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LIKE Coach, LIKE son

Published Oct. 10, 2005

His hair is beginning to thin and what remains is beginning to gray. He is 42 and in his eighth season as coach of the DePaul Blue Demons. But he still hasn't entirely lost that choir-boy look.

And he has always been and still is Joey.

Not Joseph (which is what it says on his birth certificate).

Not Joe.


"You know how when you're young you want to look old and when you're old you want to look young?" Joey Meyer muses. "I think I'm beginning to really appreciate being Joey. I think I'll appreciate it more and more as I get older."

And whatever they call him, wherever he coaches, he's still Ray's boy.

"Maybe if he'd been a Smith or a Jones, maybe if he'd been Joe Blow and gone somewhere else, life would've been easier for him," said Ray Meyer, who coached DePaul basketball for 42 years, becoming as much of an institution in downtown Chicago as the campus under the El on West Belden Avenue.

"Hindsight," Joey said, "tells me that taking over for Coach was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be." In 1984-85, his first season, Joey's team went 19-10, the first time in eight seasons DePaul hadn't won 20 games. They were invited to the NCAA Tournament and lost to Syracuse in the first round.

The next year, the Blue Demons were 18-13. He heard the boos, the questions, the criticism. Was he too young? Was he in on a pass 'cause he was the old man's kid?

"I began feeling sorry for myself," he said.

The Blue Demons really didn't belong in the NCAA Tournament that year. Still, they beat Virginia in the opening round. Then they shocked Oklahoma. And in the Sweet 16, they nearly upset Duke.

"Being fortunate enough to get into the tournament and go that far, and then coming back with a 28-3 season, I think that helped get me out from Coach's shadow," Joey said. "Now people get on my case because I'm screwing up on my own, not because I'm Coach's kid."

He was always "Coach'

Coach. That's what everybody calls Ray. That's what Joey calls him. Not dad. Coach.

"I'm not entirely sure where it started," Joey said, "but when I was playing for him, I didn't want to call him dad. I wanted to be just one of the players."

Oh, it started way before that. It started when Ray was at St. Patrick's in Chicago, the year after he and his St. Pat's teammates won the National Catholic High School Championship.

Ray wasn't playing basketball as a senior in 1933. But a priest at St. Agatha's shanghaied Ray into helping coach his girls CYO parish league team. Marge Delaney was on the team. She was 17, too. She called him Coach.

After a month or so, Ray and Marge began keeping company. They continued dating when he went to Notre Dame and for two years afterward. When she died in 1985, they'd been married for 46 years. "She always called me Coach," Ray said, "so the children did, too." The grandchildren _ 16 of them and one great-grandchild _ call him grandpa.

The children. "My wife raised them," Ray said. "I don't take any credit." Five of them are DePaul graduates. Barbara (she attended DePaul for a couple of years before getting married) works in an airline payroll office. Patricia is in the DePaul treasurer's office. Mary Anne and Tommy are schoolteachers. Robert is a lawyer.

Joey, fourth in line, was the quiet one, the shy one.

"I remember this one Easter Sunday," Ray said. "I was taking movies of all the kids. Their mother had dressed them all up for church. Joey, he was about 10, and I was trying to get him coming down the front steps with all the other children and he didn't want his picture taken. He started to turn back and I was calling him and he was crying and his mother was whacking him."

He didn't want to coach

Joey was growing up in a house with an old-fashioned father figure. "Coach was never the type to hug, to kiss, to express feelings," Joey said. "He was definitely the authoritarian. Mom could always say, "Wait till your father gets home.' "

Of course, Ray Meyer wasn't a legend then. "Back in the '50s, DePaul wasn't that big of a deal and he was just another coach," Joey said. "My father didn't really get to be big, so to speak, until the last few years. I think I began to really appreciate him more when he got big because by then I was old enough to understand what Ray Meyer stood for."

And so Joey followed his father's footsteps.

"I didn't want him to coach," Ray said.

"I didn't want to, either," Joey said. "I mean, I never thought about it."

He had graduated from DePaul and was going to go for his master's degree and eventually a doctorate in education. He was going to teach. Northwestern expressed some interest in having Joey as a graduate assistant. Said Ray: "I thought, "If he's good enough for Northwestern, he's good enough for DePaul.' I approached him and he went along with it. Never did I think he'd stay in coaching."

But after one year as coach of the freshman team, Joey knew it was going to be his life's work. The next year, he coached the junior varsity. When he got his master's degree, he became a full-time assistant.

He became the liaison between Ray and his players, even between Ray and the rest of his staff. "If one of the assistant coaches had a suggestion, they'd ask Joey to ask me," Ray said. "If one of the kids had a problem, they went to Joey. If I jumped on a kid, Joey'd smooth it out.

"It was pretty hard on him sometimes. I felt sorry for him. Players always cut up the head coach, no matter who he is. Joey'd have to listen to people ripping his father."

"Oh, I don't know," Joey offered in rebuttal. "I enjoyed paying my dues. And I think I could do a good job for Coach because I knew what he wanted."

If he did, it wasn't because Coach told him. Maybe Marge. Never Coach.

"Now that my mom has passed away, he has become much more verbal," Joey said. "I used to call my mom the great communicator. You found out what Coach was thinking through her. Even when I was an assistant coach, mom would call me up at home and say, "Coach is mad at you. Go talk to him.' He wasn't the type to sit down one on one, to initiate a conversation.

"When the family gets together, we tell stories about Coach biting his tongue. That's when he was mad. He chewed on it. When he started doing that, everybody ran. You knew he'd lost it and he was going to get all over your case. Still does it."

It's now "Joey's team'

When the time for a change finally came after the 1983-84 season, "it was much easier for me, knowing Joey was here," Ray said. "It would have been tougher for me to let go if it had been some outsider coming in. With Joey, it was a real easy transition."

They talk to each other more now. Not about basketball _ well, not much. "Not X's and O's," Ray said. "Maybe we'll talk about handling players. Mostly we talk about life, about family. I tell Joey how he can't live and die with wins and losses."

Joey Meyer laughs out loud. "When he tells me that, I tell him, "Coach, you couldn't keep from doing it when you were coaching, so don't even think about telling me that. You were one of the worst.' "

These days, Ray Meyer's official title is Special Assistant to the President. What that means is that he speaks to organizations before other DePaul officials hit them up for contributions. He also is color commentator for radio broadcasts of DePaul games.

Coach sits about a dozen feet away from Joey, biting his tongue. "Many times," Ray said, "I've been tempted to say, "That's wrong,' or "That's not how I did it.' But this is Joey's team now. I think he's pretty much moved out of my shadow.

"Y'know, I remember a conversation with Judd Heathcote," he said of the Michigan State coach. "He said he was walking down a hall with one of his players and he mentioned Johnny Wooden and the kid said, "Who's Johnny Wooden?'

"No matter who you are, you eventually fade away. No question about it," Ray Meyer said. "I'm fading. Joey's growing."

WHAT: 7-Up Shootout college basketball doubleheader

WHO: No. 16 Florida State vs. DePaul; No.5 Arizona vs. Temple

WHERE: Florida Suncoast Dome

WHEN: Sunday, beginning at 1:30 p.m. with FSU vs. Depaul


TICKETS: Prices range from $5 to $50, plus a service charge

INFORMATION: Call the Dome at 825-3100

SATURDAY'S ACTIVITIES: Team practice sessions will be open to the public, former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano will conduct a basketball clinic, and members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are scheduled for autograph sessions Saturday. The Dome will be opened from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and tickets for the day's activities are $3.