LARGER THAN LIFE

LARGER THAN LIFE

A look at how Lefty Driesell changed Maryland basketball, nearly 30 years after his resignation

(Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

Published on May 4, 2015

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Charles “Lefty” Driesell doesn’t play basketball anymore. His legs have grown weak, and his shots just don’t land like they used to. It’s difficult for him, at 83, to walk without his cane.

The retired men’s basketball coach hasn’t watched an NCAA Final Four game in person the past two years. Not even this season, when two of his former teams, the Terrapins (1969–1986) and Georgia State (1997-2003), made the tournament for the first time in at least five years. Ironically, the last time the Panthers received a bid, Lefty led them to a second-round loss against Gary Williams’ Terps in 2001.

“I missed the Final Four last year for the first time in about 50 years,” he says.

It’s not that Lefty doesn’t root for the Terps now that he’s years removed from the program he spent more than a quarter of his adult life leading. He once said to the 2012-13 team in his signature Southern drawl: “Y’all better win tomorrow or I’m going to kill ya.”

No, it’s just too hard to make it halfway across the country anymore, says the Norfolk, Virginia, native.

It’s been hard since two years ago, when he fell off his boat — the one he used to “run … into buoys and sandbars and stuff,” he once told Sports Illustrated. His wife Joyce made him sell it, and Lefty now watches games on his 70-inch TV at his Virginia Beach home, where he can follow it better.

“It’s easier than traveling,” he says.

In his fourth-floor condominium apartment overlooking the coast, Lefty grips the doorframe to steady himself as he disappears through an entryway marked by a wooden plank with the inscription “Basketball Office.” He enters a den with navy walls that display nearly half a century of triumphs on the hardwood — plaques, trophies, nets, photographs and basketballs.

Lefty and Joyce Driesell sit in his office in front of photos of the 17 Maryland teams he coached. None finished below .500. (Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

Sitting eastbound lies a stack of packets containing statistics, letters, copies of newspaper clippings and documented praise from sports analysts and coaches he’s faced. Lefty leans back in his executive chair and thumbs through something of a scrapbook, a wistful reminder of the world he departed when he retired in 2003.

In some ways, it’s like his own assessment of his legacy.

When Dean Smith died Feb. 7, the swaths of UNC fans the former Tar Heels coach had gained over the years paid tribute to his achievements, which include all-time records of 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances and 27 straight 20-win seasons. After Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski won his fifth NCAA title April 6, some members of the media declared the Blue Devils coach the sport’s greatest since UCLA’s John Wooden.

But how does history appraise Lefty?

Sure, the left-hander has accomplished much in his own right. There’s the underdog-overcomes-odds arc in his story. The son of a German immigrant jeweler emerged from a 41-year career as the only coach to win at least 100 games at four Division I basketball programs. “A nice Christian boy” as Joyce calls him — who once rescued at least 10 children from a burning building — boldly proclaimed that the off-the-grid Terps had the potential to become the “UCLA of the East” and later backed it up by signing five future consensus All-Americans to the program.

Then the summer of ‘86 changed the conversation. The name “Lefty” became inseparable from Maryland basketball, not only for his accomplishments but also for what investigators dug up in the aftermath of what happened on a dark day in June, nearly three decades ago.

And unfortunate or not, there’s no denying it:

Whenever something bad happens, it can scratch the lens through which we view history.


ABOVE: Lefty laughs with his wife Joyce on April 11, 2015. (Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

(Graphic by Summer Bedard)

COUNTRY CHARM

 

It was a Wednesday. A 37-year-old Lefty, then fresh-faced from coaching at little Davidson College in North Carolina, was speaking at his first news conference in Cole Field House. Bending his 6-foot-5 frame, the newest Terps head coach put his lips close to the microphone and quipped:

“The only time I plan a speech is when I’m going to get paid. I asked [Athletic Director-designate] Jim [Kehoe] if I was going to get paid for this, and he said, ‘No.’ So I haven’t got a prepared speech.”

He beamed at the crowd, and soon enough, he had the press laughing.

“Would you call yourself an austere coach?” asked one radioman.

