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    Lefty Driesell, coach who built Maryland into college basketball power, dies at 92

    When Lefty Driesell took the job as the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball coach in 1969, it had been 11 years since the Terrapins had appeared in the NCAA tournament.

    The balding, brash-talking Mr. Driesell immediately declared that his team — which had a record of 8-18 the year before he arrived — “has the potential to be the UCLA of the East.” At the time, UCLA was in the midst of an unprecedented streak in which the team coached by John Wooden, won 10 national titles in 12 years.

    When people stopped laughing, Mr. Driesell set out to accomplish his lofty goals — and nearly succeeded. In his 17 seasons at Maryland, he won more than 500 games and led his team to Atlantic Coast Conference and National Invitation Tournament titles, even if his efforts fell short of a Final Four appearance, let alone an NCAA title.

    With other coaching stints at Davidson College, James Madison University and Georgia State, Mr. Driesell became the first and only coach with 100 victories at four colleges. Broadcaster Billy Packer called him “the greatest program builder in the history of college basketball.”

    Yet his success was often overshadowed by his volcanic temper and off-court controversies, most notably the death of star player Len Bias from a cocaine overdose in 1986. For years — until he was finally inducted in 2018 — Mr. Driesell was considered the best coach not to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

    He was 92 when he died Feb. 17 at his home in Virginia Beach, said his grandson, Ty Anderson. No cause was given.

    Mr. Driesell (pronounced druh-ZELL) revitalized basketball programs everywhere he went and, in 41 years as a head coach, had a losing record only three times.

    At Maryland, Mr. Driesell made the Terrapins a perennial force in the ACC, long considered the most powerful college basketball conference in the country, competing against Virginia, North Carolina, North Carolina State and his alma mater, Duke.

    By the time he retired in 2003, his 786 victories in Division I ranked behind only Hall of Fame coaches Bob Knight, Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith.

    “When you talk about legends and icons in the game of college basketball you’d better include one Charles ‘Lefty’ Driesell,” broadcaster Dick Vitale told Sports Illustrated in 2017.

    In his third season at Maryland, Mr. Driesell invented Midnight Madness, the now-ritual practice of opening the team’s fall practices at the earliest possible moment.

    Three minutes after midnight on Oct. 15, 1971 — the first day basketball teams could practice under NCAA rules — Mr. Driesell had his players on the track at Byrd Stadium for a required one-mile run. The scene was illuminated only by headlights from cars — yet 800 night owl students came out to watch.

    A year later, 3,000 fans showed up for the team’s midnight scrimmage at Cole Field House in College Park, Md., launching a tradition that has since become almost universal on college campuses.

    “I enjoy that people are still doing it,” Mr. Driesell told The Washington Post in 2008. “But I should have got a patent on it.”

    He developed a reputation as one of college basketball’s greatest recruiters, with seven of his Maryland players — Bias, Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, John Lucas, Brad Davis, Buck Williams and Albert King — selected in the first round of the NBA draft. McMillen went on to become a Rhodes scholar and member of Congress; Elmore became a lawyer and TV basketball commentator; Lucas was a head coach in the NBA.

    Mr. Driesell’s teams won the NIT championship in 1972 and the ACC tournament a year later. Yet he never won a national championship and invited plenty of detractors with his on-court antics, such as stomping on his jacket on the sideline after an officiating call against his team. He was angered by a perception that he was a slick, hustling recruiter rather than an effective courtside teacher, such as his colleagues Smith of North Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke or Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps.

    Notoriously thin-skinned, Mr. Driesell repeatedly told critics, “I can coach.”

    When a Sports Illustrated article described Maryland’s “helter-skelter offense,” he sent a letter to the magazine with statistics to prove that his team ran an unselfish, disciplined offense.

    “Once, after a particularly critical column,” Post sports columnist Ken Denlinger wrote in 1983, “Driesell charged me in the Terrapin dressing room, poked a finger in my chest and challenged me to a fight outside Cole Field House. It never came off.”

