It wasn't too many days ago, following a shaky one-point victory over undistinguished Northern Illinois, that Joey Meyer fretted that his whole coaching career would be judged on that opening game. "The best one-liner I've heard so far," Meyer said, "is that "De Paul was in postseason form already, the way they blew that lead at the end of the game.""
Humor aside, right now might be a better time to judge Meyer and his De Paul team. The Blue Demons are undefeated (6-0) and ranked second in both wire service polls. and De Paul appears to be one of the very few teams in the nation capable of beating No. 1-ranked Georgetown, which it plays at Capital Centre Saturday afternoon.
Over the past seven years, De Paul has a record of 180-30, including the best record in the nation last season (27-3). But all that was done under Ray Meyer, Joey's father and the man best known as "Coach" the last 42 years. You might expect a major transition, going from a 71-year-old man to his 35-year-old son.
But the transition, from all indications, has gone without wrinkle. Bob Donewald, whose Illinois State team lost to De Paul by 13 points last week, feels these Blue Demons are better than the team that went to the final 16 last year.
"This De Paul team is even better than the teams during the Mark Aguirre/Terry Cummings eras," Donewald said. "I was an assistant (at Indiana under Bob Knight) in 1976 and this De Paul team is more talented than that '76 NCAA championship team.
"What Joey has done, understandably, is just carry on what his father had established, and why not? There's no real difference philosophically. But they're all a year older and make more good plays. I said a year ago that De Paul had a three-year quest for the NCAA championship. They got to the round of 16 last year, so now it's a two-year quest."
Not all coaches like walking into a rebuiding situation in which the team has one or two good players, but basically is starting from scratch. Meyer was confronted with the other extreme, which isn't very comfortable, either: Before he called his first timeout, some preseason polls were ranking De Paul No. 1.
"When I saw that ranking, it really bothered me," Meyer said recently, during a reflective moment in his office in Alumni Hall. "I got a little nervous. I said I needed this like I needed a hole in my head. But I talked to some of the kids and they were kind of excited about it. And it was getting the program more exposure, so I've learned to live with it."
Meyer also has learned to live with the comparisons with his father. "I can't be like him and I know it," Meyer said. "I can't be as nice, I can't give of myself like he can. I'm never gonna win that many games (724), so I don't even worry about it. I just go about doing it my way.
"People always ask if there is pressure replacing him. Pressure comes from taking over a program that was 27-3, the best won-lost record in college basketball last year. The pressure comes from wanting to do well and knowing people expect so much. Yes, that's pressure, and I feel it. I think anyone would in that situation."
Four years ago, Ray Meyer guaranteed Joey he would be the next head basketball coach at De Paul. But when remained uncertain until the beginning of last season, when it was announced Coach would retire at the end of the season. A lot of people said De Paul's then players performed over their heads, trying desperately to get Ray Meyers into the Final Four and wipe out the memory of three straight first-round defeats.
But again, it didn't happen. The Blue Demons lost to Wake Forest in overtime and De Paul agonized again. Joey Meyer's last game as an assistant coach may have been his toughest.
"We never consciously thought, "this might be his last." But, boy, when it was over did it hit," Meyer said. "It was depression, shock. The only thing I could remember thiking was, "Shake hands with the opposing coach and get off the floor."
"I just remember thinking, "Goddang, it's all over and we should be there, but we're not." They had this big party waiting back at the hotel. I said hello to my wife and just walked the streets of St. Louis for a couple of hours.
"That night he was holding his court, with his family and friends, talking to one and all, being himself."
Ray Meyer still is being himself. He's busier now, in fact, than as head coach. Meyer is listed as special assistant to the president at De Paul. He does color commentary on radio for De Paul's games, has a television show, writes his own weekly basketball column for the Chicago Sun-Times and finds himself incapable of turning down the numerous banquet requests he receives weekly.
The victory over Northern Illinois was the first De Paul game Ray Meyer had watched from any place other than the bench. "It was strange and awkward," he said. "I found myself mentally trying to coach, mentally trying to shout instructions. I had to calm myself down. They say I was biting my tongue, twisting in my seat. When we made a mistake, I was gonna kill this guy or that guy."
One thing he says he has refrained from is talking to Joey about the team. "Joey's come in here only once since Oct. 15," Ray said. "He asked how I thought practice was going and I told him I hadn't seen enough of practice to judge. I'd be very disappointed if he coached the same way I did, because then he'd be a robot."
Although Joey insists the layman wouldn't see much difference between the last season's team and this one, Ray has noticed one thing. "They play man to man (defense)," Ray said. "We switched last year (between zone and man). He's playing more 1-2-2 zone (only on out-of-bounds plays) and we seldom used that."
Drastic changes probably won't take place under Joey Meyer. After all, the son played for the father (1968-71) and was his top assistant for 11 years.
"After he graduated, there was some talk about him going to NU (Northwestern) and being a grad assistant," Ray said. "I said to hell with that, if he's gonna be a grad assistant, we want him here . . . I liked his approach to the game. We wouldn't always agree. Many, many times we would disagree. We used to have more arguments over whether a guy should play with three fouls. He was yelling, going crazy once when I kept Terry Cummings in against Syracuse with three fouls."
Kenny Patterson, one of two seniors on the team, said, "It's not that strange a feeling, because Joey is so familiar to us. But sometimes, when I'm on the court I stop, turn around and look, and it does seem a little funny not to see Coach there."
Despite twisting in his seat and biting his tongue, Ray Meyer has promised himself, "Stay clear and have absolute confidence in him."
De Paul's team certainly looks good enough to have that kind of confidence in itself. Four starters returned from last season, and that doesn't include 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Dallas Comegys, who was the team's second-leading scorer last year.
Of Comegys, Donewald said, "I don't know of any college basketball team today that has someone of that size and skill coming in off the bench. It gives De Paul such a unique dimension."
Whether under Coach or Coach Joey, winning remains in De Paul's dimension.