“Careful” was never a word in Lefty Driesell’s vocabulary. He wasn’t careful about what he said or about how he approached a game or an opponent or a confrontation. Those legs that feel weak now, especially the left one, spent a lot of time stomping the floor at Cole Field House with 14,500 people watching his every move.
At halftime of Maryland’s game against Clemson on Saturday, the school finally — finally — got around to acknowledging the 17 remarkable seasons Driesell contributed to life at the school. For years, different leaders acted as if that period in Maryland basketball history, when he built the Terrapins from doormat to national power, never existed. In 2002, when Maryland invited almost anyone who had ever set foot on campus back for the closing of Cole Field House, Driesell wasn’t on the invitation list.
“Must’ve gotten lost in the mail,” he joked back then when asked about the non-invite, but the snub had to hurt.
It also clearly hurt last year when Maryland named the court for Gary Williams when it hadn’t so much as raised a banner with Driesell’s name on it. The man won 348 games in 17 years, winning an ACC title, a National Invitation Tournament title (in 1972, when that still meant something) and going to the Elite Eight twice. Maryland did not become the “UCLA of the East” as Driesell had vowed it would at his first news conference, but it became a force to be reckoned with in the ACC.
“He breathed life into basketball up there,” Dean Smith, his greatest and most infuriating rival, said several years ago. “Whenever you played them you knew you were in for a long, tough night.”
In return for all of that, Maryland honored Driesell with . . . almost nothing. A spot in the Maryland Hall of Fame, given grudgingly no doubt. That was it.
Now, there will be a bas-relief of Driesell inside Comcast Center. It’s not a statue and it’s not a plaque, but rather something in between. “I really don’t know what it is,” Driesell said on Friday. “Tom [McMillen] explained it to me but I have no idea what it is.”
It was McMillen, a member of the Maryland Board of Trustees and a part of what was arguably Driesell’s greatest team (the 1974 team that lost a classic overtime game to eventual national champion North Carolina State in the ACC tournament final) who finally pushed through the idea that it was long past time to honor Driesell. As always, Driesell tried to shrug off the importance of the honor.
“I’m just glad they’re doing it because it’s about what my players did, not me,” he said. “I didn’t score any points, I didn’t get any rebounds.”
Perhaps not. But he did recruit those players.
That reminder clearly stirred Driesell. “Yeah, I guess I did,” he said. “I coached them, too.” He paused. “Look, this is a big deal to me. I’m just glad they did it before I died.”
He turned 81 on Christmas Day. Years ago, Ken Denlinger, the great Washington Post reporter and columnist, called him “God’s unique Christmas present to the world in 1931,” and more accurate words were never written.
For all of Driesell’s bluster — and there is plenty of it — there is a soft side that people don’t often see. Years ago, on a Halloween night visit to a recruit’s home in Anacostia, a group of small children ran up screaming “trick-or-treat!” Driesell pulled out his money clip and began peeling off bills, throwing them into their bags until all his money was gone. Turning away, he shook his head and said, “I just hope I didn’t have any big bills on there.”
There was no one he tangled with more often than Smith. He was completely paranoid about Smith, convinced that there wasn’t a trick in the book Dean wouldn’t pull to find a way to beat him. Dave Pritchell, his assistant coach from years ago, always told a story about walking into the bathroom at halftime of a game in Chapel Hill to find Lefty standing on top of a toilet, peering at the ceiling.
“Coach, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Seeing if Dean’s got the place bugged,” Driesell answered.
Now, Smith is ill, fighting dementia. Lefty calls Linda Woods, Smith’s longtime secretary, about once a week to see how his old tormentor is feeling.
He would also gladly sit down with Williams to discuss last winter’s feud over the court-naming. “I like Gary and I respect Gary,” he said. “I think he did a great job as the coach here. I just felt like it was my players who built the program . . . ”
He stopped and laughed: “I’m not going there again. It’s over.”
Driesell said last year that no coach should have a court named for him. When it was pointed out to him that his argument felt a tad specious, seeing as how the court at Georgia State is named for him, the un-careful Lefty showed up again. “And they did it after I’d coached there five years. How many coaches anybody do that for?” he said.
On Friday, after he had taken Joyce, his wife of 60 years, back to Ledo’s for a bacon-topped pizza, he went to Maryland’s practice. Coach Mark Turgeon had asked him to come and talk to his team. “I’m gonna tell ’em they better graduate,” he said. He paused for a second and added, “And they better play better defense.”
It was more than 26 years ago that Driesell stood in an empty Cole Field House to announce he was resigning as Maryland’s coach, having been made the scapegoat by Chancellor John Slaughter in the wake of Len Bias’s death. When he walked through the tunnel that morning, arms around Joyce and daughter Pam, it was about as sad a sight as you could possibly see.
Saturday, as he walked to midcourt at the Comcast Center with no cane in his hands and Joyce by his side, with the entire arena on its feet and the cheers finally ringing in his ears at Maryland again, it was also worth a tear or two.
Happy ones. At last.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/