Driesell fidgeted for a moment, then shook his head in bewilderment.

Finally he grinned and chuckled “I don’t even know what the word means.

“You have to use that old country talk for me.”

— The Diamondback, March 19, 1969

Everything about Lefty as a coach was “larger than life,” those in the media and those who know him best agree.

“My dad had a lot of energy,” said Patti Driesell, the eldest of Lefty and Joyce’s four children. “He was always just big, you know? In motivating, and inspiring, and yelling and working out and running.

“Like at the beach, he’d be like, ‘Argh! Let’s go, Patti!’ and take off down the beach and just throw himself into the waves.”

A towering man with a receding hairline and large ears, Lefty had a booming voice and a hearty laugh that could fill auditoriums. When interacting with reporters, he would speak his mind and tackle questions head on, and his notorious cluelessness about certain words (he once told Sports Illustrated he didn’t know what “potential” means ) hid the fact that he had graduated from Duke University with honors, 15 years before.

It was as if he meant to play into a caricature of himself.

“He came across as this huckster, this guy who was not that smart, a Southern boy,” said Dave Coates, a 1988 university alumnus. “But the man went to Duke; he was very well educated. He was as dumb as a fox, let’s say that.”

For his program to succeed, Lefty knew he had to generate excitement for a team in an area that had virtually zero interest in college hoops.

When he took over in 1969, football still held a slight edge in fans’ hearts. While the Terps had played in several high-profile bowl games, such as the Gator and Sugar bowls, and won them during the Jim Tatum era (1947-55) — the basketball team had made only one NCAA tournament appearance and produced just two ranked teams in its 46 seasons before Lefty arrived.

So the new coach tried everything.

Lefty flashes his famous V-for-victory signs as he enters Cole Field House. (Courtesy of Terrapin Yearbook)

He brought seats onto the floor of Cole, which was built more for boxing, so jeering Terps fans could get right on top of opponents.

At games, he would thrust up both hands in V-for-victory signs and — depending on the quality of the competition — shake them once, twice or thrice at the crowd, who would roar gleefully in response.

Lefty, who sometimes wore colorful sports jackets with a Maryland monogram on the breast pocket instead of the standard blazer, would play into the energy in Cole, too, by laying into the officials from the sidelines and racing onto the court in protest. He would scream. He would shout. And whenever a referee’s decision went against his team, Lefty famously would rip off his jacket, throw it onto the ground and stomp on it.

Fans ate it up.

“The love that the fans had for Gary Williams during his career was impressive and some of the love Mark Turgeon is getting is impressive,” Coates said of the former and current Maryland men’s basketball coaches. “But what I witnessed of how the fans reacted to Lefty Driesell was that he was your crazy uncle and they loved him to death.”

In return, Terps faithful rewarded Lefty by packing the stands in droves and ushering him into the arena with numbers from Jesus Christ Superstar and tunes such as “Hail to the Chief.”

“Before Lefty, going to a Maryland basketball game — you might have gotten a third of Cole Field House,” said Jon Pessah, a 1974 university alumnus. “Nobody cared. But he just came in and changed everything, and like I said, he was part of the show.”

Screaming “Go to hell, Carolina! Go to hell!” and “If you can’t go to college, go to [N.C.] State!” Terps fans turned Cole into a lion’s den for opponents. After wins, they would wait for the marching band’s drum beat before they jumped up and down, hands clapping together above their heads jumping-jack-style, as their voices raised to the rafters in harmony, singing the “Amen” chorus.

Finally, Lefty knew, he had done it.

For the first time ever, fans really, truly cared.


ABOVE: Lefty provides in-game antics in the Terps’ loss at UCLA on Dec. 1, 1973. (Courtesy of Terrapin Yearbook)

‘UCLA OF THE EAST’

 

Convincing fans to watch games was one thing, but luring top players to College Park was another. And to build a national contender, Lefty needed to do both.

His then-assistant, George Raveling, had a suggestion: Why not buy a newspaper ad persuading area stars to stay at home?

So they did.

