Midnight Run Led to Madness

Tom Izzo drove his motorcycle to Michigan State's first practice in 1999.
Tom Izzo drove his motorcycle to Michigan State's first practice in 1999. "I should have got a patent on it," Lefty Driesell said of Midnight Madness. (By Al Goldis -- Associated Press)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

When Lefty Driesell's players were told to report to Byrd Stadium in the dead of night, prepared to run one mile in less than six minutes once the clock struck 12:01 a.m., freshman Tom McMillen thought it was "a little hokey."

Driesell, famed for his quirky motivational techniques, had assembled his first nationally ranked team that 1970-71 season. And if Maryland ever were to become the "UCLA of the East" that Driesell envisioned, there was no time to waste.

Under NCAA rules, college basketball practice couldn't start until Oct. 15. So instead of waiting until mid-afternoon, Driesell put his squad to work at one minute past midnight -- no matter that it was so dark his players could barely see, the only light coming from the headlights of cars parked nearby.

The players, it turned out, were quick to exploit the circumstance.

"Some of the guys could barely make the six minutes, and they used the darkness to their advantage, cutting corners on the track," recalls McMillen, now 56 and chief executive of Homeland Security Capital Corp. "So just as Lefty was trying to get an advantage, some of the guys were trying to get an advantage, too."

What seemed like a hokey exercise nearly 30 years ago has become a fixture of campus life each fall, drawing throngs of face-painted undergraduates, well-heeled boosters and eager reporters to basketball arenas for Midnight Madness.

And any loyalists shut out after the tickets and wristbands have been distributed tonight can tune in to ESPNU, which will air four hours of coverage anchored by five teams of analysts dispatched to Midnight Madness celebrations at Georgetown, Davidson, defending national champion Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga.

Just as the scale of Midnight Madness has ballooned since Driesell ordered up his nighttime drill, so has its purpose.

Some schools use it to stage a first scrimmage. Most bill it as pure pep rally, replete with mascots, gyrating dance squads, slam-dunk competitions and, of course, the introduction of the teams -- men's and women's alike -- to the students who'll cheer them during the season.

While no meaningful work gets accomplished at Midnight Madness, and the teams can hit the court as early as 7 p.m., Georgetown guard Jessie Sapp sees a purpose amid all the frivolity.

"It gets the jitters out," said Sapp, the lone senior in the Hoyas' starting five. "And it's fun. Georgetown is our family; the community is our family. So to be able to have the party with your family before the season starts, it's a good thing. And it helps the freshmen, too, to get ready for the big games where the environment is going to be crazy."

But at George Washington, officials scrapped Midnight Madness in 2006 and have since held a spirit rally later in the season. In the view of Athletic Director Jack Kvancz, that gives players a chance to use time designated for practice to work on honing their skills. Then, a bit later, the campus hosts a "Colonial Invasion" rally that's tacked on at the end of a practice.

Georgetown stages its Midnight Madness at McDonough Arena, which holds less than 3,000, to cultivate spirit on campus even though it could likely draw much more to Verizon Center.

Other major Division I teams opt for Las Vegas-caliber opulence.

In 1999, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo roared into East Lansing's Breslin Center for Midnight Madness astride a black Harley-Davidson. Last season, the Spartans stormed onto the court as bare-chested warriors, wielding swords and sporting only shorts and robes. Izzo followed in mock armor, while women's basketball coach Suzy Merchant dressed as a Greek goddess and was carried in by five Spartan wrestlers.

At Kentucky, fireworks erupted as a capacity crowd of more than 23,000 jammed into Rupp Arena for this season's "Big Blue Madness," which was held Oct. 10. The chief attraction was the unveiling of the Wildcats' new uniforms, which feature a checkerboard pattern in homage to the state's horseracing industry.

In hosting its tip-off celebration one week before the season's official start, Kentucky exploited a loophole in a new NCAA rule that permits coaches to work with players two hours each week starting in mid-September. Illinois, West Virginia and Marshall did the same.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches registered its dismay, noting that the two-hour rule was intended for instruction rather than revelry.

"It is within the letter of the law," NABC spokesman Rick Leddy said, "but that was not the spirit of the legislation."

Then again, the spirit of Driesell's original vision was precisely getting a jump on the competition.

"Really, I did it to kind of motivate my players," Driesell said in a telephone interview. "I told them, 'We're going to start practice before anyone else, and we're going to be in better shape than everybody because they're starting at 3, and we'll start at midnight! I always told my players, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.' And we were gonna outwork everybody."

Looking around today, Driesell figures it was a good idea. His grandchildren played in Midnight Madness-style celebrations during high school, he said. And he lost count long ago of the stores that tout Midnight Madness sales.

"I enjoy that people are still doing it," Driesell said. "But I should have got a patent on it."

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