Lefty didn't have to suspend them. He could have ignored the incessant ring of the telephone. He could have continued his walk down that hotel corridor and gone to sleep. He could have shut his ears to it. Case closed. When a curfew is violated and nobody hears it, does it make a noise?

Lefty chose to catch them, to confront them, to suspend them. He could have disciplined them in ways other than suspension, like giving them laps to run in the privacy of Cole Field House. Even when he decided to suspend them, he could have held their punishment in abeyance until after the pivotal game at Clemson. He need not have been either so quick, or so public with his sentence.

But Lefty made no compromise with his moral code. He didn't walk any of the many easier roads available to him or try to delay justice just long enough to slide by Clemson, although he understood that a loss at Clemson might well keep him from the NCAAs. He acted decisively, suspending there and then all three of them: a key sub, a starting guard and the ACC's leading scorer. What's more, he said, "If we were playing for the national championship, it'd be the same way."

So Lefty sent the message out to his various constituencies -- to his players, to the Maryland community, to the press, to the players he is trying to recruit and the parents of those recruits -- that no game is more important than the rules the team has instituted, that indeed, the team draws its character and identity from those rules. If no one else will stand up for those rules, Lefty will. But I hear another, subliminal message. I hear Lefty saying: "I am not a fool, and I will not be trifled with." And this message, I suspect, is one that Lefty needed to hear as much as to send.

The 1980s seem to have been unsettling for Lefty, various trends converging to erode his stature. Having made his initial reputation as a master recruiter, Lefty has not attracted a stone-cold scholastic sensation to College Park since Albert King, and for two seasons now has gone begging after a big man. Although he is one of 17 total -- and just six active -- Division I coaches to win 500 games, it was embarrassing last year when he got stuck on No. 499 through four ACC losses and had to reach the milestone against Towson State. Plus, it is his cursed spite to work in a conference where he must regularly bump up against his nemesis, North Carolina's Dean Smith, the lone active coach with 500 wins who has a superior lifetime winning percentage. El Deano torments him, leaving Lefty as Salieri to his Amadeus.

As hard as it must be to live in the shadow of Dean, Lefty has had to watch younger, cooler, more contemporary coaches breeze into the ACC and effectively poach in his preserve. Virginia's Terry Holland, ironically one of Lefty's players at Davidson, now has gone to the Final Four twice since 1980; North Carolina State's Jim Valvano won the national title in 1983; Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski have built powerhouses within the last four years. They're boardroom guys, not a back-porch guy like Lefty, and all of them have siphoned glitter away from Lefty in the ACC. Closer to home, the emergence of Georgetown as a perennial top 10 team has carried the Hoyas and their coach, John Thompson, to preeminence in Lefty's own backyard.

Lefty is 54 years old, surely closer to the end of his coaching career than the beginning. Even without the Final Four, he has a record few can match, and he is approaching the age and tenure where people could begin to think of him as a statesman and resource in the manner of a Ray Meyer. Which is not to say they won't expect him to win, but that they'll take so much more pleasure when he does. Yet in recent years, Lefty has done some things that indicated a restlessness with his circumstances and an uncertainty about his standing.

There was 1981's volatile "I can coach" declaration -- Lefty responding to criticisms both real and imagined. Responding to the implicit criticisms of their criticisms, the area sports media took the phrase and gleefully turned it on Lefty, to make him appear buffoonish.

There was last summer's rumor, fueled by Maryland's concern and Lefty's convenient vacation, that he would seriously entertain an offer to leave for Old Dominion, and consequently be closer to both retirement and the beach.

There was this fall's impetuous, silly insistence that henceforth he be called either Coach, Mister or Charles G., because he could no longer find appropriate dignity in the nickname Lefty.

In each case, the actions spoke to a sensitivity: in the first to criticism; in the second to lack of sufficient praise; in the third to a growing perception of him as a cartoon character. In another context these might all be symptomatic of what is called a mid-life crisis. People unwillingly being pulled by undercurrents often seek the solidity of a basic value system, something to cling to as if it were a life preserver. A consistent, well-intentioned man, Lefty always has held to a rigorous moral code. In time of flux he naturally grabbed it tighter.

He is not a fool, and you cannot trifle with him. He did precisely the right thing, took precisely the right course with the suspensions. It is important to stand up for something rather than to sit still for anything.