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Completing The Circle

February 27, 2007
After a Long Exile, Lefty Driesell Re-emerges in College Park By Michael Anft

As the University of Maryland band whips an already heated-up student body into a pregame frenzy -- this is the annual home tilt against Duke, after all -- a tall but stooped figure quietly makes his way out of the cavern under the Comcast Center stands. He seats himself comfortably at a table under the Maryland basket where, briefly, he remains under the radar. Once he's spotted, though, the old ghosts come out of the woodwork. 

"I don't talk to Gary that much," says Driesell. "If I see him before a game, I'll say, 'Just kick their butts.'"
(Courtesy of Maryland PR)
Beaming university staffers stop by to chat him up and press some flesh. School boosters glow at the sight of him, old guys as starry-eyed as teenyboppers at their first Justin Timberlake concert.  "Make sure you quote him right," Jack Heise, a longtime booster, says to a reporter. "He's the greatest guy in the world and the most loyal guy you'll ever meet."

Team trainer J.J. Bush comes over for a quick word and half of a hug. Johnny Holliday, the Terps' bouncy stalwart of a play-by-play man, drops by and asks for an interview. 

"Halftime?" he asks.

Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell, 75, ponders the question. He's used to filling up lulls in time. There was the 18-year limbo between the time he left Maryland scandal-stained and last year, when he came back to hand coach Gary Williams a pre-game ball to mark Williams' passing of Driesell's old record of 348 wins at the school.

After leaving College Park, Driesell coached at James Madison and at Georgia State. But he was still better known during those years as the foot-stompin' bald guy from Maryland.

As folks stop by, he says he's happy to be back, although the attention can be a bit much. The university asked him to serve as an honorary captain for the Feb. 11 game, which pits the program he built up from dirt against his alma mater.

"It's nice. Kind of embarrassing, though," Driesell said, his trademark Tidewater drawl coarsened by time and a cold. "I'm honored they asked me to do it, really. They asked me and John Lucas, but he couldn't make it."

Just the thought of Driesell mentioning Lucas while on the College Park campus is enough to tickle the flesh of decades-long Terps diehards, or send chills down their spines. 

From 1969 to 1986, Lefty did not turn Maryland into "the UCLA of the East," as he promised when he was hired. But he made basketball a happening. Part snake-oil salesman and part coach, he created "Midnight Madness," turning something as dull as the start of fall practice into a celebration, then watched it replicate itself on campuses across the country. Driesell ordered the school band to play "Hail to the Chief" when he walked on the court, a nod to neighboring D.C. and a wink to the anti-establishmentarian students in the crowd.

His teams played well, often memorably so. His second team, in 1970-71, played slowdown ball to beat second-ranked South Carolina, 31-30, on a last-second shot by another balding guy, Jim O'Brien. The 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final, an overtime loss to eventual national champion North Carolina State, was considered the best college basketball game ever played and led to the expansion of the NCAA Tournament field the following year.

And he recruited. The down-home, good-old-boy pitches of "Ol' Cornpone," as one Evening Sun columnist called Driesell, went over as well in the living rooms of white suburbia as they did in the kitchens of inner-city rowhouses -- this at a time when the Southern White Man was, sometimes wrongly, vilified as a racist. Driesell brought in scads of talent: Lucas, Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Brad Davis, Albert King, Ernie Graham, Buck Williams.

And Len Bias.

Chuck Driesell, who played for his father at Maryland from 1981 to 1985, was hired as an assistant coach for the Terps last offseason.
(Mitch Stringer/PressBox)
On this day, the name isn't mentioned. As game time nears, Driesell gets up from the table, ambles slowly on to the court and hears his name and accomplishments read over the public address system. The crowd stands and cheers, filling Comcast with noise. He raises his head to take it in, then allows a small smile to develop as his eyes squint and twinkle in the lights. At least for this moment, all the mess that sent him packing from College Park nearly 20 years ago is forgotten.

* * *

The story has been told too often. A young, physically-freakish hoops star dies from snorting a superhuman dose of cocaine not long after being the second overall pick in the NBA draft, by the venerated Boston Celtics and longtime Driesell-backer Red Auerbach, no less. The Maryland basketball program is scrutinized and found to be wanting in its oversight of student-athletes. Many of them don't graduate. Too often, they go to classes that keep them eligible to play but don't further their educations.

Old, alleged failings are dredged up. Driesell's defense of power forward Herman Veal after he was accused of sexual misconduct in 1983 ("I'm the men's center," he told the on-campus Women's Center) again becomes an issue. Driesell denies charges that he intimidated the victim into changing her story. Terps fans, hurt by the loss of Bias, mutter things about a lack of ACC Championships, and a dearth of Final Four appearances.

Four months after Bias' death, Driesell's fall from an innovative, plain-talkin' program builder to a backward-looking bumpkin and lackluster coach was complete. The sobriquet "Ol' Cornpone" took on a jarring, redneck connotation. On Oct. 29, 1986, Driesell gave into pressure from university higher-ups and resigned. Along with the exaltation that goes along with a fresh start, there was pathos worthy of a Greek tragedy.

"I do not want to coach if I am not wanted," Driesell said at a final press conference, before walking off the Cole Field House floor with one arm around his wife and the other around his two daughters. A photo of that moment, widely printed around the country, signaled the end of an era.

The university gave Driesell a nominal position as assistant athletic director, which he held for two years. He hated the job. Beyond the career disappointment, the ghost of Bias lingered.

"Lenny was close to all of us -- me, my dad, my mom, my sisters," said Chuck Driesell, who played for his father at Maryland from 1981 to 1985, then rejoined him at James Madison as an assistant in 1988. He would later become associate head coach there. "It was like losing a family member. Anybody would have been hurt by how things were handled, but Lenny's death was what was really difficult for us."

Lefty Driesell doesn't like to talk about those times now. "I didn't do anything wrong," he said. "I'm in the [Maryland Sports] Hall of Fame. So, I did a pretty good job here, I guess."

* * *

Those times may not be forgotten, but there's little question that Driesell has been forgiven. Little by little, small gesture by small gesture, he has been lured back into the Terrapins' fold. Those drawing him back have done all they can to let him know he's an honored part of basketball history here.

Williams said he has known Driesell since he took over the program in 1969. Not long after Williams had come back to coach his alma mater in 1989, he found cause to lean on Driesell's memory. In 1990, with Maryland suffering under NCAA penalties for transgressions committed during Bob Wade's reign, Driesell provided inspiration for Williams.

"Lefty's time here kept me going through those tough sanction years," Williams said. "I knew it could be done because he had done it. He'd sold out all the tickets, gotten the recruits and won a lot of games." 

Driesell's kick-in-the-pants resignation troubled Williams. Like many Terps fans, he was excited when Driesell took over the program. The circumstances of his leaving still stir bad memories.

"Sometimes, when people die like Bias did, people get blamed," Williams said. "I'm just glad Lefty's back and caring about Maryland basketball again."

When Driesell handed Williams the ball at last year's ceremony, it represented a passing of the torch, an appreciation of what it has taken to make Maryland basketball prominent and keep it there.

Driesell told Williams, "Congratulations -- I hope you win a lot more." 

Williams replied: "I couldn't have done what I've done if you hadn't done what you did."

It had taken some effort to get Driesell to the point where he could feel comfortable enough to come back to College Park. Things started, by all accounts, when he praised Williams' coaching after Driesell's Georgia State team was dismantled by the Terps during their march to the Final Four in 2001.

"They kicked our butts," Driesell said at the time. A year later, after Maryland won the national title, Driesell sent a personal note of congratulations to Williams. 

By then, Driesell was retired. He had awakened with the flu on New Year's morning in 2002 and decided he had worked long enough. He left Georgia State in mid-season. A bit later, Williams and longtime friends to the basketball program began making some subtle overtures to him.

"A lot of the older friends I made coming in were Lefty's friends," Williams said. "People encouraged him to come out. They let him know there were no hard feelings or anything."