In spring 1969, The Washington Post ran a $594 quarter-page ad featuring four mugshots of local players — James Brown of DeMatha, Jim O’Brien, Floyd Lewis and Dave Freitag — with the words “We Want You,” an homage to the famous Uncle Sam recruitment posters.

(Graphic by Kelsey Sutton)


“I felt flattered, humbled by that attention shown by Lefty Driesell,” said Brown, who said he chose Harvard for its academics and distance from home. “… Clearly, it was extremely creative and out of the box for him to do something like that.”

Though only O’Brien, from J.E.B. Stuart High in Falls Church, Virginia, committed to the Terps, that plan would be the first of many that represented the “If it hasn’t been done yet, let’s do it” philosophy with which Lefty ran his program.

The president of the United States would be watching you play, Lefty told a teenage Tom McMillen that same year as he tried to convince the No. 1 high school player in the country to come to College Park.

But it wasn’t enough for the Mansfield, Pennsylvania, native who had verbally committed to Dean Smith’s UNC. What would be, though? Lefty wondered.

He realized the answer had presented itself when Kehoe asked Jay McMillen, a former Terps player who graduated two years before in 1967, to convince Lefty over lunch to leave his job at Davidson.

“Jay said, ‘You got to come, Coach, you got to come,’” Lefty said. “‘You could make Maryland the UCLA of the East. They’re very similar schools. UCLA is in downtown L.A. and Maryland is in suburbs of Washington. They’re both commuter schools.’”

Tell your brother that, Lefty said to Jay later. Tell him we have the potential to become the UCLA of the East.

“It helped me in recruiting, by making that statement,” Lefty said.

It might have helped convince McMillen, but what really spurred his eventual decision to decommit from the Tar Heels was his father’s health.

“My father became ill the summer I had to make a choice,” McMillen said, “and I really wanted my dad to see me play, so I gave second thoughts on going all the way down to Carolina.”

About 250 miles east of Mansfield, another star-in-the-making was hearing the same pitch from Lefty’s camp.

Len Elmore said he was “really hooked on St. John’s University, which was not too far from my home in Queens, New York.”

But when the St. John’s coach decided to leave for the NBA’s Nets, Elmore said he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go there anymore.

That’s when Raveling and Jim Maloney, another assistant, swooped in.

They told Elmore that he, with the other players Lefty recruits, would have a serious “chance to win a national championship and chance to leave a lasting imprint on the history of Maryland basketball,” Elmore said.

That, coupled with the opportunity to be near the nation’s capital and to be covered by The Washington Post, was enough for two future first-round NBA draft picks in Elmore and McMillen to choose College Park.

Many more would follow later, but first Lefty had to whip his players into shape to fight what would prove to be what Elmore called an “uphill battle.”

‘GREATEST GAME IN ACC HISTORY’

 

The early days of Lefty’s tenure coincided with a tumultuous period in this university’s history.

Like many campuses nationwide, College Park in May 1970 became the site of the clash between student protesters of the Vietnam War and the National Guard sent in to enforce curfews and quell demonstrations.

The guardsmen returned to the campus the next two years, said Pessah, who was a freshman in 1970-71.

Pessah said he recalls walking down Route 1 and seeing “row after row after row after row” of National Guard members marching from Washington.

“This can’t be good,” he remembered saying to his friends as they hustled back to their fraternity’s chapter house on Fraternity Row.

“By the time we got back, that many people had come over the [Memorial] Chapel hill, and that many more troops had come through behind the horseshoe [Fraternity Row],” he said. “So they kind of merged on all the students. … It was kind of scary knowing kids had died in that kind of a situation.”

Basketball, however, provided relief.

During the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, North Carolina had a four-school tandem in UNC, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Duke that perennially trampled through the ACC.

With freshmen ineligible to play varsity, Lefty coached the Terps to 13-13 and 14-12 finishes in his first two seasons in College Park.

1971-72, however, brought highly touted McMillen and Elmore into the mix, so the coach adjusted his training regimen.

So on Oct. 15, 1971, about 800 university students and 21 players gathered in a dim Byrd Stadium at 12:03 a.m.

