“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.”