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March 15, 2014

2014 ALL-STATE BASKETBALL TEAM: Cullman’s Meyer tabbed 5A Coach of the Year

CULLMAN — Cullman’s 2013 season-ending loss to Athens was far from the end of the road for the Black and Gold’s boys basketball program.

Rather, one could look back on the loss a year later and have little trouble thinking it was nothing but a tremendous blessing in disguise for the Bearcats — or maybe, a “Fast32” rebirth of sorts for coach Bobby Meyer’s squad.

The Black and Gold’s change in program philosophy to a more “high-octane offense and in-your-face defense” reaped myriad benefits for the team during the 2013-14 campaign.

Cullman went 24-8, finished No. 10 in the Class 5A poll and notched a state-best regular season 82.47 points per game.

The Bearcats clinched an area tournament crown — just their third in the past nine seasons — and secured a spot at Wallace State for the Northwest Regional Tournament, where they came up just a bit short to eventual state champion Parker, 58-50.

The fun began far before, as Cullman scored 100 points in three games, 90-plus in six and 80 or more in five. Only three times did they fail to cross the 70-point threshold during their 32 contests this past season.

If the Black and Gold were a science experiment, then the man behind that curtain — the mastermind, one could opine — was Meyer, who seemed to press all the right buttons and make all the right calls for his group of players this year.

However, his most important decision was the one where he chose to bring “Fast32” inside the walls of the school’s gym.

And for that reason — and the many listed above — Meyer was the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s clear choice for 5A Coach of the Year.

The ASWA wasn’t the only one who thought highly of Meyer this past season, either, as junior point guard, a first teamer, Lawson Schaffer can attest.

“Coach Meyer is by far the greatest coach I’ve ever had,” he said. “I think he’s one of, if not, the best coach in Alabama. He knows the game so well, and he’s so wise. He shows that he is comfortable with anything that concerns basketball.”

Meyer began his coaching career back in the 1998-99 season at his alma mater, Vinemont, where he led the Eagles to their first state championship appearance in 2003.

He spent 12 years with the Red and White before accepting the job at Cullman in 2010. His greatest challenge right after didn’t come on the basketball court, but rather, garnering the trust of the players he was inheriting from coach Mike Dean.

Auston Neal and Keaton Dean — both freshman in Meyer’s first season on the bench with the Bearcats — received four years worth of coaching from a man they both said “needed and had to gain our trust early on.”

“Immediately, he had to get us working for him and that did not take any time at all because he is such a personable guy,” Dean said. “We had such a good time playing for him that it’d make all the hard work we were putting in that much easier.”

Added Neal: “Once we got a year in us, we really developed that trust and that led us to Wallace the next season. It kept going from there into what you see today.”

Meyer is well known for being a players’ coach and doing his best to interact with his current and former players on Twitter.

He’s also known for his penchant of being a funny man, while at the same time maintaining a great level of seriousness when it comes to buckling down and getting some work done.

“Coach is the same guy all the time,” Dean said. “He will joke around but knows when to be serious. It was really easy for us to follow someone that we all look up to, and we all really look up to him now. He’s a standup guy.”

Neal recalled a time back a couple of summers ago when the squad was off at Berry College (Ga.) participating in its annual team camp.

Following a win, Troy Forrest — now graduated and playing football at Samford — poured a couple of cups of water over Meyer’s head in celebration. Needless to say, the head coach wasn’t in a joking mood following the act.

“Coach made him run dead-man sprints on the sideline when we played our next game,” said Neal with a smile. “That is just typical coach Meyer. He’s always doing stuff like that.”

Joseph McPhillips played at Cullman from 2001-2004 and is now a permanent fixture beside Meyer on the bench as one of the Bearcats’ two assistants for the last four years.

The 28-year-old said he was incredibly impressed with Meyer and his “unbelievable” ability to stay “so even keel” no matter what situation arises. He believes that particular quality is the main reason countless student-athletes love playing for Meyer.

“He’s really good at X's and O’s and just coaching basketball,” McPhillips said. “But, he is so good at never getting emotional. He doesn’t throw tantrums. His poise is great. No matter what the situation. He knows how to talk and communicate with the players. He knows that if he's poised, then they’re going to be poised and that really helps with emotion. Our players like that he’s the way he is. They like that he trusts them just to play.”

McPhillips was one of the few people at ground zero for the creation of “Fast32” this past offseason. McPhillips recalled a day not long after the Bearcats’ loss to Athens where Meyer buzzed his phone and relayed an idea which went away from everything they had done in the previous three seasons.

The assistant remembered Meyer being quite adamant about putting this system — which included the line “we are fixing to start pressing the whole game and shooting a lot of 3's” — into the program as soon as possible.

Fortunately for the pair, everything turned out just fine.

“He was so motivated and instilled in the players the same thing,” McPhillips said. “They bought in. It gave them plenty of chances to shoot the ball. Lo and behold, we ended up having a great season. That was all his idea from the very beginning. With it, he really has created a monster in a sense.”

Much like Neal, McPhillips looks forward to the pranks the coach pulls off during the team’s treks down to Berry College each and every offseason.

“No one knows who it’s going to happen to or what it’s going to be,” McPhillips said with a laugh. “He’s definitely one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around outside of basketball.”

The assistant coach said one year Meyer was in cahoots with the hotel management and a police officer to put a little scare into his team. According to McPhillips, the head coach had the receptionist make several warning calls to the room for a direct violation of the hotel’s noise ordinance. While the players were “freaking out,” the police officer knocked on the door and was just about ready to send the players to jail when Meyer strolled into the room with a smile on his face, proclaiming, “I got you.”

Joining McPhillips on the bench is Meyer’s son, Cory, who was a member of Vinemont’s basketball team during his sophomore through senior seasons — when he was coached by his father.

The young Meyer is in his third season as an assistant and is hoping to become a head coach just like his dad when the time comes to do so.

Cory no doubt sees a big difference in playing for Meyer and being on the bench during his games.

“Seeing from the other perspective makes me think he was right about a lot of stuff when I played,” Cory said. “He never played favorites and he’s like that now. He’s pretty much the same guy.”

One thing Cory remembers about his dad goes against what people around the county have been led to believe during the past five months.

Turns out, coach Bobby Meyer is a defensive soul at heart.

“It’s strange,” Cory said with a laugh. “We like to play fast, but he knew that to compete at a 5A level, you have to play really good defense. It’s the first drill we do in practice. It did take him a little while to let go off the reins and let them play. He was an 'every possession matters' kind of coach. Once he let go a little bit, he was fine. He knew that good defense was going to lead to transition buckets on offense.”

While Meyer is immersed in the game of basketball a whole lot, Cory said his dad rarely brings it home with him and does a great job at setting aside time and days to spend with family.

“He was mine and my brother’s coach growing up and was always supportive of us whether it be in academics or in athletics,” Cory said. “Nothing’s changed.”

Even though Meyer makes plenty of time for the important things in life, he does his due dilgence as a basketball man, too.

The coach puts in hours upon hours at the gym, even if that means staying until 9 or 10 p.m. to get the job done.

“He does his homework,” McPhillips said. “He’s earned this. I’ll say that he’s almost always watching film or structuring some part of our practice for the next day. I’m awfully proud to be a coach under him, that’s for sure.”

Added Schaffer: “This goes back to my freshman year. After we got beat on senior night, he told us, 'Let me start off by saying my name’s Bobby Meyer, and I am your leader.'

“That’s how we feel about him. We know he’s our leader. We can always come to him for everything. We trust in him with everything, and we always follow him.”

% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at jwinfrey@cullmantimes.com.

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