Lefty Driesell is being deservedly honored again in College Park tonight. Eleven years after he was belatedly elected to Maryland’s Athletic Hall of Fame and seven weeks after he was saluted at halftime of the Terps’ men’s basketball game against Clemson, a bronze bas-relief of the coach will be unveiled at Comcast Center.
Driesell, 81, was forced from his job of 17 seasons back in 1986 in the wake of the death of perhaps his greatest star, Len Bias, from a cocaine overdose in an a campus dorm room. Of course, Bias was already a former Terp, having just been selected second overall by Boston in the NBA draft, but the coach, athletic director Dick Dull and chancellor John Slaughter were all soon sent packing in the scandal.
It took Maryland many years to appreciate what Driesell had done for the university when he arrived at 38 – he said that athletic director Jim Kehoe was going to hire DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten if he had opted to stay put at Davidson — brashly proclaiming that he was going to make the Terps the “UCLA of the East.”
That was an outrageous statement considering that the Bruins were then in the midst of a now unfathomable seven-year streak of NCAA titles. Maryland had won a lone ACC Tournament game during the five seasons before Driesell was hired.
Maryland shocked second-ranked South Carolina in Driesell’s second season, prompting fans to storm the court at Cole Field House. The next year, the Terps won the still-prestigious NIT. In 1973 and 1975, Maryland reached the Elite Eight. In 1974, the Terps were ranked fifth but went uninvited to the NCAAs under the one bid per conference rule that was promptly changed forever for the ensuing tournament.
All told, Driesell was 348-159 at Maryland, winning the 1984 ACC Tournament (just the school’s second) and reaching the NCAAs in eight of his final 14 years.
“Although Coach Driesell was a great recruiter, he was also an outstanding motivator, teacher, and coach who always prepared his teams well,” said McMillen, who went on play 11 years in the NBA before serving three terms in Congress. “What he did at Maryland was truly remarkable. He transformed a sleepy program into national prominence in a few years. He is truly one of the legends of college coaching.”
Indeed, Driesell changed the face of Washington sports like only one other coach, the late George Allen, who turned the Redskins from perpetual post-World War II also-rans into constant contenders in the 1970s en route to even greater glory.
D.C. was a sports backwater when Driesell arrived in 1969. There were wasn’t an NBA or NHL franchise, college football didn’t resonate beyond each campus, and college basketball just occupied time between the end of another frustrating Redskins season and the start of spring training for the usually awful Senators.
Georgetown had lost to NYU by 20 the previous winter. George Washington hadn’t advanced to the NCAA in eight years and Navy in nine. Howard hoops was small-time. American was playing Division II ball. George Mason didn’t exist. And Maryland was a weak sister in an ACC long ruled by the schools from North Carolina’s Tobacco Road.
“We had gone 27-3 at Davidson, but I had played in the ACC [at Duke] and I wanted the challenge of coaching in the best league in the country,” Driesell said. “Maryland wasn’t real good back then. Only one station broadcast the games. We knew we had to drum up some interest. So we put an ad in The Washington Post with the pictures of the four best high school players in the area that said, ‘Men Wanted.’ “
Driesell lost three of those four players including current NFL television studio host James Brown, but he nabbed Jim O’Brien, whose last-second shot stunned those powerful Gamecocks in 1971, by which point future All-Americans Tom McMillen and Len Elmore were playing on Maryland’s freshman team. The Terps were off and running.
Georgetown hired former Celtic John Thompson in 1972 from St. Anselm’s High to try to keep up with Maryland. And then all the others schools in the area had to ratchet up their programs too. D.C. hoops would never be the same.
By the time Driesell left Maryland after 17 seasons, not only were his Terps an established force in the ACC and in the nation, but Georgetown was a powerhouse with a national title and three Final Fours, AU and Mason had gone Division I, Navy was on the verge of the Elite Eight, GW was competitive and Howard had reached the NCAAs.
Such superb recruits as John Lucas, Moses Malone (who signed with the ABA before playing in college), Albert King and Adrian Branch signed with Driesell, who kept on winning and, contrary to the general perception, more than 85 percent of his four-year players graduated including Rhodes Scholar McMillen and Harvard Law product Elmore.
Tonight, McMillen, Elmore, Lucas, King and fellow long-time NBA players Buck Williams and Walt Williams will be among those on hand tonight in College Park to salute the ol’ Lefthander, who created so many foot-stomping memories while raising the profile of the university and the sport in what had long been a high school hotbed.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin