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Driesell's Colorful Maryland Career Ebbed and Flowed

November 02, 1986|SALLY JENKINS | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Lefty Driesell anticipated his forced resignation as Maryland's basketball coach with a typical mixture of dignity, dark humor and one of those simple but outrageous statements that sum up his career.

"Maybe I just don't take a good picture," he said. "So let them hire somebody with hair."

Driesell always has been uncomfortably frank and, indeed, the now-complete picture of his 17 years at Maryland reflects his image. It is sprawling and marked by controversy, but redeemed occasionally by extravagance. When Driesell studies the years, he sees no national championship but an impressive list of victories, a generosity to his players but some failings in educating them, a dogged persistence yet some poor judgment.

Driesell never has lost his singular passion for basketball. He reveled in the fluorescent lights and hardwood of Cole Field House, where he regularly drew 14,500 eager to see him stomp on his sports coat. Over the years at College Park, he won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, an NIT title and his 524th career victory.

Yet Driesell never quite achieved the success he wanted, and experienced some tragedies along the way, including the deaths of three players. Owen Brown died of heart disease February 1976 after he left Maryland, and Chris Patton was a victim of Marfans syndrome two months later. Then, on June 19, 1986, all-America Len Bias collapsed in his dormitory room and died of cocaine intoxication, and the ensuing maelstrom led to Driesell's exodus.

A one-time salesman of cars and encyclopedias, Driesell became enamored of the coaching profession in 1954, heading the junior varsity at Granby High School in his hometown of Norfolk, Va. By 1960, Driesell, then 28, had his first college coaching job, at Davidson. He won his first game, pulling off a stunning upset of No. 3-ranked Wake Forest.

In an early interview, Driesell recalled the game: "I was all fired up, telling my team I had never lost an opener in junior high school or high school, and I didn't intend to lose one now. We went out and played super, unbelievable, and we won. I thought, 'Hey, this college coaching is easy.' The next game we lost to Catawba."

Driesell established his reputation as an artful recruiter at Davdison, bringing in Fred Hetzel, the school's first all-America. In 1969, Driesell swept into College Park with the promise "UCLA of the East" on his lips.

The Terrapins were 8-18 the previous season, had won just two Atlantic Coast Conference tournament games in the previous 11 years and were lucky to draw a crowd of 2,000. Driesell was 37, had some hair and had turned Davidson into one of the startling basketball powers in the country, building four top 10 teams.

Eager to Win

Driesell was an anxious, restless first-year coach at Maryland. He put 50,000 miles on his car recruiting the first season. He had 1,000 seats added to Cole Field House and put up temporary bleachers himself. His first official act was to wake his players up at 6 a.m. and make them run a mile in under six minutes before class.

One member of his first team was Will Hetzel, younger brother of Fred Hetzel. Driesell had ongoing problems with the younger Hetzel, partly a result of his long hair and relaxed approach to the game. It was Hetzel who found the key to staying on Driesell's good side.

"You'd be surprised how much more friendly Lefty can get when you play well," he said.

Maryland set a school attendance record that season. The Terrapins were a much-improved 13-13, as Driesell used every trick in the book to scrape out wins, including getting his players to change jerseys to confuse opponents. He raced onto the court with his arms raised and stomped along the sideline. He also motivated his team with frank criticism. "They stink," he said.

Somehow, it all worked. By 1972, Driesell's five-year plan to win a national championship appeared on track when the Terrapins won the NIT and went 27-5.

But, by then, Driesell was admitting, "UCLA wasn't built in three or four years." Also, a perception that Driesell was a weak floor coach began to emerge and create a frustrating reputation for him that would result in a number of tirades over the years, including the now-famous refrain, "I can coach."

Driesell was confused and angered by the unfavorable reaction that came despite Maryland's success. He began keeping files of press reports he considered insulting. "I just don't understand why everyone is critical of a winner when this area has never had one," he said.

The Terrapins did keep winning. From 1970 to 1975 they were consistently in the top 10. Driesell kept his fans doubly fascinated with statements such as, "Coaching is overrated."

In 1973-74, Driesell produced what is widely considered his best team. The squad featured a Rhodes Scholar in Tom McMillen and a future Harvard law student in Len Elmore. The Terrapins began the season with a one-point loss to UCLA, then went on to finish 23-5.

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