- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

He came snortin’ and stompin’ to the Washington area in 1969, the same year as fellow saviors Ted Williams and Vince Lombardi, and outlasted both by a decade and a half.

Teddy Ballgame stayed three years before escaping to Texas with the Senators and carpet-bagging owner Bob Short. St. Vincent remained one year before succumbing to colon cancer. But year after year, season after season, Lefty Driesell stood on Maryland’s basketball sidelines and challenged the world.

Today or next week, Gary Williams will surpass Driesell’s 348 victories at Terptown. Williams also has won a national championship. Driesell never came close. But if not for Lefty’s achievement in taking college basketball interest to a new level hereabouts, Gary might never have had the chance.

“I have a great love for Maryland — I spent 17 years of my life there, and it’s a great university in a great location,” Lefty said the other day from his home in Virginia Beach. “What I remember are not the games we won but coaching young men and seeing them become successful. Tom McMillen was a Rhodes Scholar [and later a congressman]. Len Elmore graduated from Harvard Law School. Buck Williams had a great pro career and was successful in business …”

It stands to reason, though, that Lefty remembers a few of the victories. His first really big show (apologies to Ed Sullivan) was a 31-30 stall ball win against No.2 South Carolina in 1970 that sent newly aroused Terrapins fans shrieking out into the night.

For most of the 1950s and ‘60s, college hoops were a stepchild in these parts. Maryland built the nation’s finest on-campus arena in 1955, but for most fans around the nation, Cole Field House was noted mainly as the scene of Texas Western’s monumental upset of Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA title game. Bud Millikan coached some fine teams at Maryland, but a string of mediocre seasons under Millikan and Frank Fellows left the program at low ebb in the late ‘60s.

Then athletic director Jim Kehoe, a super salesman, lured Lefty away from tiny Davidson, where he had produced highly ranked powerhouses. Suddenly, in the late autumn of ‘69, Lefty was striding onto the Cole court with his hands thrust high in the “V for victory” signal as the increasing multitude roared.

You know the rest. After a couple of so-so seasons, this master recruiter lured blue-chippers like McMillen, Elmore and John Lucas to campus, and the march was on. The Terps won the NIT in 1972, lost an overtime ACC championship thriller to N.C. State and David Thompson in ‘74, came within one game of the Final Four in ‘75 and finally won an ACC title in ‘84.

Two years later, superstar Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose soon after being drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics, and it all went wrong for Lefty. In some quarters, he was made the scapegoat for Bias’ death and a subsequent investigation of the basketball program. He resigned under duress, yielding his cherished post to the obviously overmatched Bob Wade. After a frustrating period as a figurehead associate athletic director, he left Maryland to coach first at James Madison and then at Georgia State — and took both programs to the NCAA tournament.

Now, after 41 seasons and 786 college victories, Driesell has mellowed some at 74 but not much. Lefty still speaks his mind as emphatically as when he promised, at his first College Park press conference, to make Maryland “the UCLA of the East.”

“If you’re in the coaching profession long enough, you’re probably going to get fired,” he said philosophically. “The only thing that bothers me is that the general public thinks the program was down when I left and Gary revived it. That’s not true. It was down because of the coach in between [the hapless Wade].”

He has a point. Driesell’s last three teams at Maryland went 68-34 while playing what he calls the toughest schedule in the country, Wade’s records in his three seasons were 36-50 overall and 7-35 in the ACC.

From a historical standpoint, Lefty revived basketball throughout the area. Three years after his arrival, local high school coach John Thompson took over at Georgetown and started the Hoyas toward national recognition and championships. George Washington and American University also found interest in their programs growing. When cable TV came along years later, it found the Washington area to be — pardon the cliche — a veritable hotbed of hoops.

It seems ironic in retrospect that Driesell never won a national title — something that almost surely would have happened had not Moses Malone chosen to turn pro rather than attend Maryland in 1975.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Lefty insisted. “It was a lot harder to get into the NCAA [tournament] back in the early ‘70s than it is now — 25 teams went instead of 65. Maryland would have had a great shot if we had played under the rules they have now, I think we would have been in the Final Four several times.”

A half century after he first coached at Norfolk’s Granby High School while selling encyclopedias on the side to make ends meet, Lefty Driesell stands alongside Gary Williams as Maryland’s finest basketball coaches. Both have endured highs and lows, just like the rest of us. Both have persevered.

As far as which was better, who knows?

Who cares?

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