It wasn't until last season that Driesell made a couple of appearances. For this year's Duke game, athletic director Debbie Yow invited Driesell back as an honorary captain.

"People are really happy that he's come back around," Williams said. "It completes the circle for them. To complete the story of Maryland basketball, you have to have Lefty."

* * *

The draw now isn't just the team and the crowd, but the bond between father and son. Chuck Driesell, Williams' newest assistant coach, was hired last offseason away from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Va. Chuck Driesell said he couldn't be happier working for a coach with Williams' fire or to be back in the place he called home for almost all of his childhood. 

"I love Maryland and being back here," Chuck Driesell said. "There's always something that jogs my memories. It's nice to have that experience."

Besides the chance to get back into coaching at the Division I level -- Chuck Driesell had coached at James Madison and Georgetown, as well as served more recently as head coach at Marymount University, a Division III school in Arlington, Va. -- he said he was especially excited to work at a school where assistants are involved in all areas of the program, from drilling to training to recruiting.

But Williams isn't the only voice he hears as he works. His father "always" offers him advice. "And if I don't ask, he calls to offer it," he said.

Among the advice his father gives him: "Recruit daily or perish." 

According to those in the know, Chuck Driesell has been a regular presence at high school games in the D.C. region, where he chats up prospects. He has already landed one recruit, 6-foot-10 power forward Shane Walker, but he had an advantage as Walker's coach at Bishop Ireton last year.

He has made himself a fixture at Montrose Christian Academy, in Rockville, one of the top teams in the country. Maryland landed freshman point guard Greivis Vasquez from Montrose last year, helped guide Walker there for his senior year and also signed current Montrose combo guard Adrian Bowie for next year.

But Chuck's main charge has been to woo Jai Lucas, a McDonald's All-American point guard from Bellaire, Texas. Here, once again, he can count on his father to chime in, but for a more compelling reason than merely helping his son. Jai Lucas is the son of John Lucas whom Lefty Driesell recruited from under Duke's nose in 1971. The elder Driesell and the elder Lucas have maintained a strong relationship since. The idea of a circle involving Lefty and Maryland again comes to mind.

Williams is quick to point out that Lefty Driesell can't help recruit any player because, as what the NCAA calls an "interested party," he would essentially be seen as a representative of the University of Maryland. Driesell knows this too. "I'd do anything I could to help them," he said. "Unfortunately, all I can really do is stand up and cheer."

But after a few seconds, he added: "I can't talk to Jai or anything, but if someone asks me where their kid should go, you know what I'll tell them."

Otherwise, Driesell said he offers encouragement. "I don't talk to Gary that much," he said. "If I see him before a game, I'll say, 'Just kick their butts.'"

"The main thing is he wants it to be good," Williams said. "That's the emotional thing you get from him. He'll say not to get down after a loss, things like that."

* * *

Not long after the Comcast Center crowd greets him with a cacophony of appreciation, Driesell is back standing under the Maryland basket. Williams power-strides his way into the arena, with a raised fist, to a similar decibel level. As he and his security detail march past the basket, an arm reaches out to greet him, brushing against the sleeve of his sports coat. Startled at first, Williams turns, sees Driesell and stops to smile and shake his hand. The two chat briefly.

Driesell may be the only human alive who could get away with that. Williams said that Driesell is always an honored guest -- not just on days when he's named one.

"I'm just glad he feels good about being here," Williams said. "The fans have been great to him. He looks better. Maybe it helps him get over some things."

For Chuck Driesell, his father's return to the land from which he was exiled qualifies as a fitting final chapter to his story. "My father's an emotional guy on the sideline, but he doesn't cry or show emotions that way," Chuck said.

As Driesell was announced as an honorary captain --and the crowd let him know that he is fondly remembered -- Chuck Driesell said that demeanor almost changed.

"After the game, he said to me, 'Chuck, I was taken aback. I almost cried out there.' It was special for him." 

Issue 2.9: March 1, 2007