By Thom Loverro
It was a long time coming for Charles “Lefty” Driesell — too long.
The 85-year-old, larger-than-life figure who put Maryland basketball on the map when he arrived full of bluster in 1969 was recognized for his ground-breaking tenure as the Terps head coach Saturday afternoon in a home game against Ohio State when the school raised a banner with Lefty’s name on it from the rafters of the Xfinity Center.
Now people won’t have to search for the plaque with his likeness in the arena that was unveiled in 2013. Look up now at a Terps home game, and you’ll see Lefty.
His presence should never be far from Maryland basketball.
Lefty made the basketball program one of the tops in the nation. He never won a national championship or reached a Final Four, but his 348-159 record (a .686 winning percentage, the best in Terps mens basketball history) from 1969 to 1986 (he had 10 seasons of 20-plus wins) created a foundation that allowed those who have followed — from Gary Williams to Mark Turgeon — to build on.
Yet his legacy remains complicated. He was fired after Maryland great Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication in June 1986, even though Bias was no longer a student at the school. That baggage is what has gotten in the way of raising a banner like Saturday’s for so long — and what likely gets in the way of Lefty’s absence from the Basketball Hall of Fame, where, with 786 career wins and having taken four different programs (Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State) to the NCAA Tournament, he belongs.
But there is nothing complicated about Lefty Driesell the basketball coach and presence, at least when it comes to what he meant to the school and to the Washington metropolitan area. He remains one of the most influential figures in sports history in this area.
He nearly wound up creating that legacy somewhere else, though — Duke, of all places.
Lefty once shared with me how he nearly wound up as the Blue Devils’ head coach.
“Carl James (Duke athletic director) called me up and asked me to come to Duke,” Lefty told me. “I had played at Duke. I told him no. As a matter of fact, he offered me the job when I had already accepted the Maryland job.
“Duke had an interim coach, I think, it was the year I left Davidson to go to Maryland. I had just accepted the job to go to Maryland and Carl James called me and said, ‘I want you to come to Duke.’ I said, ‘Carl I just took the Maryland job. If you called me a week ago or so I might have taken it.’
“I read a story one time that I stopped by Duke,” Lefty said. “When I left Davidson, they gave me a brand new Thunderbird to try to get me to stay there before I left. I told them they could have it back, but they said you keep it for what you did here. But somebody wrote I had drove to Duke in that car to try to get the job and didn’t get it. That’s a bunch of baloney. I told Carl I wasn’t interested.
“I never thought about what might have been,” he said. “Things turned out pretty good for me, although Mike Krzyzewski makes a lot more money than I ever did. Back then, Duke wasn’t anything. They were bad. They couldn’t recruit African-American kids at that time. I wasn’t really interested.”
He wasn’t really interested in Maryland, either. It required a hard sell by then athletic director Jim Kehoe coming on the loss in the NCAA Tournament to North Carolina, ironically, at Cole Field House.
“Kehoe got me after the game, and naturally I was upset,” Lefty said. “He said, “I want you and Joyce to come over to my house. I said, Coach, I just got knocked out of the Final Four and I’m not in the mood to talk about another job. I had a great team coming back at Davidson. In fact, Larry Brown got the job after I left and only stayed about three weeks and quit, and then Terry Holland got the job, and he went to the Final 16 the next year. So I wasn’t really interested in leaving, to tell you the truth.
“Joyce (Lefty’s wife) and I went to Coach Kehoe’s house, about 10 blocks from Cole Field House,” Lefty said. “He said, ‘Listen, this is a great place to be, you can be here in the nation’s capital. We got Vince Lombardi coming in to coach the Redskins, or maybe he was already there. We got Ted Williams managing the Senators. We want you to coach basketball. There would be three great coaches in D.C.
“‘We want you, you’re the guy we want. But I’ve got to know tonight.’ I said, ‘Coach, I just got knocked out of the Final Four.’ He said, ‘You do what you want to do, but you’re going to make a decision tonight. You and Joyce go downstairs, the bed is all made up for you, and spend the night. But when you wake up in the morning, you’ve got to give me your answer, or we’ll hire Morgan Wooten.’
“We went downstairs and talked about it, and then I said OK,” Lefty said.
On Saturday, Maryland said to Lefty, “We’re glad you said OK.”