Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Wisconsin's Walter "Doc" Meanwell

March 2nd, 2011
In the most recent installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with the son of the late Walter "Doc" Meanwell. Coach Meanwell led the University of Wisconsin to eight Big Ten championships and three Helms national titles during his time in Madison, moving on to become the school's athletic director before starting his own medical practice.

Jon Teitel: Your father was born in England but came over to America at age 3. Why did your family move across the pond, and how did he get into American sports?

Walter A. Meanwell: He came over with his widowed mother to Rochester, NY. He later enrolled at Yale despite not having a lot of money, then got his medical degree at Johns Hopkins. His sports background was in wrestling and boxing, and one magical night he won boxing matches in two different weight divisions! He went to Wisconsin to get his PhD, where he devised the "Meanwell system". He used the footwork skills he learned in wrestling and boxing to his team's benefit on the basketball court. The footwork in basketball had been totally lacking in those years, so he focused on the proper stance on defense and the use of the pivot foot on offense.

JT: of his many creations was the "line defense", which was the first incarnation of the 3-2 zone designed to counter an opponent's fast break. How does it feel to know that he created a defensive philosophy a century ago that is still used today?

WM: It is incredible that it is still a part of the sport. The success of recent Wisconsin coaches like Bo Ryan and Dick Bennett is even more amazing because they are breaking some of the records that my dad set almost 100 years ago! He also invented the seamless ball. The ball used in the 1920s actually had laces.

JT: He won three national titles in his first five years while winning 50 of his first 51 games. Do you consider him to be one of the best coaches in the history of the sport?

WM: You have to remember that they awarded those mythical national titles after the fact. He was obviously one of the great pioneers of the game along with coaches like Phog Allen.

JT: During World War I he served in the Army. Where did he serve, and what effect did the war have on him?

WM: He served here in the US as a captain. Unlike today the soldiers back then were trying to save the world from Germany. I do not think it had a material effect on him, as it was towards the end of the war.

JT: He partnered with legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne to run coaching schools for football and basketball. How did the two of them first come up with the idea, and how successful were the schools?

WM: My dad wrote a book about his teaching style of "scientific basketball" in the 1920s, and he and Rockne also wrote a book about training and conditioning. They started the first-ever coaching schools in the country in the late 1920s. When Rockne was killed in a plane crash in 1931 it was very hard on my dad. I am not sure how they came up with the idea, but both of them were very successful coaches in the 1920s and they met due to their prominence in their respective sports. Rockne actually took over the Notre Dame basketball program for a year in 1927, and after playing a game in Madison my dad decided to play a big prank on Rockne. He had the Madison police department arrest Rockne, and when Rockne called my dad with his one phone, my dad told the police, "Rockne? I never heard of that guy!"

JT: He is also credited with being one of the first coaches to focus on physical fitness. Was that due to his medical background, and did he make sure that everyone in your family worked out?

WM: He undoubtedly was the forerunner of what is known today as sports medicine. In those days if you had a sprained ankle they would put you in the hospital and stick you in a cast. His practice in Madison after retiring from coaching dealt mostly with bones and joints, and he treated many local athletes.

JT: In 1927 he convinced the Collegiate Rules Committee to make dribbling illegal, but they later changed their mind and made it legal again. Why was he so opposed to dribbling, and how powerful was he that he could get a rule changed?

WM: He felt that passing was the key to his system. He used to tell me that the basket should be raised to take away the advantage for big players.

JT: In 1933 he told the Wisconsin State Journal that there is no question that Johnny Watts is "one of the greatest basketball players ever" from a Wisconsin high school, even though Big Ten coaches observed an unwritten "gentleman's agreement" to bar black players from the league. How close did he come to recruiting Watts, and do you think that his views on race relations were revolutionary for that era?

WM: Probably yes. In those days there were just no minorities on any teams anywhere. One of the first Black players I ever saw in person was a halfback on the Indiana football team in the late 1940s. Bob Cook was one of the purest shooters that my dad ever saw in his life at Wisconsin, and he helped coach us to a city title when I was in high school.

JT: From 1933-1935 he served as Wisconsin athletic director, then retired to practice medicine in Madison. How did he like being athletic director, and how did he like getting out of coaching and into medicine?

WM: I think he enjoyed the transition, especially the sports medicine part. In the late 1940s when Michigan State did not have a basketball coach they approached him, but after thinking about it he turned them down.

JT: His great-grandson Cale Cooper recently finished his soccer career at Wisconsin. Is your whole family very athletic, and how many others have followed in his Badger footsteps?

WM: We are all very athletic. I am almost 80, and my wife and I recently took a 16-mile bike ride. I have two sisters who each swim for at least an hour per day.

Coach Meanwell is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Big Ten history.

Illinois: Lou Henson (1975-1996) 423-224, 12 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY

Indiana: Bob Knight (1971-2000) 661-240, 24 NCAA tourneys, 11 conference titles, 3 NCAA titles, 1 NIT title, 4-time national COY, 5-time conference COY

Iowa: Tom Davis (1986-1999) 270-139, 9 NCAA tourneys, 1-time national COY, 1-time conference COY

Michigan: Johnny Orr (1968-1980) 209-113, 4 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 2-time conference COY

Michigan State: Tom Izzo (1995-present) 336-137, 12 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 4-time national COY, 2-time conference COY

Minnesota: Louis "Doc" Cooke (1897-1924) 254-142-3, 5 conference titles, 3 national titles

Northwestern: Arthur "Dutch" Lonborg (1927-1950) 236-203, 2 conference titles, 1 Helms title

Ohio State: Fred Taylor (1958-1976) 297-158, 5 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 2-time national COY

Penn State: Bruce Parkhill (1985-1995) 181-169, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY

Purdue: Ward "Piggy" Lambert (1916-1946) 371-152, 11 conference titles, 1 Helms title

Wisconsin: Walter "Doc" Meanwell (1911-1917, 1920-1934) 246-99, 8 conference titles, 3 Helms titles