    Mr. Driesell’s personality, for better and worse, was forged as a young man. While coaching high school basketball in his native Virginia, the affable and persuasive Mr. Driesell worked part-time selling World Book encyclopedias door to door. He seldom took “no” for an answer — and was credited one year with selling more sets of encyclopedias than anyone else in the state.

    “I just kept knockin’ on doors until I found people who wanted to buy what I was sellin’,” he told The Post in 1983.

    He later applied the same relentless charisma to basketball recruiting and coaching.

    “He was just an incredible force,” McMillen, once the country’s most-recruited high school player, told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “He was like a dog that grabs your pant leg and won’t let go. He’s just unyielding.”

    The player who might have been Mr. Driesell’s greatest recruit, however, never played for him. In 1974, Mr. Driesell signed Virginia high school star Moses Malone to a scholarship to play for Maryland. But, on the day classes were to start, Malone defected and signed a professional contract with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association, becoming the first player to go from high school to the professional ranks.

    Malone would have joined a team that Mr. Driesell had built into a national powerhouse. His 1973-74 squad may have been his best ever, but it is remembered more for a game it lost than for the 23 games it won.

    Led by Elmore, Lucas, McMillen and Maurice Howard, the Terrapins dispatched Duke and North Carolina in the first two rounds of the ACC tournament. On March 9, 1974, they played North Carolina State for the conference championship.

    The Terrapins had a record of 23-4 and were ranked No. 4 in the country.

    “Lefty’s team that year was probably as good as 20 national champions,” Krzyzewski told the Athletic in 2018.

    North Carolina State, led by 6-foot-4 all-American David Thompson and 7-foot-4 center Tom Burleson, entered the game as the country’s top-ranked team, with a 25-1 record. Because of conference rules at the time, only the winner would advance to the NCAA tournament.

    Maryland took an early lead and led by five points at halftime. In the second half, N.C. State’s towering Burleson lofted one hook shot after another to finish with a game-high 38 points. When the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation time, the score was tied at 86.

    “I still remember turning around on the bench at one point,” N.C. State coach Norm Sloan told Sports Illustrated decades later, “and just saying out loud, ‘My goodness, this is a hell of a game.’ ”

    Mr. Driesell was reluctant to make any substitutions during the five-minute overtime period: McMillen and Howard scored 22 points apiece, Elmore and Lucas had 18 each. But with seconds remaining in overtime, an exhausted Lucas missed a free throw and threw and errant pass. N.C. State held on to win, 103-100.

    The high-scoring contest, played before the shot clock and three-point shot, is remembered as one of the greatest games in college basketball annals.

    “I guess nobody will ever forget the dang thing,” Mr. Driesell later said.

    Departing from tradition, Mr. Driesell went to the N.C. State bus to congratulate Sloan’s team.

    “I’m proud of all of you,” he said. “You played a great game to beat my team tonight. Now you better go and win the national championship.”

    N.C. State advanced to the final game by defeating seven-time defending champion UCLA in double-overtime, 80-77. The Wolfpack then topped Marquette, 76-64, to win the national title.

    “We wouldn’t have been at the Final Four if we hadn’t escaped that night,” Sloan told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “I tell you, it was a tragedy a team of Maryland’s caliber wasn’t able to participate” in the NCAA tournament.

    Throughout his coaching career, Mr. Driesell was exceptionally close to his players and earned the respect of his peers. He stayed in touch with his players long after they left campus and reportedly paid the tuition of one former player seeking to complete his college degree.

    In 1974, the NCAA presented Mr. Driesell its Award of Valor for his actions a year earlier in Bethany Beach, Del. He and two fishing partners saw flames coming out of a nearby resort complex, broke down a door and rescued at least 10 children from the burning building.

    “Don’t call me a hero,” Mr. Driesell said, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

    But some of the comments he made during his coaching tenure and Mr. Driesell’s devoted support of his players occasionally spilled over into controversy and questionable decisions.

    In 1983, a female student at Maryland accused a player, Herman Veal, of sexual misconduct. Mr. Driesell came under fire when the student said the coach had pressured her to drop the complaint, sparking outrage from the campus women’s center.

