The formal announcement of Driesell’s election will be this weekend at the Final Four in San Antonio. Driesell did not return calls Wednesday.
Driesell won 786 games at four schools in 40-plus years as a college head coach. He was the first coach in NCAA history to win more than 100 games at four schools: Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State. He took Maryland and Davidson to the Elite Eight twice each. He reached the NCAA tournament at all four schools and had two losing seasons — his first at Davidson and his second-to-last at James Madison. He retired midway through the 2002-03 season at Georgia State when he woke up in a Nashville hotel one morning and said, “I’m 71 years old. Why am I still doing this?”
Driesell’s numbers don’t begin to explain his contributions to basketball. At Maryland, he invented Midnight Madness, celebrating the upcoming college basketball season by having an open practice at the stroke of midnight on the first day the NCAA allowed. He had his players run inside Byrd Stadium (now Maryland Stadium) using car lights so they could see where they were going. From there, Midnight Madness grew into a national phenomenon.
He also made basketball matter in the Washington area when he came to Maryland in 1969 after he twice just missed the Final Four at Davidson. He declared upon arrival that Maryland would become “the UCLA of the East.”
Even though he quickly built Maryland into a national power, he never reached a Final Four. Maryland won the NIT in 1972 when it still mattered, and in 1974, the Terrapins lost in overtime to North Carolina State, 103-100, in an ACC championship generally considered at the time the greatest college basketball game ever played.
N.C. State was led by David Thompson, Tom Burleson and Monte Towe, the Terrapins by Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and John Lucas. The game was played at a breakneck pace with no shot clock and no three-point shot and was knotted at 86 at the end of regulation.
After the game, Driesell walked out to the N.C. State bus and asked his friend, Norman Sloan, the N.C. State coach, whether he could talk to Sloan’s players for a moment.
“I’m proud of all of you,” Driesell said, standing at the front of the bus. “You played a great game to beat my team tonight. Now you better go and win the national championship.”
The Wolfpack did that, upsetting UCLA, which was going for an eighth straight national title, in double overtime in the national semifinals. That was the last season only one team from each conference went to the NCAA tournament, so the Terrapins didn’t get to the NCAAs even though they were, at worst, the third-best team in the country.
Driesell coached 17 seasons at Maryland and made Cole Field House a destination for college basketball. He won or shared five ACC regular season titles and won the ACC tournament in 1984 — on his fifth trip to the final.
He resigned from Maryland in the fall of 1986 in the wake of Len Bias’s death from a cocaine overdose.
Even though Maryland had to pay Driesell for the remainder of his 10-year contract because it could find no wrongdoing on his part, Bias’s death became part of urban legend, including an oft-repeated story that Driesell had suggested to assistant coach Oliver Purnell that Bias’s room be somehow cleansed before the police arrived.
Grand jury testimony shows that never happened and, in fact, Driesell had received a call earlier from someone suggesting the room be cleaned up and had told all his assistants that no one was to go near the room.
Still, the legend persisted, and the story would come up periodically from Hall of Fame voters as a reason they kept Driesell out. This year, Jerry Colangelo, the longtime chairman of USA Basketball who is hugely influential within the Hall of Fame, made it his mission to make sure the Hall’s voters knew the truth about the Bias story and to push for Driesell’s election.
Among those who had pushed hard for Driesell’s election were Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Driesell’s onetime rival, former Georgetown Coach John Thompson.
“Lefty should have been in years ago,” Krzyzewski said recently. “His contributions to the game go way beyond wins and losses, and he won a lot. It’s an honor he’s deserved for a long time.”
Driesell had been a finalist three times previously and was crushed each time when he came up short of the 75 percent (18 votes) required from the 24-member Honors Committee.
Two stories maybe best sum up the man, and they go beyond his own accomplishments on the court.
One dates to a recruiting visit he made to Anacostia years ago on Halloween night, a reporter in tow. As they got out of the car, Driesell and assistant coach Ron Bradley were set upon by a group of youngsters screaming, “trick or treat!” Driesell pulled out his billfold and peeled bills off until all his money was gone. As the kids raced off, Driesell shook his head and said, “Damn, I hope I didn’t have any big bills on there.” Then he shrugged and said, “What the heck. They probably need it more than I do.”
The second came about 16 years ago, in the days after Gary Williams steered Maryland to the national title Driesell had craved. Williams received a note in his office soon after cutting down the nets in Atlanta. It said, “Gary, YOU have made Maryland the UCLA of the East. Congratulations.”
It was signed, “Lefty.”
Now, that note is from one Hall of Famer to another. Finally.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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