Mary­land, at long last, hon­ors Lefty

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - John Fe­in­stein For more by John Fe­in­stein, go to www.wash­ing­ton­ fe­in­stein

He walks with a cane a lot of the time now.

“My legs are weak,” he said on Fri­day. “When I go to a game, I really can’t get around the build­ing with­out the cane. I hope I don’t need it on Satur­day but my doc­tor told me if I fall I could break my hip, so I guess I have to be care­ful.”

“Care­ful” was never a word in Lefty Driesell’s vo­cab­u­lary. He wasn’t care­ful about what he said or about how he ap­proached a game or an op­po­nent or a con­fronta­tion. Those legs that feel weak now, es­pe­cially the left one, spent a lot of time stomp­ing the floor at Cole Field House with 14,500 peo­ple watch­ing his ev­ery move.

At half­time of Mary­land’s game against Clem­son on Satur­day, the school fi­nally —

fi­nally — got around to ac­knowl­edg­ing the 17 re­mark­able sea­sons Driesell contributed to life at the school. For years, dif­fer­ent lead­ers acted as if that pe­riod in Mary­land bas­ket­ball his­tory, when he built the Ter­rap­ins from door­mat to na­tional power, never ex­isted. In 2002, when Mary­land in­vited al­most any­one who had ever set foot on cam­pus back for the clos­ing of Cole Field House, Driesell wasn’t on the in­vi­ta­tion list.

“Must’ve got­ten lost in the mail,” he joked back then when asked about the non-in­vite, but the snub had to hurt.

It also clearly hurt last year when Mary­land named the court for Gary Wil­liams when it hadn’t so much as raised a ban­ner with Driesell’s name on it. The man won 348 games in 17 years, win­ning an ACC ti­tle, a Na­tional In­vi­ta­tion Tour­na­ment ti­tle (in 1972, when that still meant some­thing) and go­ing to the Elite Eight twice. Mary­land did not be­come the “UCLA of the East” as Driesell had vowed it would at his first news con­fer­ence, but it be­came a force to be reck­oned with in the ACC.

“He breathed life into bas­ket­ball up there,” Dean Smith, his great­est and most in­fu­ri­at­ing ri­val, said sev­eral years ago. “When­ever you played them you knew you were in for a long, tough night.”

In re­turn for all of that, Mary­land hon­ored Driesell with . . . al­most noth­ing. A spot in the Mary­land Hall of Fame, given grudg­ingly no doubt. That was it.

Now, there will be a bas-re­lief of Driesell in­side Com­cast Cen­ter. It’s not a statue and it’s not a plaque, but rather some­thing in be­tween. “I really don’t know what it is,” Driesell said on Fri­day. “Tom [McMillen] ex­plained it to me but I have no idea what it is.”

It was McMillen, a mem­ber of the Mary­land Board of Trustees and a part of what was ar­guably Driesell’s great­est team (the 1974 team that lost a clas­sic over­time game to even­tual na­tional cham­pion North Carolina State in the ACC tour­na­ment fi­nal) who fi­nally pushed through the idea that it was long past time to honor Driesell. As al­ways, Driesell tried to shrug off the im­por­tance of the honor.

“I’m just glad they’re do­ing it be­cause it’s about what my play­ers did, not me,” he said. “I didn’t score any points, I didn’t get any re­bounds.”

Per­haps not. But he did re­cruit those play­ers.

That re­minder clearly stirred Driesell. “Yeah, I guess I did,” he said. “I coached them, too.” He paused. “Look, this is a big deal to me. I’m just glad they did it be­fore I died.”

He turned 81 on Christ­mas Day. Years ago, Ken Den­linger, the great Washington Post re­porter and colum­nist, called him “God’s unique Christ­mas present to the world in 1931,” and more ac­cu­rate words were never writ­ten.

For all of Driesell’s blus­ter — and there is plenty of it — there is a soft side that peo­ple don’t of­ten see. Years ago, on a Hal­loween night visit to a re­cruit’s home in Ana­cos­tia, a group of small chil­dren ran up scream­ing “trick-or-treat!” Driesell pulled out his money clip and be­gan peel­ing off bills, throw­ing them into their bags un­til all his money was gone. Turn­ing away, he shook his head and said, “I just hope I didn’t have any big bills on there.”

There was no one he tan­gled with more of­ten than Smith. He was com­pletely para­noid about Smith, con­vinced that there wasn’t a trick in the book Dean wouldn’t pull to find a way to beat him. Dave Pritchell, his as­sis­tant coach from years ago, al­ways told a story about walking into the bath­room at half­time of a game in Chapel Hill to find Lefty stand­ing on top of a toi­let, peer­ing at the ceil­ing.

“Coach, what are you do­ing?” he asked.

“See­ing if Dean’s got the place bugged,” Driesell an­swered.

Now, Smith is ill, fight­ing de­men­tia. Lefty calls Linda Woods, Smith’s long­time sec­re­tary, about once a week to see how his old tor­men­tor is feel­ing.

He would also gladly sit down with Wil­liams to dis­cuss last win­ter’s feud over the court­nam­ing. “I like Gary and I re­spect Gary,” he said. “I think he did a great job as the coach here. I just felt like it was my play­ers who built the pro­gram . . . ”

He stopped and laughed: “I’m not go­ing there again. It’s over.”

Driesell said last year that no coach should have a court named for him. When it was pointed out to him that his ar­gu­ment felt a tad spe­cious, see­ing as how the court at Ge­or­gia State is named for him, the un-care­ful Lefty showed up again. “And they did it af­ter I’d coached there five years. How many coaches any­body do that for?” he said.

On Fri­day, af­ter he had taken Joyce, his wife of 60 years, back to Ledo’s for a ba­con-topped pizza, he went to Mary­land’s prac­tice. Coach Mark Tur­geon had asked him to come and talk to his team. “I’m gonna tell ’em they bet­ter grad­u­ate,” he said. He paused for a sec­ond and added, “And they bet­ter play bet­ter de­fense.”

It was more than 26 years ago that Driesell stood in an empty Cole Field House to an­nounce he was re­sign­ing as Mary­land’s coach, hav­ing been made the scape­goat by Chan­cel­lor John Slaugh­ter in the wake of Len Bias’s death. When he walked through the tun­nel that morn­ing, arms around Joyce and daugh­ter Pam, it was about as sad a sight as you could pos­si­bly see.

Satur­day, as he walked to mid­court at the Com­cast Cen­ter with no cane in his hands and Joyce by his side, with the en­tire arena on its feet and the cheers fi­nally ring­ing in his ears at Mary­land again, it was also worth a tear or two.

Happy ones. At last.


Lefty Driesell won 348 games over the course of 17 sea­sons while turn­ing the Terps into a force to be reck­oned with in the ACC.

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