CHICAGO — His office is dark and warm, a welcome refuge from the slushy snow that mounts in ugly gray piles on the narrow streets of the Near North side. But there is no escape for Joey Meyer, no effective way to relieve the tension that drives him to rearrange a line of perfectly aligned pens as he leans on a table, no release for the pressure that burdens him more heavily than he ever imagined.
It is not enough that he be successful as DePaul's basketball coach: he must be as successful as his predecessor--his father--and he must do it with a team that has lost the emotional incentive that fueled it last season.
Ray Meyer retired last March after 42 seasons and 724 victories, his dream of winning an NCAA championship bequeathed to Joey, 13 years an assistant coach and four years his father's heir apparent. That dream has become obscured by the simple matters of getting from day to day, of explaining why the Blue Demons have lost to a lightweight like Western Michigan and twice to Dayton, which dropped them out of the national rankings for the first time in two years.
Meyer cannot explain why his offense and defense work only intermittently and rarely together in a season when his team was rated as high as third in preseason polls. No matter what Joey Meyer tries, the answers remain tantalizingly beyond his reach and the load almost beyond bearing.
"From a personal standpoint, the pressure has been tremendous," Meyer said recently. "It's physical and emotional, and I haven't always handled it in the best way. . . . I really need to forget it, to relax, and that's what our team needs to do but can't seem to do.
"Dealing with the losses has been the hardest thing. Obviously, I never thought we would lose that many and I haven't dealt with it real well. The kids have lost a little confidence. As a first-year coach, I feel the pressure to produce. I know a lot of it is self-imposed, but it's still there.
"It's harder to sustain things than to get to that top level. And the hardest thing for me is that it's my first year."
At least he gets no second or third guessing from Ray Meyer, known to all simply as "Coach," although his title now reads Special Assistant to the President. Coach travels the charity banquet circuit when he's not taping his weekly TV show or writing his newspaper column. And that's when he's not doing color commentary on the radio broadcasts of the Blue Demons' games or escorting generous donors to practices at DePaul's old campus gym, its own Alumni Hall.
"I'm very seldom here, and in a way, it's been a blessing because I don't have time to think," Ray Meyer said in his cluttered office across the hall from his son's. "I find it difficult to watch the games and do the radio commentary because I know they are capable of doing much better than they are. Maybe we were overachievers last year. Maybe we did better last year because of the emotion of my retiring. I don't know. But I know that last year when we were behind, we found ways to win. Now, we find ways to lose."
Meyer will never lose affection for his "kids," particularly those on the team that was 26-2 last year before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Wake Forest ousted them in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Those kids still bear his imprint, a legacy his own child cannot entirely disavow.
"It would probably have been better if I stayed away three or four years until the players that I was so close to had graduated, because I know what they're capable of doing," he said. "Joey's not like myself and I'm not like Joey. There's an adjustment period that's got to take place. Those players are used to me and they have to get used to Joey. If anybody's at a school a long time and anybody else comes in, it's going to be tough."
Perhaps never as tough, though, as it has been for 35-year-old Joey Meyer to become the first man in NCAA history to succeed his father as a basketball coach at the same school. Coach had compiled seven straight 20-win seasons, which got his teams invited to the NCAA tournament in six of those seven and to the NIT in the other. In those seven years, DePaul had the nation's best winning percentage, .857, off a record of 180-30. Joey, who played for the Blue Demons and was captain in 1971, spent two years as freshman coach before becoming his father's top assistant and a top-notch recruiter.
"My family never wanted me to go into coaching because of the stress factor," Joey said. "Coach wanted me to stay and be the next coach of DePaul, though he never really pushed me. I made my own decision." It was Joey who convinced the local playground kids that DePaul could offer a homey atmosphere and tough competition. "With Joey recruiting, I became a good coach," the elder Meyer said.