Lefty Driesell on the origins of ‘UCLA of the East’

“The UCLA of the East, hopefully, was buried once and for all last week out there on the campus of the real thing,” SI’s Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in December of 1973. “Because Maryland—my Maryland, your Maryland, George Beall’s Maryland, Lefty Driesell’s Maryland and nobody’s UCLA ever again—can now stand up and be counted on its own….”

Driesell, Kirkpatrick would later write, insisted that week that “he never said Maryland was the UCLA of the East but only that his team had the po-tential (Lefty accents the first syllable here, as in po’ boy) to be that. This explanation was accepted at face value until minutes later when, in answer to a question about the potential of this year’s team, Lefty claimed, ‘Aww, I don’t even know what the word po-tential means.’ Right then the man from The Washington Post agreed that Lefty had the potential to be another Ron Ziegler.”

Dang, that’s nice writing. In any case, the UCLA phrase is as closely linked to Lefty’s Maryland tenure as The Future Is Now is with George Allen’s Redskins years. And he didn’t even come up with it himself.

David Steele told this story a few years back, but it’s new to me. It came when ESPN 980′s Kevin Sheehan asked Driesell earlier this week if he came up with the phrase himself, and if he ever regretted using it. The answer ran more than six minutes long.

“No, I didn’t regret it,” Lefty said. “See, I’m kind of cocky, right? So when I went to Davidson — Davidson hadn’t had a winning season in the history of the school — and so I said, I’m gonna put Davidson in the top 10.’ They said, ‘What, is that guy smoking pot or what?’ But we WERE in the top 10, what, four or five times in nine years? I think people succeed in life because they have high dreams and they set high goals. That’s what I’ve always tried to tell my players.

“So when I came to Maryland, truthfully, that wasn’t my quote,” he continued. “That was Jay McMillen’s quote. Tom McMillen’s brother. After I got the job, Coach Kehoe, the athletic director, set me up for lunch with Jay. And Jay said, ‘Listen, Lefty, you can make Maryland the UCLA of the East. They’re both very similar. They’re commuter schools; they’re located in L.A., Maryland’s in D.C.’

And he said, ‘It’s a great situation for you.’ I said ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ So that’s why I said that when I took the job. But I had a little something in the back of my mind. The number one player in the country that year was Tom McMillen. So I wanted him to go tell Tom that, right? Which he did.”

Driesell then went through the long tale of McMillen’s recruitment, which involved Dean Smith and Bill Gibson and numerous McMillen family members and accusations of impropriety and McMillen’s father ultimately falling sick.

“I think that’s what made Tom change his mind really, because his father got ill,” Lefty finally said. “That and Jay. Jay gave me that quote. And Jay said ‘Look, if you go to North Carolina or Virginia I’m never speaking to you as long as I live.’ And so Jay was telling Joe Harrington, one of my assistants – he had played with Joe at Maryland. [Tuesday night] they got together and Jay was almost in tears, he said, ‘I shouldn’t have told him that, I should have let him go where he wanted to go.’

“And I said, ‘Look, Tom did great at Maryland. He did better at Maryland than he would have at North Carolina…..Tom was a Rhodes Scholar, he was an all-American basketball player, and he was a senator and a congressmen or whatever he was. He’s too liberal – that’s why he got beat. But anyway, I think he made a great decision coming to Maryland.”

And Jay made a great decision dropping that line. By the way, the SI story was correct. Driesell’s original quote did indeed include the po word.

“Lefty Driesell stated yesterday that Maryland ‘has the potential to be the UCLA of the East Coast or I wouldn’t be here,’” The Post’s Bill Gildea wrote in 1969.

“We want to excel in basketball,” then-Maryland president Wilson H. Elkins said in the story. “I like the way you talk. I like the way you have performed in the past and I’m sure you will perform that way here.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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