Joey downplayed his role. "Coach is a big selling point," he said, "and staying home to play for a local school. We had more here than people realized; a lot of people could have done what I did. I don't claim to be a genius. We were lucky enough to get some good people."
It is the success he helped build that has come back to haunt him, creating near-impossible expectations. "We built a monstrosity here," Ray Meyer said. "Everyone expects excellence, and while you strive for it, you don't always get it. It's awful to start at the top and work down. Most coaching changes come when coaches have had bad years, so Joey's in a completely different situation.
"I know he's down right now, and I feel sorry for him. But I know he'll grow in stature and be a better coach for everything he's going through now."
Joey Meyer claims to be less surprised than everyone else that the team is struggling, although the extent of the struggle overwhelms even him at times. Eight of last season's top nine scorers returned, including senior point guard Kenny Patterson and 6-6 forward Tyrone Corbin, who led the Blue Demons in scoring last season with an average of 14.1 points per game. But they miss one who didn't return, off-guard Jerry McMillan, and the inconsistency of junior guard Tony Jackson has forced Meyer to continually juggle his lineup.
Although the Blue Demons barely squeaked past Northern Illinois, 59-58, in their season opener, they won their next five games and climbed to No. 2 in the national rankings. But a blowout at Georgetown--they lost 77-57 after being down by only a point with less than 12 minutes to play--left them shaken. "I didn't realize how much that loomed, and still looms in the kids' minds," Meyer said.
Its aftereffects were clear in a 65-64 upset loss to Western Michigan and a nervous five-point victory over Northwestern. After routing Creighton and St. Mary's, DePaul fell to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, won four more, and lost to fellow independent Dayton on a shot that Meyer still swears came after the buzzer.
Everything seemed to fall to pieces, save for Meyer's resolve. After beating Princeton at Madison Square Garden, the Blue Demons lost at Louisville and the streak-ending loss to Dayton at the Horizon in suburban Rosemont.
A group of players whom Meyer would not name or number violated his curfew rule the night before the Louisville game, but Meyer could not bench them because "that wouldn't have let me have enough players to start a team." He did have the culprits attend a midnight practice, a punishment that probably hurt him more than it hurt those he censured. As an assistant coach, Meyer had become the players' friend and confidant, a relationship that necessarily changed when he became the man who decides their playing time.
Yet, the players say that Meyer's comfort is still available. And they say they're comfortable with him. "Before, he was the middle man and now he tells us what to do," Patterson said, "but you can talk to him and discuss why things are going wrong."
Meyer wondered if he had done the wrong thing by punishing the players, especially after the ensuing loss to Dayton. But he has become convinced that he must forge his own personality in disciplinary matters, as well as on the playing floor.
"You've got to do it your way. I'm coaching this year as if I'm going to be around a while and I've got to do it my way," he said. "If I didn't say something, maybe we would have beaten Louisville. It was nothing blatant; they were sitting in one guy's room listening to music. But the rules are that they're to be in their own rooms. I paid the price. It may have hurt us in that game, but I believe that over the long run it will help us. I'm more concerned about them graduating and being good kids.
"I've kicked myself about it since. I'm not trying to put myself on a pedestal. In the long run, I think the good things will happen because they're going to be good kids."
The players recognize Meyer's attempts to establish his personality and sympathize with the enormity of the effort Meyer must make. "I see him really feeling the pressure. We had such a great year last year, and we've got pretty much the same team, so people expected equal or better," Corbin said. "Things haven't clicked, but I think he's handled it well. You can feel sorry for yourself and think the season's over, but he hasn't.
"It was an adjustment for us because he's different from Coach. He doesn't yell like Coach did, but he knows when to let loose and when to hold it back and wait for the right time. Under the pressure he's been under he's done a good job . . . Coach Joe's ideas of how the game should be played are that he believes in a much more structured type of game. Coach would let us be a lot freer and not concentrate on the little things, like coach Joe does."
Coach has made a point of not offering his son advice, and Joey has made a point of not requesting any. "He's his own man. I wouldn't do the things he's doing and I wouldn't expect him to do the things I did," Coach said. "If he just followed the things I do, he wouldn't mature and grow. The team was used to me, and he's a different personality. . . . Adversity makes men. Maybe we had things too easy. Maybe if he starts out like this, it will be better for him in the long run. He's getting his baptism early.
"There's no question in my mind that he's a good coach and will develop into a great one. You can't judge on one or two years. You have to wait three, four or five."