by Mike Coffey
I first met Ray Meyer in the Spring of 2002, when I interviewed him for Echoes on the Hardwood. At the time, he was probably the most famous person I’d ever had a full conversation with, and since he was one of my first interviews, the whole process was a little intimidating for me. But he couldn’t have been nicer or more accomodating, and the breadth of his memories about his time at ND in the 1930s and his experiences coaching for the Irish really opened up that period for me, which was helpful considering how few alumni from that era were available to interview.
Every time I saw Coach Ray after that, he went out of his way to say hello, tell me how much he enjoyed the book, and ask me how sales were going. He certainly didn’t have to do that, but typical of the good man that he was, he did it anyway, and I really appreciated it.
Trying to think of a way to memorialize Coach Ray on the event of his passing, I figure the best I can do is let him tell his own Notre Dame story. So the following are excerpts from our interview four years ago about how Notre Dame affected his life and how much he loved the place.
God speed, Coach Ray. We’ll miss you.
I was always a fan of Notre Dame. Growing up where I did, it was a big part of the community.
I was 12 or 13 years old, and was a pretty good baseball player. We were playing for the state championship at Wrigley Field, and Kennesaw Mountain Landis came down into our dugout to have his picture taken with our team. I was the only one that didn’t have socks on, because I couldn’t find any. They asked me “how come you don’t have on any socks?” I said “That’s Notre Dame style.”
Fr. O’Rourke was the priest over at St. Agnes’ Parish in Chicago, and he had me coaching his teams when I was in high school. He always wanted me to go to Notre Dame … he was a Notre Dame lover … so he drove me down there. Moose Krause met me there and took me to George Keogan’s house, and he told George that I was a great player. So I ended up getting a scholarship because of Moose. It wasn’t the last nice thing he did for me, and was the start of a great relationship.
George Keogan was a little tough to play for because he got very angry when things went wrong. At first, I didn’t know how to take him. But he’d rip the hell out of you if you didn’t play well.
He was also meticulous about his players. You had to be well dressed if you were going out; every button had to be done. If you didn’t have your hair cut, you wouldn’t come out on that floor. One time I cut my eye during a game, and he was saying, “Get him off, he’s getting blood all over the floor.”
But we had a great ballclub in the years I was there. I think we lost 6 games total my junior and senior years. I was playing with guys like Paul Nowak and Johnny Moir, who were two great ballplayers. Moir could jump over the moon. At that time, you very seldom see someone break out and break to the basket; they’d lob the ball up to the rim, and he’d get it and dunk it. Nowak was 6’6”, which was like a giant back then.
It was during the Depression when I graduated, and I was out of work. Keogan had me scouting for him – he’d give me about $25 or so, I don’t even remember. He always told me, “You’ve got a good mind for basketball. You should coach.” And I’d tell him I didn’t want to coach.
He kept on me, though, and told me one day, “I made an appointment for you at Catholic High in Joliet. You’ve got the job, all you have to do is go out there and talk to these people.” I told him I didn’t want to go, but he said he’d promised them I’d go.
I went out there and they offered me $1,700 to coach their team at Catholic High. I told them, “No, I need $1,800. I’m married.” They wouldn’t give it to me, so I went home.
That night, I got a call from the President of Notre Dame, asking me if I’d come back there and coach. I asked him what had happened, and he replied that George Keogan had had a heart attack that afternoon. Well, I wasn’t working then, so I drove down on Monday and coached the basketball team. Then I took them to Marquette Tuesday to play. So that’s how I got in at Notre Dame – pretty much by accident rather than by design.
As I said, I wasn’t serious about coaching. I didn’t think I’d like it. But after two years at Notre Dame, DePaul came to see me. When they came down to South Bend, it was Jim Enright and Arthur Morris. Enright refereed the game that night, our last game of the year. And after the game, they caught me in the room and Morris offered me the job at DePaul.
I went in to talk to George Keogan before I did anything. He said, “You’re going up there as head coach. You can always come back to Notre Dame, but you should explore this and try to find out if you really want to coach or not.” So I went to DePaul.
Notre Dame has been very good to me all of my life. Every time they changed coaches, I think I was offered the job. Once they had Arch Ward from the Tribune come to me. We had lunch together, and he was trying to persuade me to go back to Notre Dame. Another time, Moose Krause flew up to my basketball camp up in Wisconsin and offered me the job. Those were a couple of times that I remember.
But the reason I never went back was that I started at DePaul, and they were very good to me in the sense that they gave me a chance to coach and put me out on my own. I liked the kind of a boy I was getting there – never a great ballplayer, but always someone from the area.
But there were a lot of times I regretted never going back. Back then, I though it was so easy to recruit for Notre Dame. You’d have all the nuns and priests recruiting for you. When I was an assistant at Notre Dame and went out to watch kids or called about them, the reception we got was so great. Vastly different than with DePaul early on — DePaul was all local, and we didn’t have a national name. Notre Dame had a fantastic name.
I remember I was in a hotel in Detroit, and Hunk Anderson came by to see me. I was in a really little room. He picked up the phone, called the front desk, and said, “What the hell do you mean giving a coach from Notre Dame a room like this?!!?” They immediately switched me into a big suite with flowers and everything.
Coaching at Notre Dame was very nice. A lot of times, they’d come up to your room and say, “I know you’re in town for a game, and I heard you need a car,” and they’d loan you a car. Everybody was so nice. Notre Dame is unusual that way. I never went to another school, so I don’t know what they do. But if you went to Notre Dame, every Notre Dame person in the country is your friend. That’s a unique situation.
Every time I went back to Notre Dame, they couldn’t have been nicer. And they continued to help me out. I talked about my relationship with Moose, but I loved Fr. Joyce too. He was always there when I needed anything.
In the early 1970’s, DePaul wanted me to sign a paper saying I wouldn’t give scholarships. So we pretty much had an intramural team, and we were playing teams like Kentucky and UCLA. We didn’t have any talent, and we were getting killed. I couldn’t recruit the way I wanted to. It was embarassing.
I was at a Notre Dame banquet in Chicago, and I ran into Fr. Joyce. I was driving him to the South Shore station afterwards, and he said, “You seem really down. What’s wrong?” I said, “Well, I don’t know if I want to continue coaching or not.” And I told him the whole story about how I couldn’t give scholarships and they were nickle-and-diming me.
He told me “I’ll take care of it.” He wrote me a letter describing what all the other schools were doing with recruiting budgets and scholarships. I walked in, threw it on our president’s desk. He said, “OK, we’ll give you what you need.”
There were so many Notre Dame games at De
Paul, it’s hard to pick a favorite. The Notre Dame series became the biggest game on our schedule. At DePaul, it was always a very big thing. It was great for the Chicago fans. We built up a lot of friends down at Notre Dame by playing them down there and them playing up here.
It was difficult – we had a small gym at DePaul that sat about 5,000, and we couldn’t get the big schools to come in. Nobody would come in to play us there. So most of our games were played at the Chicago Stadium. But Keogan and Moose Krause, Johnny Jordan, Johnny Dee, and Digger all brought their teams in.
One of the first ones, way back, some ND player threw one in from about 75 feet with about one second to play and we lost. That would be the 43-44 season or such. That was the only time we were behind in the ballgame.
We lost in double-overtime after we’d won 26 in a row. That’s when they went crazy. Tripucka was rolling around on the floor — I’ll never forget that. Wilcox hit a really tough shot from the corner to put the game into overtime.
The one that really helped DePaul was the one where we were losing by about 6 points with 30 seconds to play and we won. It was 1977 or 78 … I don’t remember all the names, but we had Bradshaw. We pressed them and pressed them, and we fouled of course. There was one kid from Notre Dame who was leading the team in scoring … had an 80 percent average or something. I told our kids, “Don’t foul him, foul everybody else.” Then they went and fouled him. But he missed the free throw. Corzine gets the rebound, throws it to mid-court. Garland takes one dribble and shoots it. And I’m sitting on the bench thinking, “It’s good”. And it went right in.
But the aftermath was something. I got a letter from a priest in Buffalo, New York, saying, “I won the game for you. When you were behind, I took the St. Vincent DePaul statue and put it on the TV. And that’s how you won.” I got a letter from a nun from someplace that said, “When you were losing, I knelt down on the floor and said a prayer for you. And that’s how you won.” It was the first time I’d ever gotten fan mail.
I remember Joe kicking that car during that period. We were in the huddle. I didn’t know anything, but all of a sudden, I see the car fly. He stepped back and gave it quite a kick. Wow, he didn’t expect the wrath of the students. They were all over him. Joe was an unusual character. He couldn’t run and he couldn’t jump, he could just beat you.
I remember the 1978 tournament game so vividly. The trainer didn’t show up to tape the kids, so they had to tape each other. You only had one hour to practice, and our kids came up to the floor one at a time because they were taping one another. We were playing 3-on-3, and as the kids came up, we’d add more. Ramsey threw a low pass to Corzine and dislocated his finger. They put a big splint on it. He still played, but he wasn’t effective. It was like playing with one hand. You were talking about the car earlier … well, in that game, Joe Ponsetto kicked a camera.
Since I stopped coaching, I go back there for basketball games and a couple football games. They’ve been very, very good. They couldn’t be better. Every one of the coaches have been so very, very good to me every time I come down. I get Notre Dame shirts all the time. I took my family down to Notre Dame, and we went around while I tried to find the buildings I’d lived in. My relationship with Notre Dame has always been good. Fr. Hesburgh and Fr. Joyce couldn’t be nicer to me. One time when Gerry Faust was coaching, Fr. Hesburgh had me come down and give the [pre-game] pep talk.
I really love all my associations with Notre Dame. That’s something that will always be with me. I’ve said it all the time – and I’m probably not the only one who’s said it, it’s probably a trite expression – you can leave Notre Dame, but Notre Dame never leaves you. I’m not aware of what goes on at other schools. But I just think that if it’s like Notre Dame, it’s a lot of fun.