It wasn't easy, but Maryland's basketball players had managed to hoist Lefty Driesell off the ground, his face filled with enough joy to illuminate the entire Greensboro Coliseum. Around the court, some long-time Maryland fans wept, overcome by the thrill of the Terrapins' winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament for the first time in 26 years.
Throughout the Coliseum, many fans from the other ACC schools also stood and applauded, a show of respect for a longtime opponent who had earned a championship that had eluded him so often.
For Driesell and for Maryland, it was a cherished moment.
The scene was markedly different from the one played out 12 months earlier. Then, Maryland was eliminated from the tournament in the first round, taunted and booed in Atlanta's Omni arena after being upset by a mediocre Georgia Tech team. Driesell seemed to be under siege that night, haunted by peopleor his ouster from Maryland after an incident in which he telephoned a female student who had accused one of his players of sexual misconduct to see if she would drop the charges.
The vastly different emotions in those two scenes perhaps best put into perspective Maryland's 15-year roller coaster ride since Driesell took over as basketball coach in 1969. Eric Sevareid once described Lyndon Johnson as "a great man with great flaws." Substitute the word "coach" for the word "man" and you might well describe Driesell and his program.
"I think Maryland should be very happy with the program it has in basketball," Driesell said. "The players who come here graduate, we've had success on the court, we've sold out our games and I think most people have a positive view of what we do."
The men Driesell answers to, Chancellor John Slaughter and Athletic Director Dick Dull, agree. Recently, they rewarded him with a 10-year contract.
Driesell has delivered almost everything he promised when he was hired from Davidson College. Maryland basketball is a big money-maker -- the school will make $1.3 million this year from its conference TV contract alone -- and one of the best-known programs in the country.
Five of Driesell's players are playing in the NBA and fund-raising at the school has gone from less than $100,000 annually to almost $2 million annually since Driesell arrived. Maryland averaged 12,600 fans per home game last season and the figure would have been higher if Dull had not, in his words, "fallen asleep" in scheduling relatively weak-drawing teams for the Christmas-time Maryland Invitational Tournament.
Still, there are two negatives that nag like a dull toothache.
One is the team's inability to reach the NCAA Final Four. Maryland has been to the final eight twice under Driesell (1973, 1975) but has not been past the final 16 for nine years. During Driesell's tenure, four of the other six ACC schools (excluding Georgia Tech, which joined the league in 1980) have reached the Final Four: North Carolina (four times) N.C. State (twice) Virginia (twice) and Duke. Wake Forest has been to the final eight as often as Maryland (1977, 1984) and Clemson, while only going that far once, did so more recently (1980).
Those numbers would mean little when stacked against Driesell's other accomplishments, if not for his brash "We can be the UCLA of the East" statement, which he made upon arriving at Maryland.
"I think that one line has been Lefty's biggest problem," Dull said. "A lot of people have just never forgiven us for not being the UCLA of the East. Because of that line, people don't put what we've done here in the proper perspective. I don't blame Lefty for not winning the national championship because there's a lot of luck involved in that sort of thing."
What about the Final Four? "I think we should have been there by now," he said softly.
The other negative has been an occasional image problem. In the 1970s, a number of players transferred out of Maryland. Another was accused of breaking into a dormitory. In 1976, two players, Owen Brown and Chris Patton, died within several months of each other. Brown had graduated in 1975, Patton was still in the program. Neither death was tied to the program but the strange coincidence -- two young athletes dying suddenly -- left a cloud over the program for a couple of years.
Then there was the 1983 Herman Veal incident. Driesell still will not talk about what happened. At the time, he predicted the investigation not only would clear him of any wrongdoing but prove "who has the power around here."
Slaughter was in a difficult position: If he found the coach blameless, many would say it proved Driesell's claim that he, not the administration, wielded the true power.
After an investigation, Slaughter ordered Driesell to apologize publicly to the woman. Slaughter admits today that if he had acted immediately instead of conducting an investigation, he might have taken stronger action against Driesell.
