COLLEGE PARK — Lefty Driesell is more than 26 years and 220 miles removed from Maryland's men's basketball program. At 81, the former coach doesn't get to many games anymore.
But from his condo in Virginia Beach, Va., Driesell thinks about his Maryland days often — partly because of his lingering affection for the school and partly because he never seemed to find proper closure after being forced out in 1986 following the cocaine-induced death of star player Len Bias. Some of Driesell's former players have kept their distance from the school because they believe he never received his due for the 348 wins and other accomplishments during his 17 seasons as head coach.
Maryland hopes to close these fissures by honoring Driesell at halftime of Saturday's matchup between the Terps (18-8, 6-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) and Clemson (13-12, 5-8). On April 16, a number of his former players are expected to attend a ceremony to preview a bronze relief of Driesell that will hang on a Comcast Center wall next to a portion of the Cole Field House floor.
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"Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Brad Davis — I think this is an honor for them more than me," Driesell said this week, naming some of his star players. "Ben Coleman, Len Bias, Mo Howard — those are the guys that really got Maryland basketball going. I'm about half-dead anyways. It doesn't matter to me."
Driesell's appearance Saturday will come a year after Maryland named the Comcast Center court for former coach Gary Williams. Driesell opposed that move, calling it a "disservice" to his players. Williams won more games than Driesell at Maryland (461 to 348) and captured the 2002 national championship, while Driesell had a higher winning percentage (68.6 to 64.6 percent).
"Lefty Driesell is an iconic coach in college basketball, and this recognition is long overdue," said McMillen, a former U.S. House member and Rhodes Scholar who keeps in touch with Driesell.
Maryland athletic officials have sought to unify players loyal to each coach. They don't want men's basketball alumni to regard themselves as "Gary players" or "Lefty players," but rather as "Terps."
North Carolina runs a promotion on its video board during home games, in which players from various eras proudly say: "I'm a Tar Heel." That's the sort of unity Maryland is looking for.
It didn't take current Maryland coach Mark Turgeon long to reach out to Driesell after arriving in 2011.
"Turgeon wants to revert back to the old teams and get those people interested in Maryland basketball — to make some connections," Driesell said.
Turgeon invited Driesell to address the team in private Friday at Comcast Center.
"Last year was Gary's year. I want this year to be about Lefty," Turgeon said Friday. "I told the kids around the circle we're going to honor someone this weekend, and I said, 'This building wouldn't be here if it wasn't for something that he did.' Of course Gary did a lot, too. I don't want to take anything away from Gary. But I said, 'Look up there [to the banners in the rafters]. He recruited that guy, Tom McMillen, John Lucas, Lenny Bias. He came here when Maryland basketball wasn't really highly thought of, but he thought it was great so he made it a great place."
Some of Driesell's players say Maryland should honor more players from that era by hoisting their names and numbers to the rafters. Among those missing, they say, are Davis, a guard, along with former Olympian Steve Sheppard and swingman Adrian Branch. Maryland, which honors players but does not retire numbers, said it is continually reviewing such requests.
The death of Bias led to a transition period in which the university examined drugs on campus and academic and admissions practices for athletes.
A photo of Bias — in a gold uniform with arms raised — is displayed in the Comcast Center lobby with those of other top Terps athletes.
Driesell has filled the study walls of his Virginia Beach condo — which has a wraparound view of the Chesapeake Bay — with photos and framed clippings of his Maryland days. Among the many framed photos is a 1973 Sports Illustrated cover — "UCLA by a Whisker," it said — showing Bill Walton trying to lift a shot over Elmore.
The bronze relief of Driesell is being created by Antonio "Toby" Mendez, a Maryland artist who created the sculptures of the Orioles' Hall of Famers that were unveiled last year at Camden Yards.
Driesell hasn't yet seen the design. "I know I'll look handsome," he said.