Driesell, of all people, helped UM land center

January 19, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- This is the kind of story Maryland fans will tell for years, long after Joe Smith has left for the riches and fame of the NBA, long after the record books have been rewritten and the rafters at Cole Field House are filled with reminders of this star-in-the-making.

This is the story of how Lefty Driesell, more than eight years after leaving Maryland, finally helped the Terrapins sign the big man he never could get during his 17 foot-stomping seasons as coach of the Terrapins.

This is the story of how Lefty Driesell, now the head coach at James Madison, helped revive Maryland for a second time.

It happened right before the early signing period in November 1992. Smith had narrowed his choices to five ACC schools: Maryland, Wake Forest, Florida State, Virginia and North Carolina State. All had visited Smith in Norfolk, Va., and he was making final preparations to tour the campuses.

"All of a sudden, he called us to say he was canceling the visit," one ACC head coach recalled last week. "It turns out that a couple of coaches were calling him all the time. The names I heard were Norm Stewart [of Missouri] and Lefty Driesell."

Said Jack Baker, Smith's coach at Maury High School: "He came in one day and said he was tired of the whole thing. He didn't want any more calls at home. He told me, 'Everybody's making me promises.' When he called those schools to tell them he wasn't visiting, everyone was shocked."

Asked if Driesell was the chief culprit, Baker laughed.

"It wasn't just Lefty," he said. "There were a lot of schools that wouldn't stop. One was sending him two or three letters a day. I think all along he wanted to go to Maryland."

Letha Smith, the player's mother, said Driesell first had contacted her son when he was a sophomore at Maury High. The contact continued even after Smith told Driesell, as well as other coaches, that he was only going to sign with an ACC school.

That didn't deter Driesell, whose reputation for relentless recruiting was legendary at Maryland. (Driesell couldn't be reached for comment.)

When Driesell's name was mentioned to Letha Smith, she laughed.

"Oh, he tried real hard," she said.

Said Joe Smith: "He called the most, especially after he found out I was thinking of coming here."

Not that Smith wouldn't have signed with Maryland eventually. But funny things have been known to happen on recruiting trips to change a player's mind. The other ACC schools never had a chance.

"Lefty," said an assistant at one of the unchosen last week, "is still helping Maryland."

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