Don Markus – The Baltimore Sun – February 12, 2016
The criteria from which the selection committee for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame chooses its candidates for induction is much like the identities of the committee members themselves: it is a secret.
Lefty Driesell will find out Friday if he will become a finalist for the third time and for the first time since 2003, the year he retired from coaching. Should that happen, he will learn during this year’s Final Four if he finally gets in.
Given the fact that the former Maryland coach turned 84 on Christmas Day, it’s perhaps the last time he might be able celebrate his long overdue inclusion with his family, friends and fans.
Here are three reasons why Driesell should be able to step on the stage at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass., in September – as Gary Williams did two summers ago – and tell the audience for the final time, “I can coach.”
Everyone thinks that Driesell’s career started and ended in College Park. Truth is, he turned small Davidson College in North Carolina into a national power before he even showed up at Maryland in the spring of 1969.
Driesell’s last team at Davidson, featuring an All-American named Mike Maloy, came within a Charlie Scott jump shot of toppling Dean Smith and North Carolina in the East Regional finals at, of all places, Cole Field House.
Among the eight coaches known primarily for what they did on the college level who are Hall of Fame candidates this year, only Eddie Sutton, with 806 wins, has more victories than Driesell’s 786, which was fourth overall when he retired and now is eighth all-time.
Driesell never won a national championship, as fellow 2016 candidate Tom Izzo did with Michigan State in 2000, and Rollie Massimino did with Villanova in 1985.
Driesell’s teams never went to the Final Four, as Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin team did the past two years and Sutton’s Arkansas team in 1978 and his Oklahoma State teams did in 1995 and 2004.
But none of them had their best team denied entrance into the NCAA tournament – as Driesell’s 1973-74 Maryland did – because of a rule that stated only conference champions get invited.
His contribution to the game
In reality, Driesell might have had an easier path getting into the Hall of Fame as a contributor, as his former Maryland assistant, George Raveling, did last year because of his work with Nike.
Driesell’s impact, directly and indirectly, still reverberates throughout college basketball.
Why do teams such as Michigan State stage “Late Night With Tom Izzo” and nearly every team across the country holds some sort of event to officially start preseason practice?
Because of Lefty.
Maybe someone else would have eventually had the seemingly hair-brain idea of holding the first practice at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 15, which used to be the starting day deemed by the NCAA until the demands of television pushed the opening of the season up so far that teams start practicing now in late September.
Except only Driesell beat everyone to it, which was the whole purpose of Midnight Madness. Driesell had his players run a mile around Byrd Stadium in 1971 – in near darkness except for some car headlights – and one of them, Mo Howard, suggested the team scrimmage the next year, too.
That might be the most tangible contribution that Driesell made to college basketball.
But how about turning down the NIT after the 1973-74 Terps lost in overtime to David Thompson, Tom Burleson and North Carolina State in the classic 103-100 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final in Greensboro, N.C.?
By rejecting the NIT, which at the time was nearly as popular as the NCAA tournament because it was played at Madison Square Garden, Driesell forced the NCAA to look at expanding the field to 32 teams, which was done the year after the fourth-ranked, 23-5 Terps stayed home.
In an age when college basketball lacks a great deal of oversized characters on the sidelines, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale often fills that void from his broadcast table at courtside.
Like Raveling, who coached at Washington State, Iowa and USC with some success, Vitale’s inclusion had nothing to do with what he did in his brief coaching career at the University of Detroit and with the Detroit Pistons but what he did in bringing college basketball back to popularity with ESPN.
Guess what? Driesell’s courtside shenanigans – from his famous stomp to his victory sign to his wild declaration about turning Maryland into “the UCLA of the East” – also helped popularize the game back in the 1970s. He was to Maryland and the ACC what Al McGuire was to Marquette or Lou Carnesecca was to St. John’s.
Both McGuire, who won a national championship with Marquette in 1977 (after being the first coach to be ejected from a championship game three years before) and Carnesecca, who took St. John’s to the 1985 Final Four, are members of the Hall of Fame.
Though both were outstanding coaches, neither came close to the record Driesell amassed at Maryland.
McGuire’s teams at Marquette won 295 games in 13 years after he won 109 more in seven years at little Belmont-Abbey. Carnesecca won 524 games in two stints covering 24 seasons at St. John’s.
Driesell’s teams at Maryland and Davidson won the same number of games as Carnesecca’s and should be good enough to get him into the Hall. And that’s before two more successful stints at James Madison (159-111 in nine years) and Georgia State (103-59 in a little over five seasons).
What Maryland basketball was under Driesell, what it became under Williams and what it is on the verge of becoming again under Mark Turgeon goes directly back to 1969. As he walked onto the court at Xfinity Center last Saturday, the sellout crowd stood and greeted him warmly.
The next time he gets that kind of ovation should be this summer in Springfield.