Maryland Athletic Director Carl James said yesterday the Terrapins' basketball program "is solid and has been solid." But he declined to state whether he was satisfied or dissatisfied with the coaching of Lefty Driesell.
Amid scattered criticism of the team's fourth-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the 102-79 defeat to North Carolina in the most lopsided semifinal game in the 26-year history of the ACC tournament, James responded to questions about Driesell by saying, "I do not publicly evaluate our coaches.
"I don't need to stand up and say I'm happy with our wrestling or our soccer or our basketball coach. If and when there is a coaching change, you will know it from a release from our media office.
"Right now, Rhode Island (Maryland's opponent in tonight's National Invitation Tournament) is more important to our basketball program than any speculation about coaching.
"I have not talked with Coach Driesell about the goals of the program. At the end of the season, we will sit down and discuss strengths and weaknesses, goals and needs of the program."
In a 90-minute discussion of the basketball program, James was generally complimentary. The only surprise was that the first-year athletic director would not wholeheartedly endorse Driesell at a time when there is some disappointment with the program in this, the 10th year of Driesell's regin.
Despite the fact that Driesell raised Maryland's basketball program to national prominence, he has been criticized by some Maryland fans and media people for never winning the ACC tournament, never reaching the final four of the NCAA tournament and not winning 20 games since the 1975-76 season.
Driesell has a college career record of 374 victories and 149 losses. His record at Maryland is 198 victories and 84 losses.
Maryland has not been in the NCAA tournament since the 1974-75 season.
Driesell's team this year, now 18-10, is dominated by freshmen and sophomores (Larry Gibson is the only senior starter) but produced stirring upsets of Notre Dame, when the Irish were ranked No. 1; North Carolina State, when the Wolfpack was ranked fourth and later eighth, and Duke when the Blue Devils were ranked fifth.
Yet there is discontent on the part of observers who feel that the talent assembled by Driesell has not been cultivated to its full protential.
Jack Heise, chairman of the Maryland Education Foundation and a $10,000 life member of the Terrapin Club, said in defense of Driesell, "Our biggest problem is that our personnel (players) has been oversold... Maybe people expect too much of Maryland's talent because it's been so ballyhooed."
Heise, who is Driesell's lawyer and personal friend, said that the Maryland Education Foundation "feels the program is in strong hands."
"Oh, you hear some grumbling, like you did after we got blown out in the Sun Bowl (the football team lost to Texas, 42-0). But I din't think the hardcore nucleus feels that way."
Both Heise and James pointed out Maryland's lack of a leader on the court, particularly after viewing the inspired play of N.C. State's Hawkeye Whitney and North Carolina's Mike O'Koren in the ACC tourney.
"No person has risen to assume leadership on the team," said Heise, who attends all the games, home and away. "You saw what a player like Hawkeye could do for his team."
"I think it is difficult to win in our conference without a good. strong veteran team," said James. "This was evidenced by the play of North Carolina's senior, Dudley Bradley. I was astounded by him. Some teams have a very visible leader -- N.C. State has Hawkeye, Wake Forest has Frank Johnson and North Carolina has O'Koren.
"Clemson, Maryland and Virginia had no one who stood out as a leader."
Asked about the defeat by North Carolina, James said, "I had the same feeling after that game that I had after the Sun Bowl, that we had played a damn good team at its best."
James agreed with Heise's statement that expectations may be running too high.
"A lot of people are critical because they say Lefty promised the UCLA of the East," said James, referring to a statement Driesell made when he arrived at Maryland. "I think it was a reasonable goal and it created excitement. I still think it's a fine goal.
"It's very important that we have a competitive program in this league. That means being at the top of the ACC. If there are eight teams in the league (with the addition of Georgia Tech next year), we want to finish in the top four.
"Right now, I think our inexperience in some positions has hurt us. I can't give you a critical analysis of what their problems are, but there are some teams in the NCAA tournament with worse records than Maryland.
"I think we suffered somewhat (from Albert King's swollen toe). We have a very tough conference. Duke, which (at one time) was rated No. 1 in the country, could not win the tournament.
"Our losses outside the conference (to Georgetown, Louisville and Las Vegas) were to schools with outstanding programs.
"I think our basketball program is solid and has been solid. But to some people, winning is not enough. They want a national championship."
Asked to comment on the future of the program, Driesell said, "Where we're going I couldn't tell you. My goal is to win the national championship. and that's where we're headed.
"I'm proud of our players this year, and if we get a good center to go with the players who are coming back, we'll be right at the top. Going 7-7 against ACC teams doesn't bother me. This is the toughest league in the country and if an outsider breaks even, that's pretty good."
Driesell was asked if he meant a team other than a North Carolina team when he referred to his squal as an outsider.
"That's exactly what I mean," he said. "I'm very pleased and happy and I wish the spectators and the press would get off my back and give us some credit. We had one medicore year (last year) when I didn't have a point guard. That isn't so bad."