More than a quarter century after he was forced to resign in the months following the cocaine-induced death of basketball star Len Bias, longtime Maryland coach Lefty Driesell was officially — and permanently — recognized Tuesday with the unveiling of a bronzed bas relief sculpture in his honor at Comcast Center.
In a ceremony that attracted a few hundred friends, family and fans and brought back close to 50 players — including Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, who spearheaded the effort to get their former coach recognized — Driesell, now 81, was both emotional and typically cantankerous in accepting the honor.
"It's not about me, it's about my players," Driesell said after the one-hour ceremony that included speeches from Elmore, current coach Mark Turgeon, athletic director Kevin Anderson and U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.
Driesell recognized many of the former Terps who attended Tuesday night's program — from John Lucas to Larry Gibson to Ernie Graham to Buck Williams to Albert King — but also spent a few minutes talking about many of his former players who had passed away, most notably Bias and Owen Brown.
Said former Maryland standout Tony Massenburg, who was a freshman on Driesell's final team, "This is long overdue. Coach Driesell is a cornerstone of the Maryland program."
The decision to honor Driesell with the bas relief sculpture came last year amid the controversy that followed the naming of the basketball court in honor of former coach Gary Williams, who led the Terps to their only national championship in 2002. When Driesell said that the floor should have been named after several coaches or none at all, it caused a public rift with Williams.
Asked whether the rift put a damper on Driesell's recognition, McMillen said: "It's unfortunate because I would like all that to come together. There was nothing about Gary involved in it. He was doing for his players. We're trying to put all that away. This is about Lefty's 17 years."
Echoing the sentiments, Hoyer, a 1963 Maryland graduate, said, "It's never too late to do the right thing."
McMillen, whose older brother Jay played at Maryland prior to Driesell's arrival, said that before Driesell came to Maryland from Davidson, "there was nothing here when he got here. My brother played with Gary (Williams) and people used to come to Cole Field House for study hall."
Driesell coached Maryland from 1969 through the 1985-86 season, bringing the Terps to national prominence, first by proclaiming to turn the program into "the UCLA of the East" and later by turning Maryland into an Atlantic Coast Conference power along with North Carolina State and North Carolina.
Two seasons after leading Maryland to its first ACC tournament title since 1958, Driesell was forced out by then chancellor John Slaughter two months before the 1987-88 season was scheduled to begin. Driesell later coached at James Madison and Georgia State, leading both programs to the NCAA tournament. Driesell won 786 games – ninth among all-time Division I coaches – and was the only coach to win at least 100 games at four different schools.
Turgeon recalled that his first meeting with Driesell was not a pleasant one. It came when the two coached against each other as Turgeon was starting his career at Jacksonville State in Alabama and Driesell was toward the end of his at Georgia State.
But the two have grown close since Turgeon took over for Williams two years ago and even spoke of how he took Driesell with him to recruit a prospect in Virginia Beach, near where Driesell lives in retirement.
"He commanded the gym," Turgeon said.
Turgeon said that he will take future recruits to what he called "Lefty's Corner" — the sculpture next to a chunk of the floor from Cole Field House. Looking in Driesell's direction, Turgeon said, "I didn't play for you Lefty, I didn't coach with you, but I love you."
In this crowd, on this night, he wasn't alone.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun