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SportsTerpsTracking the Terps

Saluting Lefty Driesell, one of basketball's most interesting coaches of all time

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Lefty Driesell’s career at Maryland was coming to an end when a sportswriter who had spent the first 10 years of his career in New York showed up to cover the Terrapins for The Baltimore Sun. It was the summer of 1985 and there were rumors that Driesell might be going back home to Norfolk to coach Old Dominion.

Driesell, who was coming off the Terps winning an ACC tournament championship two seasons before, had told a paper down there that there was “a 50-50 chance” he would be leaving College Park after 17 seasons to coach the Monarchs. I had been at The Sun for a few months and had never met Driesell in person.

I called him at his beach house in Delaware, introduced myself and didn’t get past the second syllable in the word “Baltimore” before Driesell growled in his famous Tidewater twang, “Son, I’m on vacation” and prompty hung up. I called back and didn’t get past the first syllable of my last name when I heard the soon-to-be familiar growl. “Son, I told you I was on vacation.” Click.

Two weeks later, coming out of the office of then-Maryland athletic director Dick Dull, I finally met the famous Terps coach. Dull, who didn’t know about our, uh, conversation, started to introduce us. “I’m the guy you hung up on twice,” I said to Lefty. Driesell started in with one of his famous, "Ah, you know, I know ... I was on vacation. Sorry about that.”

So began the most interesting and enjoyable reporter-coach relationship that I’ve had in nearly 40 years in the business.

As Driesell is about to be honored by Maryland during Saturday’s game against Clemson with a bas-relief to be put on the school’s Wall of Fame at Comcast Center – right next to a portion of the floor from Cole Field House – I think back to the one season I covered Lefty at Maryland and the many conversations we’ve had since.

From what I’ve been told, I do a pretty good Lefty for someone who grew up in Brooklyn, and whenever I tell stories about him to others, I summon up the best Driesell impersonation I can find. Of all the coaches I’ve covered at Maryland – from Lefty to Bob Wade to Gary Williams and now to Mark Turgeon – Charles Grice Driesell was, is and will be by far the most memorable.

Along with that initial meeting, the one year I spent covering the Lefthander – and Len Bias, the greatest college player I have ever been around – what stands out are the one-liners he sputtered, the suggestions he made about my writing, and sadly, the lasting image of Driesell walking out of Cole Field House as coach for the final time with his wife and daughter after being fired four months after Bias’ death.

Driesell’s one-liners are still as clear to me now as they were when he first said them.

The night Bias led Maryland to an overtime win at North Carolina – giving the Tar Heels their first-ever loss at the then brand-new Dean Dome – I was late to the post-game press conference because technology wasn’t what it is today. I had written a week earlier saying that the underachieving Terps were in jeopardy of not even making the NIT.

“Where were ya?” Driesell said when he saw me run into the press room, out of breath.

“I had transmission trouble,” I said.

“What, you drove a car in here? Think we’ll make the NIT now?” Driesell snarled, then smiled.

That was how things went with Lefty. He’d fuss at you one night and forget about it the next.

I once took a trip with Driesell when he went recruiting in Brooklyn, partly because I wanted a trip back home. When I told him that I grew up near the high school he was visiting, he told me he had spent a lot of time in New York as a teenager on summer trips to see his uncle, who Lefty said was a brain surgeon. Just him saying it made me laugh.

Around lunch time, Driesell was meeting with the player he was recruiting and since it was against NCAA rules for me to be there, I told him I was going for pizza. He asked me to bring him back a few slices, and Lefty, who, like many adopted Marylanders had come to love Ledo’s, devoured them. “Where’d ya get this?” he said as he ate. “Anywhere in Brooklyn,” I told him.

Driesell was upset when his assistants wouldn’t take a few local pies back to College Park.

As the season was winding down, the Terps were on the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble despite having the best player in the country. They needed to beat Virginia on Senior Day in College Park to finish 6-8 in the conference, and I called Dick Schultz, then the AD at Virginia and chairman of the selection committee, to ask whether Maryland needed to win to stay in the running. He said they did.

I relayed the information to Driesell before practice.

“What does Dick Schultz know? He’s the AD at Virginia,” Driesell said.

“Uh, Lefty, he’s the head of the selection committee,” I told him.

“Hell, if we don’t get in, it’ll be the biggest ripoff since the Louisiana Purchase,” he growled.

Bias led the Terps to victory the next day – and after beating the Tar Heels again in the ACC tournament, to the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the second round to UNLV. Three months later, Bias was dead from a cocaine overdose and Driesell never coached another game at Maryland.

To this day, Driesell and others believe that Bias’ death and Driesell’s own unceremonious departure has kept the only Division I coach to lead four schools to at least 100 victories out of the Naismith Hall of Fame.

I have stayed in touch with Lefty over the ensuing decades, from the two years in exile he spent as an assistant athletic director at Maryland (“I’m in charge of sitting on my butt,’” he said sadly) to his revival at James Madison and finally to his last coaching stop at Georgia State. In his fourth year at the little Atlanta school, he took the team to the NCAA tournament.

With the ACC tournament that year in Atlanta, I stopped by the Georgia State gym to do a story. (Little did I know that Driesell’s team would upset Wisconsin in the opening round of the NCAA tournament and play Maryland next.) Driesell saw me and scowled, “Why should I talk to you? You’re John Slaughter’s boy,” he said, referring to the former Maryland president who ousted him.

Then, of course, he talked to me for over an hour.

I have talked with Driesell a number of times since he retired 10 games into the 2002-03 season, most recently a few months ago when Turgeon was in the hunt for the Harrison twins and Lefty regaled me for over an hour after recruiting Moses Malone and Tom McMillen and Albert King when he had hoped to turn Maryland into the “UCLA of the East.”

A few years, Lefty tried to get me to push his son Chuck, now the coach at The Citadel, for the job at Towson before Pat Kennedy went there. “I could be like an unofficial assistant and help him recruit,” Lefty said. When Chuck joined Gary Williams’ staff as an assistant, it gave Lefty a reason to come back to Maryland and enjoy what he helped build.

Which is why I am happy that Driesell will be back again Saturday, and that a sculpture honoring him will find its way to Comcast Center in April. The public bickering between Driesell and Williams over the court-naming last year was something that didn’t need to happen for either of them. I am looking forward to seeing a new generation of Maryland fans cheer the now 81-year-old Driesell one last time.

That, I think, will be the final deposit in my own Lefty memory bank.

It’s pretty filled already. 

don.markus@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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