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  Novak Laments: Lefty, They Done You Wrong

By Robert D. Novak
November 2, 1986

IT IS HARD to imagine Cole Fieldhouse this coming basketball season without Lefty -- stamping his feet, trying to keep his shirttail from coming out, exhorting 14,500 fans to near levels of frenzy. But, then again, there won't be 14,500 fans there, either. As was true before Charles G. Driesell's arrival in College Park 17 years ago, many of those seats will be empty. And, at least for a while, one of the empty seats will be mine.

The reason why Driesell, perhaps a good many other fans and I will be absent in the season is the Bias tragedy. If All-America Len Bias, on the brink of professional stardom and millions, had not ingested sufficient cocaine to kill himself, Driesell would be preparing to open his 18th season. It was to have been a rebuilding year, and Driesell teams in such years often surprise. Rest assured, nobody would have dreamed of firing him.

But the Bias tragedy coincided with some unrelated events: a Washington Post expose of Maryland athletics long in the works; a desire, perhaps pretentious, by Maryland officials to catapult the university into a more selective category; and a Board of Regents unfamiliar with and unsympathetic to big-time college athletics, led by a political fund-raiser of the lame-duck governor. The result was inability by the university's administrators and regents to withstand the tide of adverse publicity from the Washington and Baltimore newspapers.

Lefty was the scapegoat. In a star-chamber proceeding in which neither indictment nor evidence is revealed, the coach is convicted. His service in bringing Maryland out of the basketball bush leagues without a hint of NCAA rule violation is ignored.

It was the advent of Driesell in 1969 that brought me and other basketball fanatics into the Terrapin Club. Over 17 years, it became obsessive with me as I followed the team across America. Whether I want to remain involved with an institution that has treated Driesell in this fashion is something to ponder.

Worst of all, I find many friends not associated with Maryland assume Driesell was sacked because he obstructed justice in the Bias investigation. Even Chancellor John Slaughter, who served up Lefty's head to the news media, denies that. In fact, the grand jury refused to indict Driesell, and the runaway prosecutor who recommended it was rewarded with defeat in the primary election.

Why, then, was Lefty sacked? The impression given the public is that he presided, as one Baltimore sports columnist says, over a program "out of control" (whatever that means). So, it may be the time for a longtime eyewitness observer to say a few things about him.

For one who watched him from the row behind the bench on pressure-packed Tobacco Road many a winter afternoon, I can say he was an excellent bench coach -- far better than his press notices. He was always meticulous in making sure that boosters adhered not merely to the spirit of NCAA rules but to their precise letter in dealing with recruits and players.

He is a Christian and increasingly felt part of coaching is to instill moral values -- and academic progress. I remember boosters being asked to escort home earlier than the rest of the team players who needed special assistance with their studies. The truth is that the graduation rate at Maryland is higher for basketball players than the general student population, with the difference particularly marked in the case of blacks. The wonder is that Len Bias was so close to graduation after four years of big-time basketball, when students carrying no such burden quietly drop out.

No, Lefty is no saint. In his desire to send a rested team onto the hostile courts of Tobacco Road, he sometimes brought his team on the road a day early, causing more classes to be missed. There are dark, unconfirmed reports from the "task force" that in the case of three players, he actually interfered with their academic schedule so they could practice. In the sports world of 1986, those are not capital offenses.

No big-time basketball coach is a saint, notwithstanding the canonization of Georgetown's John Thompson by the Washington media. Imagine what would have been Driesell's fate if he had enrolled a non-qualified student lacking even a high school diploma and used him to win a national championship in his only year as a student at the university. While Thompson was immune from criticism, Driesell would have been crucified on the sports pages of The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.

The mutual enmity between Lefty and sports reporters was profound and ultimately destructive to the coach. The prospect that in a crisis, Slaughter would bow to the media and jettison Lefty was preordained in the unpleasant incident in 1983 involving basketball player Herman Veal and a female student at Maryland.

I happen to know some details that convinced me that intimations against Veal were exaggerated. While Driesell tried, perhaps too vociferously, to save the boy's reputation, Slaughter would not swim upstream against the media tide. That set the pattern when The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun sports departments went on an orgy of Driesell-baiting after the Bias tragedy. The panicky -- and expensive -- cancellation of the December schedule showed Lefty soon would be thrown overboard.

The hiring of Bob Wade from Dunbar High School in Baltimore as Driesell's successor is ironic. Everyone knows that he effectively barred Driesell from the rich lode of talent at Dunbar in the state's biggest city. To pick him is either insensitive or a final insult to Lefty. Whether or not Wade can make the big jump from high school to college, he will not be what some Slaughter aides call "an independent power base." For better or for worse, he is John Slaughter's man, which Lefty never was.

I have expended too much sweat and too many tears for Maryland over 17 years to wish Bob Wade anything but success. Some time down the line, I'll be able to bring myself to watch the team. But for now, my only desire is to say how many of us treasured the Driesell years at College Park and how we deplore the way he has been treated.

Robert Novak writes a nationally syndicated column with Rowland Evans and is a member of the Terrapin Club, a group of boosters of Maryland athletics.

© 1986 The Washington Post Company

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