, dead serious, and said: "Who are they coming to see, me?"

The taping over, it would be time to join his wife Marge and several reporters, who were trailing him wherever he went, at the team's pregame meal. From there, he would take Marge to mass, then go to the game.

"We have a good system," said Joe Meyer. "Whenever we hit a town, he looks for a church and I look for a place to practice." Joe Meyer is religious but he is most devout about basketball.

Now, however, it is noon and America's Coach, short, pudgy and wrinkled -- is talking about the week gone by.That Monday, De Paul had moved into the ranking in both collegiate basketball polls.

"The whole thing caught me completely by surprise," Meyer said, his eyes dancing. "I thought I had been through everything you could go through as a coach. I was wrong. This place has been a circus all week.

"We haven't been able to get anything done. Joey and I usually meet five or six times a week. We haven't done it once. I like to spend time rapping with the boys. I haven't done that all week. When I'm not busy, they are.

"I told them in practice the other day that it was probably better for us as a team if I cut off the interviews. But how many times do you go through something like this? Once in a lifetime. Ten years from now, this exerpience may help them get a job. Who knows? I'm not going to say no, though.

"Actually, if it weren't for the prestige, I think I'd be happier being ranked No. 2. Being No. 1, I can't do a lot of things I enjoy most."

Meyer isn't about to trade his experiences of the last 10 days, however. He has worked too long for too many years not to be loving it.

He came to De Paul as head coach in 1942 at the age of 28. He brought with him a degree from Notre Dame and experience as a social worker in his native Chicago and as an assistant coach at his alma mater.

He coached basketball's first outstanding big man, George Mikan, winning the NIT with him in 1945. He was a consistent winner throughout the '40s and '50s. But then basketball went big time. While everyone around him poured money into their programs, Meyer continued to work by himself with virtually no budget.

The program faltered. In 1969-70, De Paul's record dropped below .500 for only the fourth time in Meyer's career. The following year, the team was captained by Joe Meyer. It finished with the worst record in the school's history, 8-17. Joe Meyer was a good-enough player to be drafted by the Buffalo Braves. He still is the seventh-leading scorer in school history.

"I used to be third," he joked. "Then we started getting players."

Other than Joe Meyer, the 1971 De Paul team had few players, if any. There were losses like 107-76 to Notre Dame and 84-55 to Marquette.

"We had nothing," said Ray Meyer. "We couldn't play at all. Joe was by far our best player. It was a miracle that we won any games at all that year."

Meyer was 58. The thought of retirement crossed his mind. "I went to see the priests," he said. "I told them I couldn't go on this way. I used to take every loss personally. I'd walk the streets all night trying to decide where I went wrong. I decided that if nothing could be done, I would retire."

The priests didn't want to lose Meyer. They recognized his value to the school and his loyalty. They gave him $3,000 to recruit and money for an assistant coach. Ray Meyer hired his son and said, "Go get some players."

"I didn't have the vaguest notion what I was doing," Joe Meyer says now. "I had never recruited. I had to learn on the job."

He learned well. The second of four Meyer sons and the fourth of six children, Joe Meyer is as intense as his father is relaxed. He readily admits that he would like to replace his father when he retires. He admits just as quickly that his style of coaching will be very different.

"People say that Coach (Joe Meyer always calls his father 'Coach') is a disciplinarian. I think in some ways I'll be tougher. On little things, like being on time for meetings or film sessions.

"I'll play a different style. I'll use more players. I'll probably run more, change defenses more. We're alike in a lot of ways, but as a coach, I'm sure I'll be different."

For now, however the Blue Demons play Coach Ray's style. That means essentially going with just six players, barring injury or foul problems. It means staying in a man-to-man defense, again barring foul trouble. It means building most of the offense around one man -- Aquirre.

"Without Mark, Aguirre, this isn't a great team," said Ray Meyer. "I could coach until I'm blue in the face, teach everything I know. But without talent, coaching doesn't matter. College basketball is talent."

Although he has recruited several other outstanding players, Joe Meyer's biggest coup was the signing two seasons ago of the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Aguirre.

Aguirre, from Westinghouse High School, is a Chicao-trained player, reared on the playgrounds. Because he is constantly overweight, his teammates call him things like "Muffin Man," "Doughboy" and just plain old "Chubby."

But on the basketball court, no one messes with Aguirre. "He's great for two reasons," said Joe Meyer. "He's got the biggest hands I've ever seen and the widest rear end I've ever seen."

When Aguirre backs into the basket, no one stops him. When he goes up to shoot a soft, 17-foot jump shot, no one stops him. Underneath, he is a terror.

"I was interested in UCLA in high school but they weren't interested in me," Aguirre recalled. "Maybe it was my weight, I don't know. De Paul was always around though. Joe made it clear he wanted me and Skip (wing guard Dillard) all along.