Tom McMillen finishes his mile as Lefty times his players on Oct. 15, 1971. (Courtesy of UMD Archives)

The instructions were simple: Run a mile along the track in six minutes or less. Fail to do that, and you’d have to do it again another time.

Nobody knew then they were witnessing the birth of Midnight Madness, a university tradition that would evolve into an intrasquad preseason game and inspire nearly every other basketball program in the country to adopt it.

Elmore, a then-sophomore entering his first season of eligibility, didn’t necessarily welcome the idea at first.

“Having to run really long distances, I said to myself, ‘What the heck does this have to do with basketball?’” he said.

But while some of the older players might have cut across the grass to shave off a minute on their mile time, the future NBA player bought into Lefty’s system.

“He sold us on the fact that we were going to be the first team to practice in America,” said Elmore, who played at Maryland from 1971 to 1974. “We’re going to show we’re the hardest working team in America.”

Lefty sits with his assistant coaches, watching practice on Oct. 15, 1972. (Courtesy of UMD Archives)

That year produced an unprecedented 27-5 finish. The Terps, led by the two standout sophomores, went to the ACC tournament finals and claimed the program’s first NIT title with a 100-69 rout of Niagara.

Finally, Maryland was on the map.

“Going to the NIT in those days was very important,” Elmore said. “Because the field of 68 now is so broad, the NIT is an afterthought. But when we played, it was almost as important as the NCAA tournament because the NCAA tournament field was so small. So winning the NIT was a huge breakthrough, … and we demonstrated that we belong in the conversation of the top teams in America.”

The next few seasons ended with ACC tournament losses, but none hurt more than the 1974 title game.

Maryland cheerleaders prepare for N.C. State game in 1973. (Courtesy of UMD Archives)


The Terps stepped onto the court at Greensboro Coliseum on March 9 as the No. 4 team in the nation who had lambasted Duke and UNC by a combined 39 points in the two nights leading up. Meanwhile, No. 1 N.C. State had a first-round bye and cruised past Virginia in a daytime matinee.

It was a highly anticipated matchup, said Pessah, who covered the game as The Diamondback’s men’s basketball beat reporter. At-large bids for the NCAA tournament didn’t exist in those days, so each conference received one bid for its tournament champions while the losers went home.

In the end, no one could contain Wolfpack center Tom Burleson, who scored 38 points in the effort and became tournament MVP. The Terps fell, 103-100, in overtime.

Len Elmore tries to get past Tom Burleson at the ACC finals on March 9, 1974. (File Photo/The Diamondback)

“I remember seeing Mo [Howard] sitting on the bench, crying his head off,” Pessah said.

The NIT again offered the team a spot in the tournament, but the captains McMillen and Elmore turned it down.

We’ve already won one, their reasoning went. We wanted an NCAA title instead.

The championship game suddenly sparked a national debate. With seven future NBA draft picks on its roster, the 1973-74 Terps were arguably the best team that would never get to play in the NCAA tournament.

The association’s governing body expanded the field to 32 the next year.

“The absurdity of the ACC as a one-bid conference was highlighted when you have the No. 1 team in the nation playing the No. 4 team in the nation, and only one team would be able to leave that game and play for a national championship,” Elmore said.

“Unfortunately for us, the [1975 expansion] didn’t help us any.”

Lefty said if he could pick, he would rather coach in today’s climate. Though Virginia and Villanova both failed to make the Final Four this past month, they at least had a chance, he said.

“We didn’t have a chance,” he said.


ABOVE:
Tom McMillen cuts down the net after the Terps beat North Carolina in overtime in February 1972. (Courtesy of UMD Archives)

‘THAT HOOK-NOSED LITTLE SUCKER’

 

If Lefty had a foil in his story, it would have to be Dean Smith.

Lefty and the late UNC coach were about the same age, but the similarities might end there.

Everybody and the media seemed to love “Coach Smith,” whom Lefty reportedly referred to in private as “that hook-nosed little sucker.” Smith ran a tight ship, produced record-shattering teams year in and year out and did all that in a “proper” manner.

