Lefty Driesell scratched his memory. "Used to sleep in a station wagon," he said.

That was at Davidson, when he had a recruiting budget for a year that might not pay his phone bill for last month at Maryland but where he still took his first stab at the little piece of heaven called the NCAA championship.

He's been grabbing for most of 26 years now. His initial two seasons in college coaching don't count because before his arrival, in 1960, Davidson rarely had players who could read and write and rebound.

There is a special tingle about bringing a team to the big college show, although the tournament these days features at least three extra rings under its big top.

Once, Driesell could prepare his NCAA teams in private. Once, the gyms were almost totally empty on tournament eve. No television crews were scurrying near his players at practice; few reporters were lurking for provocative quotes.

"All that junk" is what Driesell calls the pretournament hype.

It was long ago in an uncluttered setting that the Driesell reputation -- on and off the court -- was forged. Once, while getting Davidson ready for an early-round NCAA opponent in an unfamiliar arena, Driesell told his manager:

"Keep an eye out for any superstitious-looking characters."

Ironically, Driesell came as close at Davidson to getting to the Final Four as he has, so far, at Maryland: twice. Yeah, it was North Carolina that beat him both times in regional finals.

"Doug Cook [one of his best players] was hurt the first time," said Driesell, referring to the four-point North Carolina victory in 1968. The next defeat, the next year, was galling for more than the 87-85 final score.

Charlie Scott sank the winnng basket, the very Charlie Scott whom Driesell had signed for Davidson but who later opted for Dean Smith and the Tar Heels.

"Recruiting wasn't what it is now," Driesell said of his early Davidson years, when he slept in the school's station wagon to save expenses and actually coaxed the parents of one prospect to pick up his dinner tab. "There weren't all the recruiting services [that identify the outstanding high school players]. I bet lots of coaches didn't even know Fred Hetzel [a Washingtonian and his first brilliant player at Davidson]."

This is Driesell's 11th NCAA tournament, eighth with the Terrapins. His record is 14-10. He has been around so long that the first player who sent him home sad has been retired quite some time from the pros.

"Dave Bing was at Syracuse," Driesell recalled. "He and [Davidson's] Dick Snyder had big games that night [in 1966], but Syracuse beat us real bad [94-78]. We had won the first game [over Rhode Island]. It's hard to keep things in order sometimes when you look that far back, because there were consolation games [in the regional and national finals] then."

Also, it was infinitely more difficult just to get to the NCAAs. Only one representative per conference qualified -- and some of Driesell's teams failed.

Hard to believe as it is, a 24-2 Davidson team of Driesell's was left home. That was because it lost in the 1965 Southern Conference tournament. A year earlier, a 20-7 team of Driesell's suffered similar postseason agony.

Driesell's best team at Maryland might have been the one that lost to North Carolina State in the 1974 ACC tournament final and missed the NCAAs. Maryland had three first-round NBA draftees on that team; N.C. State won the NCAA title.

"What we showed this year," Driesell said, referring to finishing sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, "is that you can play a tough schedule and still get invited. The record isn't as important as it once was."

Jerry Tarkanian begged to differ. Tarkanian would like the NCAA to be more exclusive, for its tournament to be reduced to 32 teams.

"I think more than one team from a conference ought to make it," the Nevada-Las Vegas coach said. "But I'm totally against a team that didn't win 50 percent of its league games getting a chance at the national title." Hearing that, Driesell shook his head.

But for a freakish situation that allowed Moses Malone to jump directly from high school to the pros, Driesell almost certainly would have reached the Final Four. Without Malone, that 1975 Maryland team yet made the regional finals.

Perhaps justice demands that something unexpectedly wonderful lifts Maryland sometime soon.

Driesell shrugged. "You gotta earn what you get," he said.