Lefty Driesell had already promised that Maryland would become the "UCLA of the East" when he was hired away from Davidson two years before. Now, with a talented team led by Tom McMillen and Len Elmore about to become eligible for varsity as sophomores, Driesell was looking for a way to pump up his players going into the 1971-72 college basketball season.
"I said, 'Let's start practice before everyone else and we're going to be the last team to practice. We're going to play for the national championship," Driesell recalled in a telephone interview this week. "The year before we ran a mile [at Byrd Stadium] and about 500, 600 people came to watch them run that night. One of the players said, 'Hey coach, next year, let's have a scrimmage.' There were about 6,000, 7,000 people in there."
The Terps didn't reach the NCAA tournament that season, but won the then-still-prestigious NIT. Though historic in its own right for hosting two Final Fours, Cole Field House never came close to becoming the East Coast's answer to UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in terms of the number of championship banners hanging from its rafters.
Yet what Driesell did on that mid-October night 40 years ago this week has remained, its legacy intact. Despite the fact that Driesell said that the "NCAA has screwed it up" by mandating its membership to start the festivities much earlier in the night to prevent students and fans from being in their cars — and in the bars — too late, it remains a hugely popular event.
It continues Friday night, albeit well before midnight, including where it began four decades ago.
Not only will Maryland fans get to see members of this year's team — including freshman guard Nick Faust (City) — but four of the five starters on the 2002 national championship team are expected to return for the alumni game, as are Greivis Vasquez and Steve Francis. It will be a chance for new coach Mark Turgeon, hired in May when Gary Williams retired suddenly after 22 seasons, to energize the fan base.
"It's another step in the process [for Turgeon], but it certainly has to be a positive one," Elmore said. "It's got to be one that comes off with some glitz and some glamour. Gary would come out on a Harley-Davidson or something different every year. He can't come out from a bland standpoint. He's got to demonstrate some personality because in a large part, that's what gets the fans geeked."
Said Turgeon: "This is huge for me. …This first year it will be a little about me. They may introduce me differently this year and put a microphone in my hand. After that, it's about the team, the former players and the fans. It's exciting for me to be back where it started. We want to create a buzz, but I would rather create a buzz in January or February."
What Driesell started has mushroomed into a made-for-television event that schools, following Driesell's lead, turned into a marketing tool.
"It was a marketing tool, no question about it," Elmore said. "Here was the new coach at the University of Maryland trying to build something and he wanted to create some buzz before that word was widely used. And that's essentially what he did. I don't know if being the first team to practice had a beneficial impact toward recruiting, but it created the buzz."
While some schools gear it mostly around recruiting — Indiana moved it back to Saturday night to accommodate a top prospect who also plays football — Elmore doesn't think what he believes is a "glorified pep rally" has a dark side to it.
"I can't see anything nefarious about it. It's one night where you start your season, you plant the seed in the fans of your minds and you try to showcase your team," said Elmore, now CEO of iHoops, a cooperative effort between the NCAA and NBA to educate youth about the game.
Four decades later, the man who invented Midnight Madness has just one regret about his involvement.
Asked if he ever thought of trademarking the name, Driesell said, "I should have. There are even sales at stores called 'Midnight Madness.'"