"I liked the idea of staying near home so I told him I wanted to go to De Paul and he should go out and get some other players. But he still kept coming to our games. I guess he didn't really believe I was coming."

Aguirre showed up at De Paul last year. He averaged 24.1 points a game, leading the Blue Demons into the NCAA Final Four, thus fulfilling Meyer's career-long dream.

"Every year I'd go to the Final Four and dream of sitting at the head table," the coach said. "I never thought it would actually happen."

If his team continues to play the way it has, Meyer should be back at the head table in Indianapolis in March. But even though De Paul is undefeated. Meyer frequently is unhappy with the players.

De Paul is a loose team, and the players know they are good. For that reason, the Demons generally play only well enough to win with ease at UCLA, at Missouri and at Marquette. They were bad enough to almost lose to Loyola, Lamar and Northwestern.

"They drive me nuts," Meyer said. "I talk, I yell, I scream. I tell them some night they're not going to get away with it. Do they listen? Sometimes. When it gets close, they listen. We communicate. Otherwise? Nope."

Aguirre, according to Meyer, often typifies the greatness/immaturity of this team. "He lets pressure get to him. He's still immature, still just a kid," Meyer said. "That's why I don't think he'll go pro after this year. He knows he probably isn't mentally ready. That attention has gotten to some of the kids.

"But we'll lose shortly and it will be over."

The players say the coach is wrong, that they won't lose soon, or ever. "We're going to go undefeated," said Aguirre, averaging 26 points a game, and oozing confidence. "We know how to win. We won 26 games last year. We'll win more next year."

Or, as center James Mitchem put it: "Last year, we were shooting to get coach into the Final Four. This year, that won't be enough."

Last week, the Blue Demons played twice and the reasons for Meyer's frustrations were apparent. Friday, the opponent was lightly regarded Maine. Sunday, it was nationally ranked LSU -- on national television.

"We're not ready to play at all," Joe Meyer said during the pregame meal before the Maine game. "I'm the only one on this team who knows anything about Maine. When I gave the scouting report yesterday, you could see their minds going blank. Tomorrow, when I give the LSU report, they'll hear every word."

Joe Meyer makes a prediction: "We'll play lousy tonight and Coach will go wild on the bench. Watch him against LSU. He'll be calm, because he knows they're ready."

Meyer's wild-man acts are legendary at De Paul, especially his halftime routine. One famous story involves Dave Corzine, now of the Bullets. Corzine was having a bad night defensively.

"Coach was going over the defensive assignments at halftime," Joe Meyer recalled. "He looked at Corzine, got red in the face, picked up a chair, slammed it down and said, 'And you, Corzine, try keeping up with this?'"

On another occasion, Meyer told Corzine before a game, "I don't know who you're going to cover; none of their starters has a broken leg!"

Joe Meyer is a prophet. Even with 5,400 fans rocking Alumni Hall, the Blue Demons are shaky the first half against Maine. They fall behind by as many as six points. Time out.

"What's the matter with you guys?" Ray Meyer screams in the huddle, his voice becoming shrill. "We got nothing out there, nothing at all. Come on, enough of this."

For once, the players respond. Aguirre, despite a fever, scores 31 points and the Demons romp, 93-79, after leading by as many as 21. For once, the reserves get to play and all is well on the North Side. Right now, De Paul is king in Chicago. The school dominates the sports news.

Afterwards, Meyer is relaxed. "I know the end is coming," he said of his coaching career. "But I'm not going to rush it. I still have my enthusiasm. I still love being with the boys. I love the job, the work, everything. As long as I feel that way, I'll keep coaching.

"Joey's done most of this, you know," he adds quickly. "Without him, I wouldn't be coaching today. He deserves the credit. He brought me the players. He tells me what to do half the time. He makes my schedule, tells me where to go, when to recruit."

And, with De Paul having become America's darling, recruiting has become almost simple. Only one of the team's top six players, Mitchem, graduates this year and his heir-apparent, Terry Cummings, is already in school.

So the Meyers are recruiting guards. Already, one top-notch player, Dickie Beal of Covington, Ky., has committed. And Glenn Rivers, from suburban Chicago, considered perhaps the best guard in the country, is on the verge of doing the same.

"People are calling us and we're turning them away," Meyer said in amazement. "I remember a few years ago I called a kid in Cleveland and told him we'd like to have him at De Paul. He asked me where De Paul was."

Now, everyone knows where De Paul is. And everyone knows Ray Meyer, America's Coach. The team is on top and, unless Aguirre opts for the pros, it will stay at or near the top for a while.

For Ray Meyer and De Paul, what had been nothing more than a fantasy nine years ago has become a reality.