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  For Driesell, a June Night Altered the Rules

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
October 20, 1986

We know how Leonard Bias died. We know who was in the room with him. We know how many credits he was short of graduation. We know about the drug use and the dismal academic performance of other Maryland basketball players. What we didn't know, and what we have been asking ourselves and each other almost from the moment this bitter stain began to spread, was what would become of Lefty Driesell?

Finally, the question is answered. It now appears that after 17 years at College Park, Driesell has coached his last basketball game at the University of Maryland. Sources at Maryland say negotiations are under way and are expected to result in Driesell being reassigned to another campus position, possibly as athletic fund raiser.

There is sadness in his going. For so long now he has been the symbol -- for better and for worse -- of Maryland athletics. He was brought there to fill seats and win games, and he did just that. He did it year after year in the country's best basketball conference, and he did it within the rules. He did not cheat. There is much about Driesell that Maryland can and should be justly proud of.

But the decision to separate him from the troubled basketball program is right and proper. Of the 12 student-athletes on last year's Maryland basketball team, one is dead from cocaine intoxication, two others were indicted on charges of possessing cocaine and obstructing justice, five had flunked out of school and another was suspended for academic fraud. Lefty Driesell isn't being blamed for Bias' death, he is being held accountable for the implosion of his program.

Let's not talk about scapegoats here. Neither Driesell nor Dick Dull, who recently resigned as athletic director, is being unfairly targeted. Yes, the true culprit is the big-time athletic mindset that encourages greed and academic laxity. But men administer and endorse that system, and those men must be responsible for the fallout of that system.

Driesell doesn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. He surely saw this coming. Why else would he have been campaigning so vigorously to keep his job? After not talking at all for more than three months, a few weeks ago he suddenly became available again. Armed with his own set of graphs and graduation statistics that compared favorably to the university's, he went on the offensive to combat the deafening silence from the chancellor's office. John Slaughter may have signed Driesell to a 10-year contract last year, but he was no bosom buddy lately. Slaughter's deliberate distancing himself from Driesell was rather like Teddy Kennedy avoiding Jimmy Carter's handshake after the 1980 convention.

In an attempt to rally popular support, Driesell behaved in the outlandish, irrepressible style we've grown accustomed to over the years. He tried wrapping himself in academic robes, listing doctors and lawyers he'd coached. But virtually all played for him at Davidson. He crowed that a grand jury hadn't indicted him: "You ain't found nothing yet and you ain't going to." Once again, as he'd done in the days just after Bias' death and the subsequent revelations about drug use and academic embarrassment, Driesell said he had nothing to apologize for. The situation called for conciliation and restraint. Driesell gave us Rambo: He would not quit. No retreat, baby, no surrender. In a final, desperate maneuver, Driesell said he had polled his players, and the majority of them wanted him to stay on as coach.

Through it all, opposition to Driesell grew. Among the Board of Regents there had long been a sizable faction unenamored of the bombastic, visceral coach. In the absence of any public support from Slaughter for Driesell, that faction could agitate for Driesell's ouster without significant rebuttal. When Dull resigned and Slaughter still did not give him a vote of confidence, Driesell must have realized that to keep on fighting would only be counterproductive. He'd asked for support and gotten none. His bullets were all spent. He could have waved his guns in the air a while longer, but eventually they were going back in the holster.

Driesell's possible entrance into athletic fund raising may be serendipitous for everyone at Maryland. It can, at last, appear that Slaughter has acted decisively toward the university's most polarizing personality. Driesell can have an honorable exit, a valued position at the university he has served long and well. He can do much of what he's been doing all along: selling Maryland athletics. The folks he'd be selling them to have always been his biggest boosters, anyway. Since he'd get a healthy percentage of the funds he'd raise, the university should come out a lot better financially than if it had bought out his contract. Who knows? A rehabilitated Driesell might even be named a consultant to the basketball team -- maybe even its coach. Nixon's back, isn't he?

Driesell has wondered lately, not without justification, "What am I doing differently now than last year, when they signed me to a 10-year contract?" Nothing. It's not he who changed. It's not they who changed. The rules of the game changed. They changed that fateful June night when Leonard Bias died. It could have happened anywhere, but it happened at Maryland. So they changed the rules on Lefty Driesell, just as they changed them at San Francisco and Tulane when something awful happened there. They change the rules because they have to.

© 1986 The Washington Post Company

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