- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

Lefty Driesell has pretty much seen and done it all during his 76 years. But even the former longtime coach was visibly moved Sunday by Davidson’s 74-70 upset victory over Georgetown in the NCAA tournament in Raleigh, N.C.

“I had tears in my eyes at the end of that game,” he said. “It was a great win.”

The victory sent the 10th-seeded Wildcats to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1969, Driesell’s last season as coach at Davidson. It was there that Driesell made a name for himself — lifting to national prominence a tiny North Carolina school located smack in foreign ACC country — before making a bigger name for himself at Maryland.

Davidson that year went to the Elite Eight before losing to North Carolina in College Park on a last-second basket by All-American Charlie Scott. Ironically, Scott once was set to attend Davidson.

Soon after that, Driesell returned to the Maryland campus, this time to stay. He coached the Terrapins for 17 years and put another program on the map. After being forced out following Len Bias’ death and other problems, he later was asked to be Mr. Fix-it at James Madison and Georgia State. Only six coaches in Division I have won more games. Driesell retired midway through the 2002-03 season after 41 years, 14 victories short of 800, the only coach to win at least 100 games at four schools.

Before Driesell got there, “people didn’t know about Davidson,” he said. But not for long. And now, people know about Davidson again. The Wildcats have a chance to pull off another shocker tonight against third-seeded Wisconsin in a Midwest Region semifinal in Detroit. If Davidson wins, Driesell said he might go to Sunday’s game.

After the Georgetown game, Driesell chatted with Stephen Curry, the sophomore guard who scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half and helped the Wildcats erase a 17-point deficit against the second-seeded Hoyas. Two days earlier, Curry had 40 points in a win over Gonzaga. He has been the most spectacular player in the tournament so far.

“Having Curry on your team is like having a king in a checkers game,” Driesell drawled into the telephone from his Virginia Beach home. “He can go forward, backwards. He’s something else, I tell you. I told him, if I had you, I’d have won a couple of national championships.”

Driesell’s teams never won it all, although they came close a couple of times at Maryland. They came close at Davidson, too, a remarkable feat considering the school’s size (enrollment was 1,000, all males), high academic standards and basketball futility. The program averaged seven wins a year during the 10 seasons before Driesell arrived.

“He was a great mentor,” said former center Fred Hetzel, one of Driesell’s first blue-chip recruits. “I wouldn’t trade one minute of my time down there for anything.”

Once the colorful, quotable Driesell turned Davidson into a winner, Sports Illustrated and other print outlets took note. SI made the Wildcats its preseason No. 1 team in 1964-65. But television exposure was nonexistent. If comparable success happened in today’s media-intense environment, Driesell said, “I’d probably be running for president.”

Davidson went 176-65 during Driesell’s nine seasons, taking on all opponents. Led by All-Americans Hetzel, who grew up in Northwest, Dick Snyder and Mike Maloy, Davidson finished in the top 10 four times and played in three NCAA tournaments in four seasons. The Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 once and twice got within one game of the Final Four.

Before its first NCAA appearance in 1966, when the tournament field included just 24 teams (compared to 65 today), Davidson went 22-4 and 24-2 but failed to make the postseason after losing in the Southern Conference tournament. Only the winner went to the NCAAs.

East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland wrote in an e-mail, “Davidson’s brush with big time athletics was due to the competitive nature of one individual — Charles G. ‘Lefty’ Driesell.”

Holland was Driesell’s first recruit at Davidson and succeeded Driesell as coach before moving on to prominence at Virginia. After that, the program began a long decline until Bob McKillop, the coach since 1989, turned things around.

“Lefty Driesell was remarkable [in] what he accomplished at Davidson College,” said McKillop, who has won more games than any coach at Davidson. “That was one of the stories of the century.”

The story began when Driesell, a former encyclopedia salesman, arrived at Davidson in 1960. He said his salary was $6,000, a $200 pay cut from his coaching job at Newport News (Va.) High School. In his first game, the Wildcats beat ACC power Wake Forest, and it wasn’t long before Driesell was opening a pizza joint in town called the Wildcat Inn.

After starting 9-14 and 14-11, Davidson won at least 20 games during six of the next seven seasons, selling out the off-campus, 11,666-capacity Charlotte Coliseum against big-name opponents. Instead of encyclopedias, Driesell was now hawking the program. The recruits were buying.

“I wanted to go to Wake Forest to play on a nationally ranked team,” Holland wrote. “But Lefty promised my mother that Davidson would be ranked in the top 10 ‘just like Wake Forest is.’ ”

Saddled with a limited budget, Driesell drove his own car on recruiting trips. He would sleep in the car at gas stations with an unloaded pistol by his side and shave in the restroom. But he covered a lot of ground in that white Ford station wagon.

Hetzel said Driesell was still a high school coach when he began recruiting him as a sophomore at the private Landon School in Bethesda. “He knew he would get a college job somewhere,” said Hetzel, a real estate broker and developer who lives in Leesburg. “He just didn’t know where.”

Asked why his teams were so successful, Driesell, who has been known to show displeasure at his reputation as mainly an outstanding recruiter, said, “It’s not recruiting. I can coach, OK? I won at Davidson, at Maryland, at JMU and Georgia State. I know how to coach.”

He knew how to motivate, too. The Ol’ Left-hander had a few tricks. Hetzel, who plans to watch tonight’s game with students on the Davidson campus, remembered how, after a road loss, Driesell gave a bag of hamburgers meant for his team to a kid standing outside the bus. “He said, ‘These guys played like hot dogs. They’re not gonna have hamburgers on the ride home,’ ” Hetzel recalled.

“I have an outgoing personality,” Driesell said, as if it might be a secret. “I can get kids to play for me and produce for me.” And, he confirmed, “I know how to recruit.”

Driesell, whose son, Chuck, is a Maryland assistant, said taking the Terps job wasn’t about money. All he wanted, he said, was a promise he eventually would become athletic director at Davidson. He didn’t get it. So he took off, even though alumni had just given him a white Thunderbird before a game.

“I don’t know what that was for,” he said. “I guess they gave it to me for what I’d done. Maybe they should have given me a Rolls Royce.”

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