    “I don’t care about the women’s center,” Mr. Driesell said. “I’m a men’s center. In my mind, Herman Veal is the victim.”

    Several players were suspended from his team for marijuana possession, but nothing matched the outcry surrounding the 1986 death of Bias from apparent cocaine intoxication, days after he was the second player chosen in the NBA draft.

    It was reported that Mr. Driesell allegedly told an assistant coach to clean up the room where Bias had used cocaine, but he adamantly denied the claim and in fact said nothing should be disturbed. A grand jury investigation cleared Mr. Driesell of any wrongdoing.

    Still, a cloud hung over the program, particularly when it was revealed that five of the Terrapins’ 12 players, including Bias, had flunked out of school after the spring semester in 1986.

    Even though Mr. Driesell had won 348 games in 17 years and had just signed a 10-year contract, Maryland chancellor John B. Slaughter said the university needed “a greater commitment to the development of the young men playing in the program.”

    Mr. Driesell was forced off the sideline and reassigned to an administrative job.

    Ever defiant, Mr. Driesell said: “I’ve got a wonderful program. It’s a beautiful program. It’s a clean program. What more could you want to know?”

    Charles Grice Driesell was born in Norfolk on Dec. 25, 1931. His father was a jeweler, his mother a homemaker.

    As a left-handed, 6-foot-5 forward and center, he won an athletic scholarship to play basketball at Duke University. He and his childhood sweetheart, Joyce Gunter, eloped while Mr. Driesell was an undergraduate.

    His wife died in 2021 after almost 70 years of marriage. Survivors include three daughters, Pamela Driesell Anderson, a Presbyterian minister in Atlanta, Patricia Driesell of Valdosta, Ga., and Carolyn Driesell of West Chester, Pa.; a son, Chuck Driesell, who played for his father at Maryland in the early 1980s and later became a coach, of Bethesda, Md.; and 11 grandchildren.

    After graduating from Duke in 1954, Mr. Driesell had tryouts with the NBA but failed to make a team. He took an office job at a Ford assembly plant in Norfolk, but after two years, he took a 50 percent cut in salary to become a junior varsity basketball coach at his alma mater, Granby High School.

    At Granby and later Newport News High School, he built basketball dynasties before moving on to Davidson College, a small men’s school in North Carolina, in 1960. With a recruiting budget of $500, Mr. Driesell drove around the country in a Chevy station wagon, sleeping overnight at gas stations, with a pistol in ready reach.

    “At dawn he would shave in the rest room,” a 1969 Sports Illustrated story noted, “then express his gratitude for the filling station’s hospitality by purchasing a dollar’s worth of gas.”

    Within three years, he had built Davidson into a basketball program of national renown. In 1966, he recruited the college’s first black player, Charlie Scott, who decided at the last moment to attend North Carolina, where he became the first African American to play for the Tar Heels. Davidson advanced to the NCAA’s Elite Eight in 1968 and 1969, only to be denied a trip to the Final Four both times by the Tar Heels, led by Scott.

    “People say all I could do was recruit,” Mr. Driesell told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “Well, the two greatest players I ever recruited never played for me. Moses Malone went pro. And Charlie Scott just kept breaking my heart.”

    After the Bias debacle at Maryland, Mr. Driesell returned to coaching in 1988. He turned around a flagging program at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., then moved on in 1997 to Georgia State University, where he revived another moribund program, leading the team to a 29-5 record and the NCAA tournament in his fourth season.

    On New Year’s Day 2003, he abruptly retired, saying: “I’m 71 years old. Why am I still doing this?”

    Less than a year earlier, Maryland had won the 2002 NCAA men’s basketball title under coach Gary Williams, finally achieved what Mr. Driesell had set out to do decades earlier.

    After winning the title, Williams received a letter in his office.

    “Gary, YOU have made Maryland the UCLA of the East. Congratulations.”

    It was signed “Lefty.”

    Matt Schudel contributed to this report.

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