“Dean always said the right thing, did the right thing,” Lefty, who grew close with Smith after retiring and would call him weekly, told ESPN. “He was a true gentleman.”

In comparison, Lefty’s coaching was “certainly more of a relaxed style,” Pessah said.

“I never went to Dean Smith’s practices, but I saw his practice plan in his book, and he literally had every minute of every practice mapped out where everybody was supposed to be,” he said. “So if you look on the bell curve, he’s way on the right and Lefty’s pretty far over to the left. It would be a lot more fun to be playing in Lefty’s program, I would think.”

But the records really grinded the Terps coach’s gears.

Lefty, who went 10-29 against Smith at Maryland, said his Terps had more wins than losses against every ACC team except UNC. His quest to best Smith almost equated his desire to win an ACC tournament title.

During ACC coaches meetings, Driesell and then-N.C. State coach Norm Sloan would confront Smith about his recruiting strategies or comments to the media, according to The Daily Press. Smith would respond by showing the two a collection of newspaper articles in which they bash UNC.

That riled them up.

Lefty got so mad at Smith one time, he wrote him a letter saying he’d never shake Smith’s hand again. He made good on that promise Jan. 12, 1983, after the Terps lost, 72-71, on the heels of a controversial call — or missed call, from Lefty’s perspective.


His favorite victory against Smith, though, came the form of a 77-72 win in overtime at Dean Dome, a month after it opened, on Feb. 20, 1986. A one-man effort by Len Bias of Landover tied the game and forced overtime, during which the Terps pulled past the then-No. 1 Tar Heels for Smith’s first loss in the new arena.

“Len Bias left us The Sequence, a slap in the face of Tar Heel smugness, a finger pointed at all the cozy North Carolina fans in the cozy Dean Dome. You remember it, don’t you? First, Lenny drilled a 20-foot jumper from the wing, then intercepted Martin’s inbound pass, took a giant step and slammed home a reverse dunk.”

ABOVE: Len Bias’ one-man effort is dubbed “The Sequence.”

— staff writer Mark Stewart, The Diamondback, June 26, 1986

Yet despite emerging victorious from a few of these small battles, Lefty, unlike Smith, would never win an NCAA title. And people still often use it as the measurement when weighing his accomplishments. Some don’t, though.

“I don’t think he was a bad coach,” said Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus, who covered Lefty’s final year at Maryland. “I just think it was almost as if when teams couldn’t win a championship because Michael Jordan was playing for the Chicago Bulls.”


ABOVE: Lefty talks to his star player Len Bias during a game. (File Photo/The Diamondback)

FULL-COURT PRESS

 

There was never a dull moment when Lefty was concerned, reporters would muse. But the man started to show signs of arrogance.

First, it was in his relationship with the media.

After years of not finding much success in the postseason despite having teams with consensus All-Americans, newspaper writers started to wonder: What if Lefty is a great recruiter but a terrible coach?

It was frustrating. “I can coach,” Lefty once swore more than 10 times in an interview.

“He was defensive about it,” Markus said. “So I think that played into: The more defensive he became, the more people questioned whether he could coach.”

“He didn’t take criticism well,” said George Solomon, who was an assistant managing editor for sports at The Washington Post from 1975 to 2003, of Lefty. The coach would keep a file of negative newspaper clippings and complain about the coverage of his team in The Post, Solomon said.

One time, the two bumped into each other at Bethany Beach, and Lefty had his ear for two hours, the former editor said.

Lefty must have left him at least 50 telephone calls before 7 a.m. in his 17 years with the Terps, Solomon estimated. Sometimes it was good, but many times it was bad.

Then there were the times when Lefty spoke to the press. According to the Los Angeles Times, Lefty once threatened:

“Maryland better watch out. I just might leave someday, and when I do, they’re probably going to be in big trouble ‘cause they didn’t have no one who’s won like I have since 1800. They’ll never be able to find somebody who can do what I done, who can do what I do.”

The media scrutiny on the team soon grew worse, as the program increased in national prominence yet continued to struggle and as a number of incidents with his players came to light.

