When the Maryland basketball team won the national championship in 2002, Gary Williams received hundreds, if not thousands, of letters congratulating him on taking the Terrapins to a place few dreamed they could ever go.
Williams read almost all the letters. Some meant more than others, coming from old friends and coaching colleagues. One stood out. It came from a former Maryland coach.
“Congratulations,” it read in part. “You have now made Maryland the UCLA of the East.”
The note came from Lefty Driesell.
It was Driesell who made the term “UCLA of the East” famous when he came to Maryland in 1969 and boldly predicted he would build a program somehow comparable to college basketball’s most incomparable program.
Driesell came up 10 national championships short of John Wooden but he did put Maryland basketball on the national map, taking the Terrapins to eight NCAA tournaments in 17 seasons, twice reaching the Elite Eight. He left in 1986 in the aftermath of the Len Bias tragedy.
It was Williams, after the disastrous three-year tenure of Bob Wade, who picked up the pieces of a shattered program and made Maryland matter again. Ultimately, he did what Driesell could not do, taking Maryland to back-to-back Final Fours and the national title that brought the kind of joy to the Maryland campus that for years seemed impossible in the wake of Bias’s death.
Which is why Wednesday’s court-naming ceremony at Comcast Center was, without any question, the right thing to do. Driesell did great things at Maryland, but he did not climb the heights Williams climbed. It is also why Driesell’s public carping about that decision is so sad.
Driesell, who said before Wednesday’s game that the court shouldn’t have anyone’s name on it, should be an honored and revered figure at Maryland. Instead, he looks like a bitter old man.
To be fair, the blame for this shouldn’t really fall on Driesell. It should fall on a Maryland administration that, to use an old Driesell quote, “could screw up a one-car funeral.”
It appears that almost nothing in College Park is ever thought out. Talks between Jeff Hathaway and Maryland for the athletic director’s job broke down at the last moment in September 2010, and Kevin Anderson was hired about 15 minutes later. When Anderson needed a new football coach three months after that, Mike Leach came and went as a candidate. Just like that, Randy Edsall (Randy Edsall?) was hired. Williams then retired in May, and the day after he made the announcement, President Wallace Loh — who has been on campus for about an hour — said that the court would be named for Williams.
Right decision, poor time to announce it.
Naming a court is a forever decision. Court-naming has come into vogue in the last 20 years since big-time college athletics sold its soul to corporate America and began putting names like Comcast Center on athletic facilities. If the Dean E. Smith Center opened today it would almost certainly have a corporate name on it, which would really upset Smith, who wanted the building named for his players back in 1986. That would have been an even more unwieldy name than Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.
Before anything was announced, Maryland should have gone through the process of hearing all the voices that wanted to be heard before announcing its decision. It should have listened to Lefty’s old players and even to those who might suggest that Brenda Frese should be considered because she also won a national championship. For the record, there’s no comparison at all between what Williams did for the school and what Frese did, either financially or emotionally. If not for Williams, Maryland would be cutting about 18 sports because of revenue shortfalls instead of eight.
But let them all have their say, then explain publicly that this is an honor Williams has earned as one of the school’s most distinguished alumni whose contributions can’t be measured in wins and losses or dollars and cents — as impressive as those contributions have been.
For Driesell — or anyone — to argue that the court shouldn’t be named for anyone at all is hollow, especially given that Driesell has a court named for him at Georgia State.
Here, though, is the biggest problem and a big part of the reason why Maryland managed to turn a night that should have been a celebration into yet another controversy: The school has never properly honored Driesell.
In 2002, when the basketball team moved from Cole Field House to Comcast Center, Driesell wasn’t invited to the ceremony on the night Cole closed. His name wasn’t even mentioned until master of ceremonies Johnny Holliday, ad-libbing at the end, mentioned Driesell as one of those who had been a contributor to the building’s history.
“I felt like it was something I had to do,” Holliday said Saturday. “I mean, you couldn’t not mention Lefty.”
Holliday got that. Maryland officials did not. Lefty isn’t honored in any way in Maryland’s current home. Steve Francis, who played at Maryland for one season, has his name and number in the rafters. Driesell has nothing.
How is that possible?
“They ought to build a statue to Lefty outside,” Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said Saturday. “Gary deserves the court, which is the most visible thing. Lefty should have a statue.”
At the very least, there should be a banner — a big one — that has his name, the years he coached and his record on it. They need to bring him back to unfurl that banner and have Gary Williams introduce him.
Of course right now that can’t happen. Williams is justifiably angry and hurt by Driesell’s letter to the chancellor and by his public pronouncements. Driesell should apologize to him.
Why? Because he’s not angry at Williams. He’s angry at Maryland for slighting him for 26 years and he’s still upset that he’s not in the basketball Hall of Fame — an honor he and Williams deserve.
On Saturday afternoon, things were back to normal in College Park after Wednesday’s first sellout of the season for the court-naming ceremony and the annual holy war against Duke. The student section was almost half-empty at tip-off (although enough students showed up to boo the announcement of ACC Sportsmanship Week) and the crowd was muted throughout most of the Terrapins’ 73-69 victory over a Virginia Tech team that spent the game’s first 38 minutes firing enough bricks to build Maryland’s next corporate-named home.
Mark Turgeon has the program pointed in the right direction. He may someday achieve what Gary Williams and Lefty Driesell achieved. Maybe by then, the school they all care about so much will be a little less dysfunctional.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.
com. For his previous columns for The Post, go to washingtonpost.com/