There wasn’t a lot of good news in college basketball during this offseason.
Here is a list of coaches who begin the season dealing with off-court issues that have tainted them, their basketball programs and their schools:
●Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who will have to deal with a nine-game suspension once conference play begins as part of sanctions against the program that arose from allegations of academic misconduct and falsified drug tests.
●SMU’s Larry Brown, who is also suspended for nine games and whose team is ineligible for postseason play after the NCAA found that an assistant on Brown’s staff had submitted work for an online course on behalf of a player who needed credit for the course to be eligible to play.
● North Carolina’s Roy Williams, whose team and school will avoid sanctions this season because the NCAA’s investigation into an 18-year academic scandal won’t be concluded until next spring
● Louisville’s Rick Pitino, whose program is under criminal and NCAA investigation after a self-described madam published an online book detailing a four-year-period during which she was paid by a Louisville assistant to provide strippers and prostitutes for Louisville players, recruits and, in some cases, the recruits’ guardians.
What do all four of these coaches have in common? They’re all in the Naismith Hall of Fame. So are Kentucky Coach John Calipari, who has had Final Four appearances vacated at two schools; Jim Calhoun, who served a three-game suspension soon after winning his third national title and retired from Connecticut with the school ineligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament because of poor academic performance; and the late Jerry Tarkanian, who was sanctioned by the NCAA at three schools during his lengthy career.
I bring all this up not to demean the seven Hall of Famers mentioned or even to imply they should not be in the Hall of Fame. Certainly their defenders would (correctly) make the case that there are others in the Hall who broke rules and made mistakes.
But there’s one man who absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame who has never been investigated by the NCAA, who won 786 games at four schools and who brought attention to his sport with a unique personality and approach to the game: Charles G. Driesell, better known to one and all as Lefty.
The Left-Hander will turn 84 on Christmas. He should have been inducted into the Hall years ago but has been snubbed for one reason: Len Bias.
Somehow, Driesell has been held responsible for Bias’s tragic 1986 death of a cocaine overdose. For years, there have been whispers that Driesell conspired to “clean up” Bias’s room after he died to cover up that Bias was using drugs.
I heard those whispers, too. It is worth noting that a grand jury investigation into Bias’s death cleared Driesell of any wrongdoing. Even so, the whispers have lingered. So I did a little research in recent weeks, and this is what I learned: There was discussion in the Maryland basketball office on that awful June morning about perhaps cleansing the room. It was not Driesell who brought up the idea; it was an outsider who phoned Driesell about the possibility of sending someone to the room.
Those who were in the office that morning can’t discuss what happened publicly because all were called to testify before the grand jury. But people familiar with their testimony say that the notion of cleaning the room was never talked about seriously. Driesell did tell assistant coaches Oliver Purnell and Jeff Adkins about the phone call. At the same time he also told them to gather the team at his house in an hour. That was as far as the discussion went. In fact, after meeting with the team, Driesell apparently took the assistants aside to make sure they had not pursued the idea of going to Bias’s room.
Even in his grief and panic at that moment, Driesell never told anyone to cleanse Bias’s room.
So can we please remove that urban legend from the discussion? Can we now move on to the real merits of Driesell’s Hall of Fame case?
Put simply, the only other blemish on his résumé is that he never reached a Final Four. He took Davidson to the Elite Eight twice and Maryland to the Elite Eight twice. His best team, the 1974 Maryland team that lost the ACC tournament final to North Carolina State in what was arguably the greatest college basketball game ever played, couldn’t play in the NCAA tournament because that was the last year only one team per conference could participate.
The Wolfpack went on to win the national championship, upsetting seven-time champion UCLA in the national semifinals. Maryland was — at worst — the third-best team in the country that season.
For the record: John Chaney, who never reached the Final Four is — deservedly — in the Hall of Fame. Lou Carnesecca, who reached one Final Four (and was crushed by Georgetown in the semifinals) is — deservedly — in the Hall of Fame. He coached at one school, which had great basketball tradition before his arrival, and won 526 games — 260 fewer than Driesell.
If the Hall voters find Driesell’s coaching record to be just shy of Hall-worthy (he has been a finalist in the voting in the past), then they should elect him in the contributor category. Dick Vitale went in this way, and so did Satch Sanders, who was a good but nowhere close to Hall-worthy player in Boston. Sanders was — deservedly — voted in after being the first African American head coach in the Ivy League. Hank Nichols, the great referee, is in the Hall as a contributor.
So let’s add the fact that Lefty invented Midnight Madness. Then throw in that he took four schools whose programs had been on life support before his arrival to the NCAA tournament. And for the record, even though Dean Smith — deservedly — receives a lot of credit for standing up for African Americans, Driesell recruited African Americans at Davidson in a largely segregated state before any ACC school other than Maryland did so.
When he went to Maryland, the only ACC teams that mattered were the four North Carolina schools and South Carolina, which left the league soon after Driesell got to Maryland. Lefty changed all that. He made basketball a big deal in the Washington area and changed the ACC forever.
Then, after he was unfairly tossed aside at Maryland in the wake of Bias’s death, he rebuilt the program at James Madison and later won 31 games in 2001 at Georgia State, an Atlanta commuter school. The last of those wins was in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Wisconsin, which had been to the Final Four a year earlier. When Driesell was asked that day about succeeding at a mid-major school, he went into full Lefty mode:
“Mid-major?” he said. “Ask Wisconsin if we’re mid-major. I ain’t never been mid-anything.”
No, he wasn’t. He was larger than life, as a coach, as a personality and as a contributor to the game. He made basketball better for more than 40 years. Anyone who doesn’t believe Driesell’s contributions to the game were worthy of the Hall of Fame simply doesn’t understand the sport or the man.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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