`Tired' Driesell puts to rest his coaching career

Man who paved the way to success for Maryland quits in his 41st season

January 04, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Lefty Driesell, who had as big an impact on college basketball as any man who never got to the Final Four, retired from coaching yesterday after more than 40 seasons and nearly 800 wins.

The only coach to win 100 games at four schools, Driesell announced that he was calling it quits immediately at Georgia State in Atlanta, but he will be linked forever to the University of Maryland. Still the program's all-time winningest coach, he put the Terps on the map in the early 1970s with equal parts talent and flamboyance, but was forced out in a 1986 scandal that followed the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias.

"I'm surprised," said Mo Howard, a Maryland guard from 1972 to 1976. "I thought he would stay in the profession until he became the all-time winningest coach."

A depleted roster, a 4-6 start, fatigue and a nagging case of bronchitis that caused him to miss Thursday's victory over Furman led Driesell to step down in his 41st season. Assistant coach Michael Perry will take over Georgia State, and Driesell will finally get to spend more time with his wife of 51 years, Joyce.

"I woke up New Year's Day and I told Joyce, `I've worked 49 years and most people retire after 25,' " said Driesell, who turned 71 on Christmas Day. "I'm just tired and I've got this bad cold and I'm just going to retire. I'm looking forward to not having a job. I can get up when I want to and do what I want to."

Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight are the only coaches to compile more victories at the Division I level than Charles G. Driesell (Jim Phelan of Mount St. Mary's has 824, but the majority came in Division II). Nearly half of Driesell's 786 came in College Park.

Besides Maryland, Driesell took Davidson College, James Madison and Georgia State to the NCAA tournament. Jim Harrick and Eddie Sutton are the only other coaches to direct four schools to the national tournament, but Driesell's influence went beyond victories, a bald pate and the occasional foot stomp over a referee's call.

"It's unfortunate, but for Lefty to get the respect that he truly deserves, I think he needed to retire," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "It might have taken that for people to realize the magnitude of his career."

Williams completed his Maryland playing career in 1967, two years before Driesell took over the Terps. Until he put seats around the floor and brought fans closer to the game, Cole Field House was known more as an NCAA tournament venue than a difficult place for visitors to perform. The pep band played "Hail to the Chief" when Driesell entered the arena, and the spiritual "Amen" trumpeted his victories.

A few minutes after the NCAA allowed practice to begin for the 1971-72 season, he trotted the Terps out for a timed distance run at a dark Byrd Stadium track, a publicity stunt that evolved into the tradition known as Midnight Madness.

His 1973-74 team, which featured Len Elmore, John Lucas and Tom McMillen, is regarded as the greatest never to play in the NCAA tournament. After the Terps lost to North Carolina State in a classic Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final, the NCAA dropped its limit of one team per league and began to expand the field beyond 25 teams.

Driesell was a legendary recruiter who drew the wrath of the NCAA by purchasing advertising space in The Washington Post to make a pitch for the best prospects in the D.C. area. He flew high school players over Cole, where they saw their name in giant letters, and had them introduced before games. His work won landmark recruits like Albert King and McMillen.

"He was an indefatigable recruiter, as creative as anybody in the business," said McMillen, who in 1970 backed out of a commitment to attend North Carolina and went to Maryland. "He wouldn't take no for an answer."

Williams guided Maryland to its first NCAA title last season, more than three decades after Driesell had predicted that the Terps could match the dynasty of that day and become "the UCLA of the East." The boast backfired.

From 1968 to 1975, he had four teams - two at tiny Davidson and two at Maryland - eliminated from NCAA play one win shy of the Final Four. Driesell's strategic ability came under fire, and his defense that "I can coach," delivered in his Virginia drawl, was frequently mocked.

"The media has a bad habit of judging coaches purely by their ability to win national championships," said Elmore, an ESPN commentator. "As a basketball mind, people can say what they want, but all of the greats make mistakes. You don't get the number of wins he has purely from recruiting."

Driesell directed Maryland to six ACC tournament finals before he finally tasted victory in the Tobacco Road showcase. That 1984 championship came on the shoulders of sophomore forward Len Bias. He grew into Maryland's most celebrated player, but his death by cocaine overdose in June 1986 was the beginning of the end in College Park for Driesell.

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