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If Only Lefty Driesell Could Talk His Way Into The Hall Of Fame

March 16, 2016
For the third time, Lefty Driesell is once again a finalist for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, which is considered the highest honor in the game of basketball. 

Forget for a moment that it seems as if Driesell should have long ago been enshrined. The facts are that he isn't, and another fact, which now makes his bid so poignant, is that he is 84 years old.

The finalists have been named, and the inductees will be announced April 4 during the Final Four in Houston, with the induction taking place in Springfield, Mass., in September.

Call me a sentimental, mushy and soft-on-the-inside kind of a guy, but I feel that obvious wrongs should be righted while someone is alive.
Locally, we can relate to that sentiment, because Art Modell, the man who brought the NFL back to Baltimore in 1996, was beloved in this city. And believe it or not, before the move, he was beloved in the city of Cleveland as well. It's so clear Modell belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, that if it weren't so sad, it would be laughable that he is not there. 

Just as I have made the case for Modell's enshrinement into Canton many times, the same -- and even more -- can be said about Driesell's relative merits that easily qualify him for a trip to Springfield -- the home of basketball's Hall of Fame.

From the first day Driesell arrived in College Park, Md., just before I arrived there as a freshman in 1969, Driesell sure could talk up a storm. You think presidential candidate Donald Trump can talk or, as Mitt Romney says, "con" people? Trump had his match in Driesell. 

Never the bashful type, Driesell was full of bravado. His No. 1 declaration back in those early days of 1969-70 was that he was going to make Maryland "the UCLA of the East." For those too young to remember, it was almost automatic back then that head coach John Wooden would take his Bruins to the Final Four and win the national title most of the time.

Driesell's talking was part of the salesman in him, which saw him immediately and always prime the talent pumps for a sustained consistency that hadn't been seen in College Park for a long, long time.

But as hard as Driesell boasted, as hard as he recruited and as hard as he coached, he had the misfortune of coaching his very best Maryland teams at a time when winning a conference tournament was the only ticket to getting into the Big Dance. That's not a great recipe for getting into the NCAA tournament when you coach against North Carolina legend Dean Smith or had to go head-to-head against a game-changing talent like NC State's David Thompson.

Then, as it got easier to get into the NCAA tournament with multiple bids from the same conferences, that very dynamic that fueled March Madness into the behemoth it became, coincided with there being a lot of younger and hungrier coaches who were getting as adept at the recruiting game as Driesell had been for years. That served to make it harder to have a great team year in and year out.

And that brings me to where the rubber hit the road for Driesell's Hall of Fame detractors. Through it all, Driesell never took a team to the Final Four. Twice while at Davidson and twice while at Maryland, Driesell took a team to the Elite Eight, which is the farthest he ever advanced in the NCAA tournament. Combine that fact with the notion that Driesell has been unfairly tainted as having tried to cover up the investigation into Len Bias' death after Bias overdosed on cocaine in his dorm room in June 1986, and you have the two smoking guns against his Hall of Fame candidacy.

Think of all the NCAA coaches who have gotten into the Hall of Fame, despite much more egregious missteps with their respective programs. In a defense of Driesell's Hall of Fame candidacy, The Washington Post's John Feinstein listed all the coaches currently in the Hall of Fame who have either had their programs investigated by the NCAA or have served suspensions (some this season). The list is a veritable "Who's Who" of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame -- SMU's Larry Brown, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, UNC's Roy Williams, along with Louisville's Rick Pitino. Then there is former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun, former UNLV head man and the late Jerry Tarkanian and current Kentucky head coach John Calipari. 

As Feinstein points out, identifying the list of coaches as tainted isn't meant to demean their rightful place in the Hall of Fame -- rather it just serves to add context to what men in this profession will do to sustain their success at the highest level. No such indiscretions have ever been brought up in conjunction with how Driesell ran his program during his 17 years in College Park (1969-1986) or his time at Davidson (1960-69), James Madison (1988-1996) or Georgia State (1997-2003). 

While we are talking about integrity, let's add one more honorable thing Driesell did -- he walked away from a serious run at 800 victories. Driesell retired midseason in 2003 with 786 wins, just 14 shy of that illustrious number of 800. But when Driesell summarily quit at Georgia State, with his team at 4-6, he walked away because he had simply run out of gas.

The easier thing to do would have been to coach out that 2002-03 campaign and one more, then walk away with that magical number of 800 wins, which at the time only three other coaches had attained: Smith (879), former Kentucky head man Adolph Rupp (876) and ex-Mount St. Mary's mentor Jim Phelan (830). Since Driesell retired, five others have reached that lofty 800 number and gone beyond -- ex-Indiana head coach Bob Knight (899), Calhoun (877), Boeheim (877), former Oklahoma State head man Eddie Sutton (806) and, of course, the current leader, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (1,040), as of March 9.

Ironically, Sutton, whose number of wins is the lowest in the 800-win class, is perhaps Driesell's last great hurdle to clear. He is also eligible for the Hall of Fame this year and is said to be in failing health at 80 years old.

It would be a shame if either Sutton or Driesell were left out of Springfield. Both are richly deserving of enshrinement, but around these parts, it gets personal for those of us who got to see Driesell's larger-than-life persona up close and see the clock ticking a bit too fast.

Issue 219: March 2016