The Maryland men’s basketball program will hang a banner in the Xfinity Center rafters honoring former head coach Lefty Driesell before the team’s 4 p.m. game against Ohio State Feb. 11.
Former All-American and three-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference forward Len Elmore joined Glenn Clark Radio Feb. 7 and, among other topics, discussed his memories of Driesell and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame coach’s impact through the years.
PressBox: What was it like when you first met Lefty Driesell and he recruited you to come to College Park, Md.?
Len Elmore: Well, in a word, I can say it was overwhelming that first meeting. This is a guy who is steep in the greatest traditions of salesmanship. I was all set, in my mind at least, that I was going to go to St. John’s. I lived a half-hour away in New York and had really become good friends with [then-St. John’s head coach] Lou Carnesecca and his staff. But Carnesecca decided to go and coach the New York Nets, and Lefty swooped in. I remember Lefty and [then-assistant coach] George Raveling swooped in, and I remember Lefty grabbing our starting five at Tom Memorial — and we ultimately were [high school] national basketball champions in 1970 — grab all five of us and put on that great sales pitch. “I’ll take any one of you five if you want to come and make some history down at Maryland, etc.” After that, I got a letter or telephone call from coach or his staff every single day from that moment on, until I said yes. It was wall-to-wall on the sale. And there were a lot of things positive about Maryland, and I never knew it. The ultimate was coming down to visit, and he knew I liked the idyllic-campus concept. They pulled out all the stops. It happened to also be the Final Four when UCLA beat Jacksonville, the hoopla and excitement then. In the end, I was just blown away and never really looked back.
PB: What was it like to play under Driesell? What kind of coach was he?
LE: The salesmanship didn’t stop after being recruited — the idea of believing in yourself and working hard. The constant adages that were on the wall about “the harder I work, the luckier I get” and all the derivatives thereof was constantly drilled. To be a better player, it was all about working and practice and putting in the time. I think we learned our lessons pretty well as far as what it took to be the best we could possibly be. To this day, I thank him for helping to develop that work ethic.
PB: What’s your go-to Lefty story when his name comes up?
LE: There’s so many, and they’re all good. I’ll tell you what, the one I think that stands out the most is, we were going down to play the University of Richmond, and they were opening the Robins Center. The crowd was crazy; they were underdogs, and he was afraid we were going to take them lightly. We’re in the locker room laughing and joking, and he can hear that. He ultimately had to overcome the fact our assistant coach, Joe Harrington, parked his brand new Lincoln Continental in about three feet of mud. He was already upset. He hears them play [the minstrel show song] “Dixie,” and all of a sudden, he looks at us, and he bangs his hand on the locker, and it starts to bleed. And he says, “You see what you all made me do listening to that song? Listen to what they’re playing. They’re disrespecting you.” And all of a sudden, the smiles left our faces, and we all looked at each other, particularly, obviously, the players of color, because that’s who he was directing that at. We said. “Hmm, you’re right.” Obviously we went out there and beat them by about 30. He was always worried that we would lose focus, and he kind of did a little bit of everything to maintain that focus. I remember that vividly.
PB: Was it known what kind of champion Driesell was for civil equality?
LE: He didn’t get enough credit. He, in fact, was the first one to recruit Charlie Scott, not [former North Carolina head coach] Dean Smith. Dean Smith ultimately came in. Coach recruited Charlie Scott for Davidson. When he didn’t get him, he didn’t give up. He went after another guy to try to integrate, that was Mike Maloy, who came from Queens, the same area I was from, and ultimately got him. People don’t realize that we were the first ACC team, I think, to start three or four African-Americans at one time. Notwithstanding, the fact it was keeping with history, that Maryland integrated the ACC, and we kind of changed the game by doing that with Bill Jones. Too many people think that Charlie Scott integrated the ACC, and that’s not true. People don’t recognize the importance his input, as far as being able to spread equality and to be able to integrate the bastion of the south, as far as the ACC was concerned.
PB: What will it mean to see Driesell’s name in the rafters next to yours at the Xfinity Center?
LE: It will be gratifying, and it’ll be a long-time coming. Hopefully for him more than anyone, we’ll take a look at his face and see the gratification there, and that will be enough for all of us.
PB: How much does his omission from the Naismith Hall of Fame bother you?
LE: It bothers me a lot, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that it seems like the NBA controls the Hall of Fame, in many ways. He may not be top of mind. Lefty can get in as a coach because when he retired, he obviously was among the top four winners in the game. He can get in as a contributor because of so many different things that he was able to do. And in the end, people need to go back and understand who he is and what he was about and really put that in perspective — and by comparison, running a clean program, that’s the thing that bothers me more than anything. And not to denigrate the accomplishment of some of the Hall of Fame coaches, but how many Hall of Fame coaches have been suspended or under investigation or whatever, and shouldn’t that be a major part of the criteria in understanding who is worthy of being a Hall of Fame coach? There is too much hypocrisy there.