In April 1979, police arrested and charged Larry Gibson, a Terps center, with breaking and entering after allegedly crawling through a window in Shoemaker Hall. “Boys will be boys,” Lefty said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In January 1984, police arrested and charged teammates Steve Rivers and Adrian Branch, who led Maryland in scoring as a freshman and sophomore, with possession of marijuana.

The previous season, however, brought the most controversial incident Lefty had faced.

It involved allegations that Lefty had attempted to convince a university female student to drop her sexual harassment complaint against basketball player Herman Veal via threatening phone calls.

Lefty, who was a post player at Duke, reportedly responded to the university’s women’s center’s protests of his actions with “I don’t care about the women’s center. I’m the men’s center.” After the university suspended Veal during an investigation, Lefty told reporters: “I’ve got a little pull around, and we’ll see how much.”

But there’s another side — a man who cared deeply about his players, he and those who know him said.

Lefty said he, as a man of Christian faith, tried his best to be a mentor to his players, even if he couldn’t be around them 100 percent of the time.

“I said, ‘If you stay out past midnight, you’re going to get in trouble,’” he said. “They knew how I felt about all that stuff.”

Lefty said he would talk to his players about all sorts of things, from dying to not using drugs to getting jobs. He also would invite his players to barbecues at his Borges Avenue home in Silver Spring and would take his players on a retreat to Camp David at the beginning of each season in the 1980s.

McMillen and Elmore both acknowledged their former coach had encouraged them to make academics a priority, too.

McMillen went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and then a U.S. congressman, while Elmore went on to study at Harvard Law School.

Altogether, the incidents earned Lefty a slap on the wrist and his efforts on and off the court were enough to convince Chancellor John Slaughter to give him a 10-year contract extension in 1985 and make him an Honorary M Club member.




.

RIGHT: Men carry the casket of Terps star Len Bias for his funeral service on June 23, 1986. LEFT: Lefty walks behind the Rev. Jesse Jackson as they head to the funeral service of Len Bias on June 23, 1986. (File Photos/The Diamondback)

A CAMPUS IN MOURNING

 

Dave Coates was caddying at a golf course two states away when he heard Len Bias died.

Someone who knew that Coates went to Maryland asked if he had heard.

“Nah, come on,” the then-rising junior responded at the time. But when he went home and turned on the TV, Coates found the basketball star’s face all over the networks.

(Graphic by Kelsey Sutton)

On June 19, 1986, at the age of 22, Len Bias was dead.

Larry Bird, a then-Celtics forward, said upon learning of Bias’ fate: “That’s the cruelest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Lenny Bias – Maryland’s Super Star

Len Bias, he was Maryland’s super star

Len Bias, he was the Greatest One by far

He was so full of energy

One of the strongest guys you’ll ever see

Watching him play on TV

Now I can only see his memory

I remember when he made his fancy moves,

The man who guarded him was left there in his shoes

So many baskets he had sunk

But nothing was sweeter than his monster dunk

He led his team to victory

The things he did so well made Maryland history

Len Bias made a dream come true

Something we might never do

He accomplished one of his main tasks

Through the death of him, it didn’t even last

He’ll always be a part of Maryland’s memory

We can say he even started some of Maryland’s history

He’ll always be a part of us

His number (34) Lenny Bias

He was so strong and physical

Still in the Cole Field House he’s visable [sic]

— Ronald Daley, Aug. 10, 1986

In the months after, the university was in a state of mourning — and shock. After all, it was homegrown hero Lenny Bias, who helped Maryland secure its first ACC title and who had just been selected No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft.

Bart Greenwald was interning at a PR firm in Washington when D.C. 101’s shock jock, Nino “Grease” Minelli, came on the morning and told listeners Bias had died of an apparent heart attack the previous night.

“Quite honestly, you weren’t positive with this guy what was true and what wasn’t,” said Greenwald, a 1987 university alumnus.

But when he saw the words “Len Bias died” on the teletype machine in the office, Greenwald immediately called fellow Diamondback reporters, including sports editor Dave Grening and assistant news editor Neff Hudson.

It soon became a waiting game. June passed, and then July.

