Ron Meyer, who coached SMU onto the national stage and later coached the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts in the NFL, has died at the age of 76.
Meyer began his head-coaching career at UNLV in 1973 and led the Runnin’ Rebels to an 11-0 record and the Division II playoffs. He moved to SMU in 1976 and brought the Mustangs to national prominence, helped by the exploits of running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James.
In 1981, his last season the school, Meyer led SMU to a 10-1 record and the Southwest Conference title.
But the NCAA would later discover that the success was partially built on a system that paid recruits. Boosters and assistant coaches were paying players, and coaches knew about it, as did high-placed administrators. On Feb. 6, 1987, five years after Meyer left the school, SMU was given the “death penalty,” the harshest penalty ever levied against a major college football program, for violations that occurred partly under his watch. It included a complete one-year ban on competition, followed by a partial ban in year two.
Meyer left SMU for the NFL in 1982, taking over as coach of the New England Patriots. In his first season he led the Patriots to a 5-4 record in that strike shortened year and earned AFC Coach of the Year honors. He may be best known for the infamous Snowplow Game that season.
On Dec. 12, the Patriots were playing the Miami Dolphins in frigid conditions. The teams were in a scoreless game with just less than five minutes remaining. The Patriots had the ball at the Dolphins’ 16-yard line and Meyer called for kicker John Smith to attempt a 33-yard field goal. But first, he called on Mark Henderson, who was operating the John Deere tractor as part of a work-release program at a local prison, to sweep a clean spot for Smith to make the kick and send the Patriots to victory.
“(Meyer) said, ‘Get out there and do something.’ I knew exactly what he meant, so I jumped on the tractor,” Henderson told the Boston Globe in 2010.
With clear turf, Smith easily made the kick as Dolphins coach Don Shula furiously looked on from the opposite sideline. The final score was 3-0.
“I wanted to go out there and punch him out,” Shula said years later. “In retrospect, I should have laid down in front of the snowplow.”
That John Deere tractor is now part of the Patriots Hall of Fame.
In 1984, Meyer was abruptly fired midseason, with the Patriots 5-3.
He took over the 0-13 Indianapolis Colts late in 1986 and the Colts went on to win their final three games. Indianapolis went 9-6 the next season, winning the AFC East, and Meyer was again named AFC coach of the year. The Colts never reached the playoffs again in Meyer’s tenure, and he was fired after five games of the 1991 season.
His overall record in the NFL was 54-50.
Meyer later worked in television and coached the Las Vegas Posse of the Canadian Football League and the Chicago Enforcers of the XFL.