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The Hall's call: Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell expected to be named to basketball Hall of Fame

In the visiting dressing room at the then-new Dean E. Smith Center after Maryland’s overtime victory over No. 1 North Carolina in 1986, Lefty Driesell played down the significance of the win.

Driesell, when asked if it was the biggest victory of his career, said dismissively, “Nah, they’re all big. I won’t even remember this tomorrow.” It took Driesell nearly 30 years to admit, sheepishly, “That was a lie.”

The same might be said about Driesell's long-awaited, and long-debated, inclusion in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Driesell has contended that getting in isn’t “that a big deal.”

That wait, and that debate, appears to be over for the 86-year-old Driesell.

Three decades after he left Maryland, and 15 years after coaching his last college game at Georgia State, Driesell is expected to be named Saturday as a member of the Hall’s Class of 2018. He will be among those introduced at the Final Four in San Antonio.

Driesell’s candidacy in his fourth try as a finalist was helped by the fact that he was the only men’s college coach being considered among the 13 finalists this year. According to reports, the players who will be inducted are Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill and Maurice Cheeks. The induction will take place in September at the Hall in Springfield, Mass.

With 786 career Division I wins, Driesell ranked fourth all-time when he retired during the middle of the 2002-03 season.

Along with building the Terps into a national power during the early stages of his 17-year career in College Park, Driesell was the first Division I coach to win 100 games or more at four schools.

Though he never coached in the Final Four, Driesell’s teams at Maryland finished in the Top 10 five times, including in 1973-74 and 1974-75.

The 1973-74 team, considered by many the best ever in College Park, didn’t even play in the NCAA tournament. Ranked No. 4, the Terps lost to No. 1 North Carolina State, 103-100, in the ACC tournament title game. The Wolfpack later stopped UCLA’s run of NCAA titles.

Driesell was widely credited with starting Midnight Madness, with a mile run on the track inside Byrd Stadium at 12 a.m. on the first official day of practice in 1971 and later, at the suggestion of then-freshman guard Mo Howard, with an intrasquad scrimmage before the 1972-73 season.

Aside from the success his teams had on the court, Driesell was also known for his outsized personality. He entered the court to “Hail To the Chief” and flashed a victory sign. He also had his penchant for making outrageous statements.

Upon his hiring at Maryland in 1969 – a few days after his Davidson team lost its chance to make the Final Four on a last-second shot by North Carolina’s Charlie Scott – Driesell promised to turn the downtrodden Terps into “the UCLA of the East.”

Driesell later took out a full-page ad in a Washington newspaper that was based on the U.S. Army’s “Uncle Sam Wants You” slogan, all but inviting the top local players to join him at Maryland.

Three times he successfully recruited a player considered the best player in the country – Tom McMillen in 1970, Moses Malone in 1974, and Albert King in 1977.

Even after Malone opted to become the first player to jump from high school to the pros, Driesell included a picture of the future Hall of Famer in the press guide’s list of former Terps.

It was the 1986 cocaine-overdose death of Len Bias, whom many consider the greatest player ever to wear a Maryland uniform, that ultimately led to Driesell’s departure from College Park. .

Four months after Bias’ death, which came two days after he had been drafted No. 2 by the Boston Celtics, Driesell was forced to resign as coach.

Driesell remained as an assistant athletic director before leaving for James Madison and ultimately for Georgia State. He took both those programs to the NCAA tournament as well.

Driesell said for years that Bias’ death had kept him out of the Hall of Fame.

Former Maryland star Len Elmore believes there’s some truth to that.

“There’s no question, it was the Bias thing first and then I think what happens is as we continue to move forward, people forget he's not coaching anymore," Elmore said this week. "Most of the guys who are in are current or retired not too long ago. That’s what happens today with anything. History is kind of lost. We’re so into the me, now, this moment generation.”

McMillen, who along with Elmore and others have publicly and privately lobbied for Driesell’s inclusion since he failed to even be a finalist last year, had told his former coach to keep a lower profile this year.

“He tends to erupt, and that would certainly not help anything,” McMillen, who planned to go to San Antonio if Driesell was selected, said this week. “You’ve got to stay cool in all of this.”

McMillen summed up the feelings of most of Driesell’s legions of supporters when Washington Post columnist John Feinstein tweeted that the former Maryland coach had finally been selected.

“Better late than never,” McMillen said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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