The autopsy report came back: Bias died of a cocaine overdose.

Suddenly, Hudson said, the university became the center of a national story, and hundreds of reporters swarmed onto the campus — all wanting to know: Was there a drug problem at Maryland?

On the campus, a slew of university-affiliated people went in to testify before a grand jury, including Bias’ friend Brian Tribble, who allegedly supplied him with the fatal dosage; his teammates Terry Long and David Gregg, who were with him the night of his death; and even Lefty.

The grand jury report suggested Lefty might have asked an assistant coach to clean out Bias’ room, Hudson said. However, the testimony was unable to be verified and Lefty was not indicted.

“In my opinion, that was the first time he’d ever done it,” Lefty said of Bias’ reported drug use. “I don’t follow him around. Your mother don’t know whether you use. I wasn’t with him all the time.”

He added later: “It was just a terrible accident. I know he wasn’t purposefully killing himself because he was a millionaire for the first time in his life.”

The scrutiny wasn’t over yet, though: It turned out Bias had been 21 credits shy of graduation, and five of the team’s 12 players had failed out that spring, bringing the program’s attention to academics into question.

To this day, Lefty defends his players’ academic performances.

“Of all the players I recruited that stayed for four years, 89 to 90 percent got a degree,” he said.

Now, Lefty admitted, he felt partly responsible that Bias’ academic record says he was missing 21 credits.

“His senior year, he went No. 2 in the draft,” he said of Bias. “All these agents were talking to him; he wasn’t going to class. So the academic adviser said, ‘Coach, you got to tell Leonard to drop his courses or take incompletes because he’s not going to class.’ So I called Leonard in and said, ‘You either got to drop them or take incomplete.’ ‘Aw, Coach, don’t worry about it; I ain’t worried about it.’ But he flunked them all.

“Had he passed his classes senior year, he would have been six credits short. That’s why he was taking summer classes. … Would he have gone to summer school if he didn’t care about his education?”

No matter what he said in 1986, though, Lefty couldn’t convince others that his program cared about academics.

“Lefty called the press and presented [his version and academic data numbers],” Markus said. “And it was sad because you knew the guy was fighting a fight he couldn’t win.”

Lefty might have sensed a change coming, too.

Hudson said he remembers approaching Lefty in the dining hall one October day.

“Coach Driesell,” he recalled his 22-year-old self asking, “what do you say to your critics who say you’ve lost institutional control [of the program]?”

Hudson said Lefty just turned around, gave the young reporter a big smile and said: “I’m having the crab cakes. They’re delicious.”

The next day, Lefty announced before more than 200 reporters he would be resigning to become an assistant athletic director. Then he walked out of Cole Field House, arm in arm with his wife and daughters, one final time.

ABOVE: Lefty leaves Cole Field House arm in arm with Joyce and two of his daughters after he publicly resigned on Oct. 29, 1986. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)

AFTERMATH

 

There was no way for Maryland basketball to move on without Lefty leaving, Hudson said.

While Chancellor John Slaughter and Athletic Director Dick Dull also resigned in the months after Bias’ death, Lefty’s departure attracted the most attention. The coach became the face of a broader institutional problem, Hudson said.

“He was loved, as a basketball coach, and loved by the reporters who covered him,” he said. “Just a larger-than-life kind of guy. He would literally put the ACC trophy on a car and drive it around campus. I mean, my god, how could you not love a guy like that?

“But he was very human. His ego and his arrogance certainly got in the way of this. He built a basketball factory that wasn’t all that worried about grades. But, you know, John Slaughter knew that. Dick Dull knew that. There was some loss of institutional control, and they tried to stem the bleeding by getting one guy away at a time.”

The program wanted to cut ties with Lefty completely — which was obvious from the type of hire they made, Coates said.

“They hired a high school basketball coach [Dunbar’s Bob Wade],” he said. “Do you understand how ridiculous that is? … A high school basketball coach who — outside of Baltimore — really people didn’t have much respect for his coaching ability at the time.

Coates added: “If you’re going to hire somebody, hire Morgan Wootten, who was the head coach at DeMatha, who several years before had been offered the N.C. State job. Morgan coached hundreds of Division I players, and he was right down the street.”

