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March 11, 2013

Colleagues say Crean target Jeff Meyer a man of class, integrity

Jeff Meyer was a young head coach the first time he met John Beilein. He had already been on the job at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. for 14 years and was still only 40 years old, one of the better-respected young coaches in the country when he and Michigan's future head coach first crossed paths in October 1994 during a coaches' summit in Charlotte, N.C.

Life at the time was great for both. Meyer's team was coming off its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, a 16 seed that led No. 1 seed North Carolina (with names like Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and Eric Montross in the lineup) with 10 minutes to go before falling. Beilein's Canisius team had just captured its first of what would be two MAAC Tournament titles under the coach's watch.

Those who knew them both would have said the two were destined to be friends. They shared the same principles, were men of high integrity with great basketball minds and had too much in common not to be - with only one exception, Beilein was quick to note recently.

"Jeff's more of an American League fan," he quipped. "I'm more a National League guy."

It was pure happenstance, though, that led to their first meeting.

"As fate would have it, in between sessions at the summit I went down to work out, and Coach Beilein went down to work out," Meyer recalled. "We were riding bikes next to each other. Both of us had had relative success - so we met, spent time talking about some things they were doing with offense, more about some things I was doing with our defense.

"We had dinner, and after we left we didn't communicate much for a while. It was just young coaches trying to figure out how we could do our work better."

Meyer wouldn't have foreseen working side by side with Beilein at the time. It would be 14 years, in fact, before he'd become part of his friend's staff at Michigan, but a career that started on a whim and a short résumé, built on hard work and developed relationships, was destined to take a few twists before he arrived in Ann Arbor.

Up and Comer

The son of an RCA factory worker, Meyer was the first of six children in his family to attend college. He'd been a prolific scorer in high school, once scoring 40 points in a game in an era preceding the three-point line. He continued his career at Taylor University and graduated with a teaching degree, one he put to use for two years as a high school teacher and basketball coach before he decided waiting for the bell wasn't how he wanted to spend his days.

Not far away in West Lafayette, Purdue was introducing new head coach Lee Rose to lead the Boilermakers in the 1980 season. Meyer, who had plenty of Purdue basketball memories of his own, didn't wait long to introduce himself to Rose.

"He had written out sort of a résumé and sent it to me," Rose recalled. "When I read through it, I liked various qualities he presented. He was a very hard working young man, and I felt - like all of us - somebody has to put you on the stump to get you started.

"He was the kind of individual with the values I cherished that I would want around my players."

Meyer proved to be every bit the mentor Rose hoped he'd be. He started in 1978 by doing odd jobs while pursuing a graduate degree and teaching classes at the university. He quickly earned a place as a graduate assistant and was on the floor a year later when two assistants left, helping lead Purdue to a Final Four a year after the Boilermakers finished tied for first in the league.

Meyer made the tough decision to leave home and follow Rose to South Florida, but he didn't have to wait long before taking his next step up the coaching ladder. His already impressive list of accomplishments, along with Rose's recommendation, was enough to land him at Liberty as one of the nation's youngest head coaches at 26.

"That year in Florida was a tough transition for my wife (Karen) and me," he recalled. "Karen was expecting, seven months along. My job was to run camp. The first week we unpacked the U-Haul and then moved into the dorms - twin beds and all. But the Lord kind of opened a door to be a head coach. Ironically, I had taken two seniors from Landmark Christian (Ind.) to see Liberty in 1976, so I was familiar with campus.

"When I got there, the vision was to kind of be the Brigham Young of evangelical higher education; to compete at the highest level. We were fortunate to have success early, build a foundation of trust on campus. We moved through the ranks, continued that and grew with it. It was a great place for our family."

And a great era for Liberty basketball. Meyer's 1995-96 second place Big South team preceded a 23-9, first place team in 1996-97, one that was selling out to 6,000 fans and seemingly primed for future success. He became the school's all time winningest coach, earned Virginia SID coach of the year honors after leading the school to the biggest turnaround in NCAA history (from 5-23 in 1990-91 to 22-7 a year later, the program's first season in the Big South) and had become a fixture in the community.

Meyer left no stone unturned on the recruiting trail, traveling to Nigeria to land future first team all-conference selection Julius Nwosu and later Peter Aluma, who became the school's all-time leading shot blocker and later played professionally.

"We had it going," Meyer said. "But it's happened to a lot of coaches, and it happens at a lot of places - the bottom line, in my first meeting with the President and new athletic director (in 1997), it was really evident to me they had a plan for the future. I was not going to be part of that for whatever reason.

"When it happens to you, as wrong as you think the process is, you think it's the worst thing in the world that can happen. As I look back on it, it's the best thing that could have happened for my family and me - I look at it that way. You turn life's negatives into positives and move forward. That's what we've tried to do, try to take the high road the whole time and not be vindictive or resentful in that whole transition process."

The Wanderer

There would be a few more of those transitions before he landed at Michigan, some good, some bad. Meyer spent 1997-98 essentially on sabbatical as the assistant to the President at Liberty, during which he traveled the country and observed practices at different schools. He stopped in locally at the Virginia schools, including Beilein's Richmond program, and made his way to Purdue, Indiana and Kentucky.

It was at an NBA combine run by Rose that he had an epiphany.

"Seeing the guys there who were out of work - Steve Fisher, who had won a national championship at Michigan, Joey Meyer, who'd had success at DePaul following his dad - I'm looking around thinking, 'wow, this is real,'" Meyer recalled. "One thing you underestimate when you transition out - I had this experience as an assistant coach and had been to a Final Four, reached the NIT finals, helped win a Big Ten championship, coached on a couple of USA basketball teams. When you transition after 16 years as a head coach, won championships and solidified that you can lead, you're confident you're going to find another job.

"I really thought there'd be a position somewhere on the same level - maybe a Tennessee Tech, Davidson, VMI - that would come open and I'd be a candidate. But in this profession, there's greater supply than demand."

His résumé and reputation was too good to keep Meyer out of the game. He joined Gregg Marshall at Winthrop, where he helped lead the school to three straight NCAA appearances, one first place and two second place Big South finishes. He made it back to Indiana in joining Todd Lickliter's staff at Butler in 2001, helping the Bulldogs to 26 wins in his first year and 27 and an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance a year later.

With Lickliter seemingly entrenched at Butler, Meyer grabbed an opportunity to assist Quin Snyder at Missouri. Snyder's resignation two seasons later led to an opportunity with Kelvin Sampson back home in Indiana, only this homecoming wasn't nearly as pleasant.

"I thought, 'the whole thing makes sense now,'" Meyer said of his regret in leaving Butler for Missouri. "I got an opportunity to come back home, be part of the tradition at the charter program in the state, close to family."

He paused.

"That went south in a hurry."

South in the form of allegations that Sampson had committed major rules violations at Indiana, and that Meyer was also involved. It was unfamiliar territory for a coach respected nationally as above reproach when it came to respecting the rules of the game, and whose integrity was unquestioned.

It wasn't surprising when the NCAA cleared Meyer of major rules violations, but Meyer still deemed the experience "costly and humiliating" in his statement following his exonerations. Any of the extremely minor mistakes he'd made were unintentional and nothing compared to the dozens, maybe hundreds who purposely operated in the gray areas, yet one of Meyer's final statements in his release indicated just how uncertain he was that he'd be able to continue in the profession he loved.

"If I have an opportunity to continue my coaching career, I will be better prepared to mentor student athletes and to work with a compliance staff as a result of the lessons I learned from this painful experience," he wrote.

And then he waited.

A Call from a Friend

In Ann Arbor, Beilein was coming off a season in which his Wolverines finished 10-22 in his first season, a transition year from the Tommy Amaker era. He'd been well aware of Meyer's troubles, but he never doubted his friend's innocence. All he had to offer, however, was an administrative assistant position, one for which Meyer was obviously overqualified.

He laid it out there, regardless.

"Out of all that, Coach Beilein throws a professional lifeline," Meyer recalled. "He said, 'we've had a tough first year here. We could use your experience. I know you're a man of integrity and character and that you were in the wrong situation at the wrong time.'

"If want to stay in college coaching, you've got to have a friend, someone that knows you, believes in you and trusts you to help you at that point in time."

