Ray Meyer is 69 years old now, a kindly teddy bear, born one month after the real Bear, the late Paul Bryant. Yet, at a time when he seemingly should take his bows, Meyer is taking abuse.

The vipers' venom is vicious now. Overlooking Meyer's 689 victories in his 41 years as De Paul University basketball coach, people don't notice that he has outlasted World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Instead, they notice that he did not outlast UCLA, St. Joseph's and Boston College. These are the teams that defeated De Paul in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the past three years.

Today, as De Paul plays No. 15 Georgetown at 1 p.m. at Capital Centre in a nationally televised game (WRC-TV-4), the vipers don't notice the Blue Demons start three freshmen and two sophomores.

Instead, they notice that De Paul is 13-6, losing as many games this season as in the last three years combined when it finished 26-2, 27-2, 26-2 and going, going, gone in that same first round.

Some people have said, with nerve aplenty, that "Coach" can't coach.

"When the Chicago papers wrote that he couldn't coach, well, I'd be lying if I said that didn't hurt Coach a lot," said Joey Meyer, the coach's son and most-valued assistant for the past 12 years.

"Coach is a very sensitive person. When he's down, it's obvious. His face is drooping, he talks in a whisper . . . He's like Santa Claus, just a nice guy," said Joey Meyer.

Ray Meyer noted, "I said to my wife after last season, 'What's the sense of taking all the abuse if they are going to criticize a 26-2 season? What are they going to do next year, when the team is young, when we will lose some games?'

"I would never leave under a cloud, though. I want to leave on my own terms: with dignity and grace, not because someone says it's time for me to leave."

To further the frustration, in a 49-48 loss to Gonzaga this year, the home crowd even booed Meyer's Blue Demons. No cheers off in the sunset, just boos at the Horizon.

"It's the loudest I've ever heard the boos," said Kenny Patterson, Blue Demons sophomore guard, averaging 11 points per game. "We're a young team, but it was like they expected Terry Cummings and Mark Aguirre to come out of the stands, suit up and play for De Paul again."

And that dreamy stuff just won't happen. Over the past two years, both Aguirre and Cummings took the hardship route into the NBA, Blue Demons nevermore.

"We developed a monster and now the monster is developing us," said Meyer. "We spoiled our fans the last five years by winning so much. They used to go to our games wondering whether we'd win by 10 or 20 points, instead of whether we'd win or lose.

"We lost Terry Cummings and Skip Dillard from last year and they were 40 percent of our scoring. We're starting three freshmen and two sophomores now. What did they expect?"

One more year after this, Ray Meyer says, and he will turn over his carnations and his legacy to Joey.

"But I may go less," he said, meaning this year may be his last. "I don't want any festivities when I leave. I'd rather just walk into the locker room and say I'm through. I don't want any more fanfare. I've had enough."

His career record is 689-345 (.666), making Ray Meyer the winningest active college coach. He trails in career victories only Adolph Rupp (874), Phog Allen (771), Henry Iba (767) and E.A. Diddle (759), college basketball's men of Rushmore.

Meyer started at De Paul in the 1942-43 season, after leaving an assistant coaching job at Notre Dame. Meyer says he was tough then. "I was a dictator," he said. "If I didn't like the way a player walked, I'd get him out."

The center on Meyer's first De Paul team was George Mikan, who had failed in a tryout at Notre Dame the year before.

"After I had kicked the ball all over during the tryout, the Notre Dame coach had told me, 'You better go back to De Paul and pursue a career in academics, not basketball,'" remembered Mikan, who instead pursued a career in basketball past a 1946 NIT championship at De Paul, all the way into the NBA Hall of Fame.

Now, Mikan owns a travel agency in Minneapolis and a memory that recalled of Ray Meyer, "He taught me everything I knew in the game."

About 35 years later, Cummings was Meyer's center at De Paul. Cummings said Meyer often talked of the days of Mikan. "Coach is real mellow," said Cummings, now with the San Diego Clippers. "But he showed flares of what he used to be."

Three seasons ago, for instance, after a 54-50 victory at Illinois State, which was closer than it should have been, Cummings remembered this scenario: "Coach was real upset. His face was red enough to fry an egg. He moved people out of the way and threw chairs."

Kindly Ray Meyer threw chairs?

"I guess you'd say he is from the old school," said Cummings.

Ah, the old school. Sometime, Ray Meyer will have to leave it.

"The university has been very kind to me. They offered me a job in the development office at the same salary," said Meyer. Television commentary of college basketball games is a possibility, he added.

"I'd hate to be in the gym looking over Joey's shoulder," said Ray Meyer, who now has 16 grandchildren.

With equal parts caring and mischief in his voice, Meyer added, "But I would like to find some place in the gym where they couldn't see me and I could watch them practice."