Lefty Driesell recounts memorable recruiting tales

The recruiting battle for the Harrison twins that ended with Maryland losing out to Kentucky made me think about Lefty Driesell and some of the tales he has told over the years about going after the likes of Tom McMillen, Moses Malone and Albert King.

I figured that the old Lefthander, still kicking up a storm or two at age 80, would be a great source on the subject of recruiting. I also thought it would be great to hear Driesell’s stories about how he got McMillen away from North Carolina and how Malone came close to becoming a Terp before turning pro.

A year after Driesell arrived in College Park from Davidson, McMillen was the biggest high school star in the country in Mansfield, Pa.  He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was more highly recruited than Bill Walton.

And he was set to go play for North Carolina, except for one small problem.

“His father hated Dean Smith,” Driesell recalled. “His father used to write on pieces of paper, ‘Anywhere but North Carolina’ and put it under Tom’s bedroom door. Tom signed with North Carolina at a restaurant in Elmira, N.Y., because it was close to his house and the owner had promised him credit for all the business they did that day. Dean was there. But when he went home, his parents refused to sign the papers.”

In other words, Driesell still had a chance.

That summer, while McMillen was playing on a tour in Europe with some North Carolina players, his father took ill and his brother Jay, who had played at Maryland under Bud Millikan, called Driesell to plot a way for the Terps to sign his little brother. The day before classes were to begin in College Park, Jay McMillen drove his brother down to Cole Field House and, with his parents’ approval, had Tom McMillen become a Terp.

“When Jay called, he said I shouldn’t tell a soul or he was going to turn around and drive home,” Driesell said.

Driesell wasn’t as lucky with Malone a few years later. Considered the best high school big man since Lew Alcindor, Malone was set to sign with the Terps in the spring of 1974. But a representative with the Utah Stars of the old ABA went to Malone’s house and offered him $10,000 to sign on the spot. Malone called Driesell.

“Moses’ mother Mary was making about $25 a week and Moses had nothing, but I told him to tell the guy that he was going to call the police or I was going to call the police,” Driesell recalled.

Malone declined the offer and was still planning on playing for Driesell. By late summer, the Stars had upped their offer: $400,000 to sign, another $400,000 if Malone made the team and eventually a total of $1 million. Malone again called Driesell for advice. In turn, Driesell called prominent Washington attorney Donald Dell. The day before Malone was to enroll at Maryland, Driesell got a call from Dell.

“Donald Dell told me that Moses was going to sign the next day with the Stars but he wanted me there at the Marriott by the airport,” Driesell said. “There was talk that the next year the NBA was going to start signing high school players and players who hadn’t gone to college. I told Moses that he could come to Maryland for a year and then sign for $2 million.”

Malone told Driesell that he had put a note in his Bible that he was going to be the best high school player in the country as a junior and then  another that said he was going to be the first high school player to turn pro.

“Moses was very religious and he said that if he signed with Maryland, the Lord was going to be upset with him,” Driesell said with a laugh. “I told him that the Lord was not going to be upset if he signed for $2 million instead of $1 million. One more day and we would have had him.”

The signing of King, who had become something of a schoolyard legend as the result of the book “Heaven Is A Playground,” was not as difficult. There was only one other school in the running, Driesell said, but he got a call from King’s AAU coach in New York to come to his office the following morning at 11 a.m. if he wanted to sign King, who was rated ahead of Magic Johnson among high school seniors.

“He told me not to tell anybody, I didn’t even tell my assistants,” Driesell said. “I got up there and Albert was late, as usual. But he eventually came in and signed. He was a big signing for us, but I don’t think he was as big a name as Moses or Tom McMillen.”

In many ways, Mark Turgeon reminds me of Driesell in how relentless he is when it comes to recruiting, and how the recruiting for some of the nation’s top players is not something that happened on a regular basis when Gary Williams was the coach. Like Driesell, Turgeon has a tough time taking no for an answer.

Driesell coached against Turgeon as his career was winding down at Georgia State and Turgeon’s was starting at Jacksonville State.

“He works extremely hard at recruiting, and you have to do that,” Driesell said Wednesday. “There’s no reason why Maryland can’t get the best players in the country. It’s one of the best jobs in the country. He’s also a very good coach. There’s no reason why he can’t win a few national championships if he stays at Maryland.”

What advice would Driesell give Turgeon after losing the Harrisons?

“I’ve been there. The Lord has a reason for everything, it just wasn’t in the cards,” Driesell said Friday. He just has to keep on going. He came in second, a lot better than other schools. That’s better than not being in there at all.”

But even Driesell said he has a hard time relating to losing twins.

“I’ve lost one, I’ve never lost two,” Lefty said. “That’s tough.” 

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