Meyer had proven to be one of those guys for Beilein throughout their careers. He suggested point guard J.D. Collins take a look at Beilein's West Virginia program when Butler went another direction in 2001, thinking it would be a good fit, and informed Beilein he was worth a look. A few years later, Collins would help lead the Mountaineers to the Elite Eight.

Beilein wasn't necessarily looking to provide a favor when he hired Meyer in 2008, however. He knew he was getting a quality coach.

"There was a great sense of relief that I had a great friend with me as we took on this challenge at Michigan," Beilein said. "Jeff's a guy that can really talk about a lot of things. I had seen his own teams win, and he was taking things from Winthrop, Butler, Missouri, Indiana. He had a lot of different ideas that I wanted to learn.

"He's an incredible recruiter. It's not all about flash and dance, but persistence and relationships. He does the right things, has so many prior relationships from when he'd been in the Midwest for half of his career, I'd guess. He just knew so many people."

His ties in Indiana alone were key in helping the Wolverines land talents such as freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, and he was instrumental in the recruitments of sophomore Trey Burke, frosh Nik Stauskas and others. He was a natural to move up the ranks when Beilein shook up the coaching staff a few years later.

"I have basically given him my playbook for the offense, and we try to continue to reshape it to fit the next opponent," Beilein said. "He knows inside and out what took a long time to develop, much like some of my former assistants were able to do like Jeff Neubauer who is at Eastern Kentucky now, and Mike MacDonald (at Medaille College in New York), who was at Canisius with me. I let them run with it and let them tweak it."

Though he's risen quickly in his four years, Meyer insists he initially had no aspirations beyond helping Michigan basketball become the best it could be.

"I just wanted to be a voice of experience, maybe have some eyes and experiences for John that might help him as he began to build the program here," he said. "He was a great friend to me. I just wanted to be a great friend and hopefully use my experience and ability to help him wherever he needed help."

The Mentor

Those duties started in 2008 with developing camps and scheduling, taking quite a bit off of Beilein's plate. It quickly became much more, former manager Will Vergollo, now a young assistant to Beilein's son, Patrick, at West Virginia Wesleyan, recalled.

"He knew I really wanted to be a coach, and that it was what I always wanted to do," he said. "He really fostered that environment for me. He gave me responsibility and encouraged me all along, gave me things to do so I could learn and add something positive to the program. Early on it was just giving me freedom to work. Eventually as I got older, he let me help out with the offense. We'd sit there and watch film together, we'd talk about the offense - at halftime he would ask me what we're scoring in, and during the games he'd look back and ask if I saw anything that could help.

"That's who Jeff Meyer is. What he has done is dedicated his whole career as a mentor, leader. He's always developing people - not just players, but everyone else who no one sees - including me, who was just a manager."

It's been the same with U-M assistants Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan, as well, two of the top young coaches in the country. Beilein arranged pay raises for his staff over the summer to keep them together, continuing to foster their relationship as a cohesive unit.

"Those young guys, especially Bacari and LaVall, they lean on Jeff a lot," Beilein sad. "I love the way Jeff takes the G.A.s, the video guys, the younger coaches here under his wing. He's such a passionate coach and really wants to be the best."

Meyer couldn't imagine a better place to try. His road to Ann Arbor wasn't always smooth, but from the leadership of athletic director David Brandon and Beilein to his relationships with the team and the staff, he feels at home.

"I couldn't work for a better coach. We have shared values, shared vision," he said. "To see the young fellas come along, Coach Jordan and Coach Alexander - these guys are rising stars, so gifted in so many areas. I feel very, very fortunate to be here at this time doing what we're doing.

"I can say I feel blessed to have an opportunity to get back on the court and be on the road recruiting. Michigan is a tremendous brand. Sometimes a lot of stuff just comes together and you say, 'wow.' For us it's a tremendous opportunity, and I'm just very, very thankful."

Just as Michigan should be to have him, Rose said last summer. He continues to watch his former assistant closely from afar.

"He's proven himself as an outstanding coach," Rose said. "Now he's with a guy who shares many of the same qualities. I'm just tickled to death Jeff latched on with such a great program. He's a good man who is going to help keep you on the right track, and that's significant."

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