"When I investigated what happened in that case I found that Coach Driesell was not guilty of anything other than some very poor judgment," Slaughter said. "Unfortunately, his demeanor was one of someone who is used to getting his way. Because of that, he boxed himself in and he unwittingly placed both of us in very difficult positions."
Slaughter says today he thinks there was at least one positive aspect to the case. "Because of it, I got to know Coach Driesell very well, very quickly," he said. "I found him to be a very good person, one who I think is very misunderstood by the public."
Slaughter and Dull concede that the incident has hurt the school's image. "There's no doubt people have used it against Driesell," Slaughter said. However, Driesell says it has caused him no difficulty in recruiting or in any other area.
The two trouble areas are minor compared to the successes the program has had. Driesell has gotten Maryland into the NCAA tournament six times (it had not been in the tournament for 11 years when he arrived), has won the National Invitation Tournament, has won two ACC regular-season titles and, last year, finally, the ACC tournament. During his 15 seasons, the Terrapins have averaged 20.3 victories.
"We feel like we have the kind of program where you can lose a couple of good players and still be very good the next year," said Adrian Branch, one of this season's captains. "We lost Herman Veal and Ben Coleman this year but that doesn't mean by the end of the year we won't have a chance to be a factor in the NCAA tournament. If you look at Coach Driesell's record, he doesn't have too many bad years."
This year, the team is 7-1 and ranked 18th nationally in one poll. The consistency of the program makes most Maryland people happy. Although some alumni complain that Driesell has not "won the big ones," most say they are pleased the team is competitive every season. Because of this, ACC tournament tickets are a major lure for the Terrapin Club, the school's athletic fund-raising arm. Big contributors get the chance to buy from the school's allotment of tickets.
Driesell's ability as a recruiter is a major reason for the program's success. Three times in his career, he has signed the most recruited player in the country. In 1970, he won Tom McMillen away from North Carolina at the last minute; in 1975, he signed Moses Malone, and in 1977, he signed Albert King. Malone turned pro right out of high school and Driesell still bemoans that loss.
One thing that has changed in recruiting is the involvement of the admissions department. Once, Driesell and the school's football coach were authorized to offer any athlete a scholarship without any clearance from admissions. No transcript was required. Athletes didn't even have to meet NCAA minimum requirements to get into school.
Under Slaughter and Dull, that has changed. Now, no athlete can be offered a scholarship without clearance from the admissions office. Driesell maintains that his record -- 91 of 102 players whom he recruited at Davidson and Maryland have graduated -- should be enough that the school will accept a player on his say-so. He chafed recently when the admissions office sent him a note telling him it did not want him to continue recruiting a top high school senior because "he is a poor student."
"There have been cases where athletes have been admitted here who simply did not belong at the university," Slaughter said. "We want to be certain that kind of thing doesn't repeat itself . . . Dick and I talk almost every day. If there is a major decision to be made about athletics, I expect to be involved."
That was apparent this fall when freshman basketball player Derrick Lewis was suffering from high blood pressure. Slaughter took control of the decision-making process almost immediately. Lewis was not allowed to practice until several doctors had said it was safe and Slaughter had set up a series of daily checks on Lewis' condition. Driesell had no say on when Lewis was cleared to play.
"Dr. Slaughter is very supportive of what we're doing and I have no problem with his being involved in something like that," Driesell said. "He's been very fair to me and to the program."
According to his contract, Driesell, who will be 53 Christmas Day, will coach Maryland for at least five more seasons. After that, both he and the university have the option to re-up for a longer period, or for Driesell to take on other duties at the school. Driesell is in his 25th year as a college coach and, if he wins 20 games this season, he will reach 500 victories in his career.
"I remember he used to come into ACC meetings and say, 'I'm not going to be doing this much longer,' " said Virginia Coach Terry Holland, who played and coached under Driesell. "He doesn't seem to say that as much anymore."
As long as Maryland continues to win consistently, make money, be attractive to television and to graduate most of its players, Driesell will continue to coach.
And Maryland's basketball program will continue to be a source of revenue and, most of the time, of pride.