Wade declined to comment for this article.

The death of Len Bias essentially decimated the entire campus community and beyond, Greenwald said.

It devastated the Bias family — Lonise Bias would go on an anti-drugs crusade. It also spurred a national conversation about drugs.

Under Ronald Reagan’s administration, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, or the “Len Bias law,” as a measure in the War on Drugs. The NCAA later would institute mandatory drug testing.

It caused more than legislative action, though, Greenwald added.

After Bias’ death, it would be another 22 years before the Celtics would win an NBA title. At home, this university lost its athletic director, chancellor and basketball coach. Even football coach Bobby Ross left the university for Georgia Tech, where he would win a national championship four years later.

“I’ll never forget reading The Diamondback in 2002, when they won the national championship,” Greenwald said of the men’s basketball team. “There was a quote from a student that said, ‘We’ve been waiting four years for this.’ And it almost brought a tear to my eye because it’s not four years; it’s been 16 years. Len Bias died, and they totally had to rebuild everything in that athletic department.

Hudson added: “Until Bias died, Lefty had become coach for life.”

If Maryland basketball had a founder, it would be Lefty Driesell, because he “created buzz from nothing,” McMillen still contends today.

“He took a moribund program and pumped life into it and put it on the national map,” Pessah said. “In terms of bringing attention and profile and making yourself part of the elite in basketball, Lefty achieved that. But let me qualify this because … it’s important that you do recognize the full body of work of the man.”

Despite the undetachable link between the aftermath of Bias’ death and his name, Lefty did accomplish a lot at Maryland and one mistake shouldn’t have stained those 17 years, Solomon said.

Lefty turned the greater Washington area into a bustling hub for ball players, Solomon said. He helped convert an apathetic student body into one of the most frenzied basketball fan bases in the nation. And he remains the only coach to have two Rhodes Scholars on his team and a player who went to Harvard Law School after college. No one in basketball has done that, McMillen said.

But how close was Lefty to achieving his dream of turning Maryland into the UCLA of the East?

“If you look at UCLA’s record that year [15-14] and Maryland’s record [19-14] that year [1985-86] — they both equaled each other,” Greenwald said. “We said, ‘Yup! We became the UCLA of the East.’”


ABOVE: Lefty holds up his signature V-for-victory sign during Maryland Madness, an offshoot of his Midnight Madness, on Oct. 17, 2014. (Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

‘NOT WHAT I WILL, BUT WHAT YOU WILL’

 

As he reclines in his couch on a breezy Saturday afternoon in April, Lefty says he wasn’t able to make it to a single Maryland basketball game this season, though he wanted to.

He puts his arm around Joyce, whom he will be celebrating 64 years with in December, as he talks about his life during retirement.

(Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)

“It’s been good,” he says. “I didn’t know if I’d live this long.”

Why’s that?

“‘Cause I’m 83. Most people don’t live to be 83.”

So how do you spend your days?

“I do whatever I want,” he says.

It’s true. And for the most part, he always has.

Like when he took out that ad in The Washington Post. Or the time he ordered his players to run a mile at the stroke of midnight. But there always will be one thing out of his reach: an NCAA title.

He says, “I figured that it was God’s will that I not win.” There’s a verse in the Bible that Lefty uses to define his coaching philosophy: “All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” (Mark 14:36)

Winning a championship might have been out of his hands.

And, perhaps, so too is his legacy.

 

Brittany Cheng is a freelance writer and the online managing editor for The Diamondback. Contact her at cheng.brittany@gmail.com, and follow her on Twitter @ChengBrittany.

CORRECTIONS: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified George Solomon’s position at The Washington Post as assistant sports editor; he was assistant managing editor for sports from 1975 to 2003. It also incorrectly stated the federal government had sent in the National Guard; it was the state. It also named St. John’s mascot as the Red Storm and the Nets as the Brooklyn Nets; in the 1970s, St. John’s had the Redmen and the Nets were the New York Nets. The article has been updated to reflect these changes and fix any confusion.

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