Andy Pollin – ESPN 980 – October 9, 2015
Charles Grice “Lefty” Driesell turns 84 on, appropriately, Christmas Day – the most joyful day of the year. Nearly half a century ago, Lefty brought college basketball joy to the D.C. area and changed the game itself. Coaches who followed in his footsteps including John Thompson, who took Georgetown to three Final Fours and a national title and Gary Williams, who went to two Final Fours and won a title at Maryland, credit Lefty with making college basketball matter around here. Both Thompson and Williams have taken their rightful places in the Naismith College Basketball Hall of Fame. Lefty hasn’t made it and may never make it.
Critics will say he never coached in a Final Four and was forced out at Maryland after the tragic death of Len Bias from a cocaine overdose in 1986. Bias and the failure to win the biggest games have stuck to Lefty’s legacy and perhaps overshadow what he actually did. While piling up 786 wins, he took four different schools to the NCAA Tournament – three of them are what we now call “mid majors” – Davidson, James Madison and Georgia State. And in fact, his last Davidson team, came within two points of beating North Carolina for a spot in the Final Four in 1969. That would have been the equivalent of what Jim Laranaga’s George Mason Patriots pulled off 37 years later.
Whether you agree or disagree if that’s a Hall of Fame worthy resume, there is no arguing what Lefty did for the basketball program at all four of his stops. He was a promoter and a showman. Nobody could sell like Lefty to the great players he recruited and the fans who came out to watch them. He put seats on the floor at Cole Field House to put fans and players closer together. He created “midnight madness” having his team run a mile at a minute after midnight in 1971 on the day schools were officially able to open up practice for the season. He landed three of the most highly recruited players ever in Tom McMillen, Albert King and Moses Malone, who only stayed for only one class, but did sign with Maryland before splitting for the pros. And he wasn’t shy about telling what he thought he was capable of doing.
Legend has it that Lefty declared he was going to make Maryland, “the UCLA of the east” when he landed McMillen in 1970. Actually McMillen’s older brother Jay, who played at Maryland and graduated in 1967, in trying to recruit Lefty to leave Davidson for Maryland, told him he could turn Maryland into the UCLA of the east. Lefty didn’t invent the phrase, but he never ran from it. And he darn near delivered on it.
In McMillen’s senior year, Maryland opened the season at UCLA and lost by only one. A rematch in the Final Four seemed likely, but the Terrapins never even got to the NCAA tournament. In those days, only conference tournament winners (or regular season champions if the conference didn’t have a postseason tournament) made it to the 25 team field. In the ACC Tournament championship, Maryland lost 103-100 in overtime to North Carolina State – a game that Billy Packer and others who saw it say was the best game of all time. NC State went on to the Final Four, beat UCLA and went on to win the national title. Maryland went home. So great was the injustice, that the following year, the NCAA expanded the field to 32 teams, which took care of situations like Maryland’s.
Add it up and I believe it makes a strong case for Lefty to be in the Hall of Fame. If you don’t want to put him in as a coach, why not as a contributor? And like real estate, I offer two comps – Satch Sanders and Dick Vitale, who are both in under the “contributor” designation. Sanders did play on eight championship teams with the Celtics from 1960 to 1973, but he was not a star. After his retirement he became the first African American to coach in the Ivy League when he took over the basketball program at Harvard. But he spent only four years there and flopped as head coach of the Celtics, going 2-12 in 1978 before being replaced by Dave Cowens, who both played and coached. And while Vitale had success as a college coach at the University of Detroit, he failed in the pros, going 34-60 before being fired by the Pistons. His contribution was increasing the popularity of college basketball with his energetic style as a broadcaster on ESPN. Didn’t Lefty do the same, just without a microphone? And while some debate Lefty’s loud, “I can coach!” assertion, his coaching accomplishments dwarf those of Sanders and Vitale.
I ran the idea of getting Lefty into the Hall of Fame as a contributor past John Feinstein in an email. He’s covered college basketball for nearly 40 years as a reporter and author, including the last 25 years of Lefty’s coaching career. His response:
“Lefty should have been in years ago-period. He won 786 games at four schools that had little, if any, basketball tradition before he got there. He did make unique contributions with his personality and presence. Two things have kept him out: He didn’t make the Final Four. Neither did John Chaney. And, Len Bias. People will always see Lefty as somehow responsible for Bias’ death and the aftermath.”
John went on to mention the numerous coaches who are in the Hall of Fame that have landed in hot water with the NCAA, including Jerry Tarkanian, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, John Calipari and Larry Brown, and said it’s past time for Lefty to be forgiven for any mistakes he may or may not have made.
i would add that Len Bias has been dead for nearly 30 years. While he died in Maryland dorm, he was no longer a Maryland basketball player – his eligibility had run out months earlier. Bias was a grown man who was newly drafted by the Boston Celtics and old enough to make his own decisions. The bad decision he made should not be tied directly to Lefty.
Now as another college basketball season gets underway with a form of Lefty’s “midnight madness” taking place on almost every campus across the country and the NCAA collecting billions from the networks that televise it’s games, it’s time to recognize the contribution of the man who helped make it all possible. If Lefty Driesell isn’t a Hall of Fame coach, his contribution to the game of college basketball is certainly Hall of Fame worthy.