Honoring Driesell is a winning idea

February 09, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Maryland officials were way ahead of us. Lefty Driesell is coming back for an encore, and the school didn't need prompting from a column last week to make it happen.

Plans already were in place for Driesell to be honored along with coach Gary Williams the first time the Terps played at home after Williams surpassed him as Maryland's all-time leader in men's basketball coaching victories.

Now, it will happen in a ceremony before Saturday's Duke game at Comcast Center, with Driesell symbolically passing the torch to Williams, who has never failed to credit Driesell for laying the foundation on which he built a national champion.

The school will be glad to have him, Williams will surely be glad to see him - and Driesell will be glad to be there.

"Oh, yeah, definitely," Driesell said late last week from Richmond, Va., where he had been attending the birth of his 10th grandchild, a girl. "I was there 19 years of my life, so I have a lot of friends up there."

He counts Williams among them. "He's come to see me during the summers. He's done a tremendous job," Driesell said. "I'm happy for him. I'm glad to be a part of this."

Between what he started and what Williams has produced, he said, "It's been a great run."

He's also wistful as he thinks of the occasion he will be marking. "I can't believe it's been 20 years," Driesell said. "Twenty years since I left, 20 years since Lenny died."

The second return of Driesell to Maryland in the past three years indicates that time continues to heal the wounds from 1986, from Len Bias' drug-overdose death in June through Driesell's departure in October after 17 years as coach.

After two years in another athletic department job under his previously signed contract and 15 more years coaching at James Madison and Georgia State, Driesell, 74, has thoroughly enjoyed his retirement.

"I miss winning. I don't miss losing. I haven't lost a game in three years," he joked. "What I miss is the money. Nowadays, these guys make $1 million, $2 million a year. When I took the job at Maryland, Jim Kehoe [the athletic director who hired him from Davidson in 1969] told me I was the highest-paid coach in the ACC at $20,000 a year."

Driesell rarely strays far from his Virginia Beach home, watches lots of college basketball on television and attends weekend games at nearby Old Dominion or James Madison. The reason he doesn't frequent College Park, he said, is simply because he is comfortable in his surroundings at this stage of his life.

"I don't go anywhere. I stay here. I've done all my traveling," he said.

He has not been back since January 2003, when he was honored at halftime at the then-new Comcast Center. That was a rare and emotional reminder to him of what had been.

"If you take a survey, a lot of people who had season tickets when I was there still have them," Driesell said. "We sort of got it rolling."

The years haven't taken all of the sting out of 1986, though. Driesell still dislikes the taint that the Bias tragedy and the ensuing years of controversy left not only on him, but also on Maryland, the basketball program and Bias himself.

"Everybody says, after Len Bias, the program was in disarray, which isn't true," Driesell said with more sadness than anger in his voice. "At the time, the program was in great shape. We'd just won 19 games, we'd gone to the [NCAA] tournament, they had extended my contract. No one thought the program was in trouble then. But everybody thinks Len Bias' death brought the program down.

"That kind of irks me to hear that. Things happened there after I left that caused problems for the program," he continued, not mentioning the coach who followed him, Bob Wade, by name.

In addition, he said, "Maryland should be proud of Lenny Bias; he was a great kid, a down-to-earth kid, a born-again Christian who made a big impact. But he also made a big mistake. Hopefully, kids have learned from it, but I don't know."

The ceremony Saturday is sure to bring more nostalgic memories than dark ones of Driesell's years in College Park. After the Terps beat Virginia on Tuesday night to put him over the top, Williams tossed one more bouquet to Driesell and his legacy.

"He's the guy that finally got this place excited about basketball. This area is as tough an area as I've ever seen for college basketball because of the pro dynamic," Williams said. "It's a tough sell, and Lefty got it started ... so that when I came in and the situation wasn't great, at least I had that vision that it had been done before. It wasn't like nobody had ever done it before, so I had a chance.

"People should remember that about Lefty Driesell," he concluded.

They'll be reminded Saturday afternoon. david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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