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Terps would do right thing by honoring legacy of Lefty

It won't happen tonight, but it might happen soon. "It" doesn't mean the win Gary Williams needs to become the winningest basketball coach in Maryland history - although nobody would be happier to have that win take place tonight at Comcast Center against North Carolina than Williams himself.

"It" is the scene that needs to play out, the tribute that must be made - to the man Williams is about to displace atop the school coaching wins list. "It" is Lefty Driesell walking out of the tunnel, hands raised and flashing the "V" for victory, and the pep band and student section breaking out into one more chorus of "Amen."

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That might not be the way it actually happens, but at some point in the near future - whenever Williams gets the milestone win and lets himself exhale about it - the school is expected to honor Driesell and give another generation a chance to acknowledge his legacy, the one that Williams built upon in such a big way.

If Williams himself has a say in it, it will happen, sooner rather than later. Williams has been clearly uncomfortable talking at length about what it means, deep down, for him to separate from his predecessor once removed. His tone has been of a man who doesn't want his own accomplishments to diminish someone else's, or overshadow one whose contributions nearly equal his own.

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He knows as well as anyone that without Lefty, there would have been no Maryland basketball program to resuscitate 17 years ago, no lofty perch from which to fall, no national profile to restore, no unfinished business to finish.

Williams' take has changed little over the years: He'll be as happy as anyone to see the Lefthander get his due.

"I've always said [that], and I think Lefty did get the credit for creating a lot of excitement around here that wasn't in the basketball program," Williams said yesterday. "I hope he feels it. It was tough the way things ended for him. As time goes by, I hope people remember everything positive that really happened here when he was coaching."

A lot of time has gone by - 20 years, since the death of Len Bias sped Driesell toward the end of his 17-year tenure at Maryland. The memories do seem to have gotten more pleasant. It still took at least until Williams and the Terps faced Lefty and Georgia State in the 2001 NCAA tournament for the good recollections to surface, but they do surface now more often than not.

There was pain on both sides in the years after Driesell was forced out against his will in the fall of '86, during the darkest days in the school's history. In fact, it would be naive to think all those feelings, on both sides, have evaporated. The irony of Williams passing Driesell in this year of the painful anniversary - and rekindling memories of the summer of 1986 along with the other, more festive ones - is impossible to overlook.

But it helped enormously that Driesell came back three years ago this week, in the middle of the then-defending champion Terps' first season at Comcast and less than a month after he retired from coaching after 41 years. He was treated like a king, with a big halftime ceremony that included, yes, his flashing the "V's" and the crowd crooning "Amen." He said he was "elated and humbled."

It was a much-needed thaw. One can hope three additional years have thawed things even more. Driesell turned 74 on Christmas and is living near where he grew up in southern Virginia. There's no indication that he'd be opposed to returning for another bow. Nor is there an indication that there would be widespread opposition to him taking one. It may just be the passage of time, but this wouldn't be like Dave Bliss being welcomed back at Baylor.

You have to think Driesell would enjoy seeing Williams get the mark tonight against North Carolina, which was Lefty's white whale the way Duke is for Williams. You also wonder if that infamous phrase is running through Driesell's head as this new appreciation for his records grows - "I can coach. I can coach."

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The legacies of the two coaches are distinct. Williams reached the Final Fours and won the national championship that Driesell never did. Lefty talked the big game that Williams never has; Williams might want this school to be "the UCLA of the East," but he'd never say it out loud.

Then again, the Terps faithful got as big a kick out of the 1984 ACC tournament championship as they did from the 2004 title. In two different eras, Maryland was a staple in the rankings, in the tournament, on the national scene, and on NBA draft day. Both times the standards were high, and the slip-ups were met with dismay.

The occasion of Williams' ascent has cast a spotlight back to the crazy days when Lefty ruled. Hopefully, that spotlight will soon shine on Driesell in person, in front of a full house in College Park. With his arms in the air and "Amen" in his ears.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog


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