For Lefty, a Sad Farewell
By John Feinstein
Lefty had moments. He did, finally, win the ACC Tournament in 1984. He did beat Dean in the Dean Dome in as improbable a comeback as one is likely to see. He whipped UCLA in a double-overtime game that defied belief and shook his fist to the heavens over and over when the deed was done.
But there was never the national championship or even a trip to the Final Four. He was involved in what may have been the greatest college basketball game ever played. And lost. He had Dean Smith and North Carolina down and almost out with the entire country watching when he went for his 500th career win and called a bad timeout and lost. He ended up winning No. 500 against Towson State.
To some, he was overbearing, overrated and obnoxious. He had to have his foot surgically removed from his mouth more times than can be counted. But in truth, those who came to know Lefty came to understand one thing about him: there is no malice in the man, no real meanness. All he ever has wanted from life is the love of his family and The Moment. He always has had the former. He hasn't quite achieved the latter.
To those of us who have spent time with him, whether it be on the receiving end of a screaming 7 a.m. phone call or the laughing end of a post-midnight "Aah can coach" diatribe, the finale Wednesday morning was a sad one. There was no escaping the irony of the quiet emptiness of Cole Field House as he and his family exited. This was a building he had given life for 17 years. He had filled it and kept it jumping and, in many ways, had owned it. They cheered him, occasionally booed him, often doubted him, but never deserted him.
As he walked back through that tunnel and into the bright sunshine of a cool fall morning, more than one reporter cried. Yes, cried. Fact is, Lefty made plenty of mistakes, but he never tried to hurt anyone. Usually, the one hurt most by his mistakes was Charles Grice Driesell.
If you cried when Hamlet died in Horatio's arms, why wouldn't you cry when Lefty fell on his sword in Cole Field House Wednesday? After all, Hamlet was at least as foolish in his own way as Lefty. In truth, Lefty is Shakespearean in many ways. Always, he was tragically flawed, whether it was calling time out at just the wrong moment or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But if Lear was not evil in being deceived by his two oldest daughters, was Lefty evil because his basketball players failed him as human beings?
Others, who were here when Lefty arrived in a town devoid of big-time basketball, have talked at length about what he did for basketball here. It is all true. One could argue for hours about his coaching ability. Was he overrated as a recruiter and underrated as a coach? Did he lose control on the bench in the clutch? All moot. If John Lucas makes two free throws with the score North Carolina State 101, Maryland 100 with nine seconds left in overtime back in 1974, does Maryland -- instead of N.C. State -- go on to be national champion? If Moses Malone doesn't turn pro in 1975 . . .
The ifs don't matter now. What matters are the memories. Some of us remember the phone calls. There was one in 1980 after a long story praising then Notre Dame rookie football coach Gerry Faust. The story had glorified Faust for being different from dour predecessor Dan Devine, for being bubbly and personable, and for riding around campus in a golf cart on the morning of his first game in order to greet alumni and fans.
"Why'd you go and write that stuff about that guy when he's only coached one damn game? Dan Devine won a national championship out there, won all those games and you writin' this guy is Knute Rockne."
"What have you got against Gerry Faust?"
"Nothin', but I got plenty against you."
Three years went by and Faust lost and lost. The phone rang again, another early morning call. "Aah got a question." "Yeah." "Yo buddy Faust still ridin' around out there in a golf cart, or he get himself an armored tank?"
There is still a little tingle every time the old field house looms on trips to College Park. It always conjures up remembrances of those cold winter nights when one would walk into the old place and feel it rocking with anticipation. Lefty vs. Dean; Lefty vs. Norman; Lefty vs. the old alma mater; Lefty vs. The World. He took them all on, never backing down, never making excuses when his team wasn't quite as talented as he would have liked.
And when he didn't win, he always went out kicking and screaming and vowing to come back. And, one way or the other, he always did come back. Lefty was like one of those trick candles: you keep thinking you have blown it out and then it flickers back to life, stronger than ever.
Now, Maryland has blown him out and blown him away -- at least for now. All the stories, all the mistakes, all the laughs and there is one Lefty memory that won't go away. It was on Halloween night, three years ago. It was cold and rainy and Lefty was making a recruiting visit in Anacostia. A reporter, working on a magazine piece, trailed in Lefty's wake. As he walked toward the apartment building where the would-be Terrapin lived, a group of kids, none more than 10 years old, raced up waving paper bags.
"Trick or treat," they yelled.
Lefty had no treats, and the only tricks on his mind were those that competitors might play on him to steal the 6-foot-9 youngster who waited inside. "Aah ain't got no candy," he said, reaching into a pocket. He pulled out his money clip and began peeling off bills. One bill after another came off the clip and went into the brown bags. Finally, there was no money left.
The kids moved on. So did Lefty. "I hope," he said, "I didn't have any big bills in there."
It was the ending of the magazine story back then. It is the ending of this story now. Because the bottom line is the same: Whatever else one says about Lefty, he would give away his last dollar without knowing it.
You can cry for someone like that. Especially when he has never had The Moment.
Maybe, someday he will. A lot of us will cheer then.