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Hall of Fame basketball coach 'Lefty' Driesell dies at 92

He finished with 786 victories over parts of five decades and was the first coach to win more than 100 games at four NCAA Division I schools.
Hall of Fame basketball coach 'Lefty' Driesell dies at 92
Posted at 9:50 AM, Feb 17, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-17 10:50:19-05

Lefty Driesell, the Hall of Fame coach whose folksy drawl belied a fiery on-court demeanor that put Maryland on the college basketball map and enabled him to rebuild several struggling programs, died Saturday. He was 92.

Maryland announced Driesell's death. His grandson, Ty Anderson, an assistant coach at Wofford, told The Washington Post that Driesell died at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Driesell finished with 786 victories over parts of five decades and was the first coach to win more than 100 games at four NCAA Division I schools. He started at Davidson in 1960 before bringing Maryland into national prominence from 1969-86, a stay that ended with the cocaine-induced death of All-American Len Bias.

Driesell then won five regular-season conference titles over nine seasons at James Madison and finished with a successful run at Georgia State from 1997 to 2003.

"His contributions to the game go way beyond wins and losses, and he won a lot," former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Driesell finally made the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. "It's an honor he's deserved for a long time."

Driesell launched the college basketball tradition known as Midnight Madness on Oct. 15, 1971. At three minutes after midnight on the first day of practice as sanctioned by the NCAA, Driesell had his players take a mandatory mile run on the track inside the Maryland football stadium.

The lighting was provided by the headlights of a few cars parked at one end of the stadium. The motivation came from Driesell's prodding and the estimated 800 students who gathered to watch the unpublicized event.

"I've done a lot of crazy things to get attention, but that wasn't one of them," Driesell said years later. "I was just trying to get an early jump on practice. I had no idea what it was going to lead to."

Driesell also helped knock down racial barriers in the college game. He made George Raveling the first Black coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference by hiring him as an assistant in 1969. Driesell's effort to recruit Charlie Scott to play at Davidson helped make the future NBA star become the first African American scholarship athlete to attend North Carolina.

Scott initially committed to Davidson before choosing UNC but acknowledged that Driesell paved the way.

"I think if there had never been a Lefty Driesell, there would never have been a Charlie Scott attending North Carolina," said Scott, who joined the Hall of Fame in 2018 with Driesell. "My commitment to go to Davidson really opened up all the other schools in the recruiting process."

Race played no factor in Driesell's effort to recruit the best players.

"He did so many great things in marketing the game and opened up so many doors for many African Americans players and coaches like myself," said Len Elmore, who played for Driesell at Maryland from 1971-74. "Lefty was a trailblazer and an innovator."

Walking onto the court at Maryland to the tune of "Hail to the Chief," Driesell would thrust both arms in the air — two fingers extended on each hand with the V for victory sign — amid a standing ovation. On the sideline, he would often stomp his foot to show his displeasure with a call, and if things got really intense he would peel off his sports jacket, toss it to the floor and trample it.

Yet, Driesell rarely raised his voice off the court and had a knack for charming the parents of potential recruits with an assuring, homespun style that smacked of his Southern roots.

"He had a big personality, was an excellent recruiter and he helped put Maryland basketball on the map," said Brad Davis, a guard at Maryland from 1974-77 before heading to the NBA.

Driesell was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, but his entry into the Naismith shrine proved more elusive. He was a finalist four times before receiving the necessary 75% vote three months after his 86th birthday. The long snub, many speculated, came because Driesell was forced to resign at Maryland in 1986 after Bias overdosed on cocaine in a campus dorm after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.

Maryland had to pay Driesell for the rest of his 10-year contract because it could find no wrongdoing on his part. But his departure meant Driesell never got to fulfill the declaration he made upon taking over in College Park — he would make Maryland the "UCLA of the East."

Under Driesell, the Terrapins didn't enjoy the success John Wooden had at UCLA. Maryland failed to reach the Final Four during his 17-year stay, but the Terps won or shared five ACC regular-season titles and captured the league tournament in 1984 — on Driesell's fifth trip to the final.

Looking back on his "UCLA of the East" boast, Driesell quipped: "I was kind of drunk or something when I said it. But we were pretty good and we wound up pretty good. We had a lot of great players."

Before Driesell arrived at Maryland, the team was an ACC doormat and had trouble drawing fans to old Cole Field House. After going 13-13 in Driesell's first season, the Terps announced their resurgence on Jan. 9, 1971, with a 31-30 overtime upset of No. 2 South Carolina at home. There was no shot clock then, so Driesell ordered his players to slow the game to a crawl against a team that had defeated Maryland 96-70 just three months earlier.

One of Driesell's best teams never made it to the postseason. In the 1974 ACC championship game, the fourth-ranked Terrapins lost in overtime to No. 1 North Carolina State 103-100 during a time when only the conference champion advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

A week later, a Maryland team featuring future NBA starters Tom McMillen, John Lucas and Elmore turned down a bid to the NIT, which it had won two years earlier. N.C. State went on to win the 1974 NCAA title, ending UCLA's seven-year streak as national champions.

"Lefty's team that year," Krzyzewski said, "was probably as good as 20 national champions."

Born on Christmas Day in 1931, Charles Grice Driesell grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. He was star basketball player for Granby High in Norfolk before attending Duke.

After working at the Ford Motor Co., Driesell took a job as a junior varsity football and basketball coach at Granby in 1954 after convincing his wife, Joyce, that he could withstand the pay cut by also selling encyclopedias. He eventually was promoted to head coach of the varsity team before moving to Newport News High, where he won 57 straight games.

In 1960, he took a job at Davidson, which was coming off an 11th consecutive losing season. He went 9-14 in his debut, one of only two times over an entire season in which he would finish with a losing record as a college coach.

Driesell won three Southern Conference tournaments and five regular-season championships at Davidson over nine years and went 176-65 before being hired at Maryland. He won 348 games with the Terrapins, a long-lasting school record that was finally broken in 2006 by Gary Williams.

Williams won the NCAA title in 2006. When he got home, a note from Driesell was waiting for him. It read: "Gary, YOU have made Maryland the UCLA of the East. Congratulations."

After leaving Maryland, Driesell was hired in 1988 by James Madison, a small Virginia school that finished 10-18 in 1987. He went 16-14 in his first year, 20-11 in his second season and led the Dukes to four straight NIT appearances before going to the NCAA Tournament in 1994.

Driesell compiled a 159-111 record at James Madison and enjoyed continued success at Georgia State. The Panthers were 29-5 in 2000-01 and upset Wisconsin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Two years later, he retired in the early stages of his 41st season with a career record of 786-394. At the time, he ranked fourth in NCAA Division I wins, behind only Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight.

Finally, at age 71, the man affectionately known by many as the Ol' Left-hander had enough.

"I'm just tired and I've got this bad cold and I'm just going to retire," Driesell said. "I'm looking forward to not having a job. I can get up when I want to and do what I want to."

Driesell is survived by his wife and four children. While at Duke, Driesell eloped with Joyce and got married in December 1952.

The couple's only son, Chuck, played for the Terrapins under his father from 1981-85 and became an assistant to his father at James Madison. He was hired as the coach at The Citadel in 2010 and was fired after five losing seasons.

While helping his father at James Madison, Chuck Driesell learned the rigors of coaching.

"Dad gave me a lot of responsibility, and we worked hard," he said. "As a son and as a player, I'm not sure I understood how hard he worked. I figured it out pretty quickly."


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