Lefty

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Greetings from The Booth!

As February comes to an end and we start heading toward college basketball’s conference tournaments and March Madness, I wanted to share a few thoughts about coaching legend Charles “Lefty” Driesell, who passed away recently at age 92 in Virginia Beach.

The Norfolk-born Driesell has an extensive resume. As a player, Lefty led Granby to a state championship in basketball, went on to a full scholarship at Duke, and eventually made his way into the coaching ranks, where he guided Newport News High to a Virginia state title. His success at that level earned Driesell a head coaching job at D-I Davidson. It was there that Lefty posted three Southern Conference tournament championships and five regular season titles between the years 1960-1969.

But most of my memories of Driesell were confined to his time at The University of Maryland. Growing up in this area, Saturday afternoons during the cold months between the Washington Redskins and baseball’s Opening Day were filled with Soul Train, The Pro Bowlers Tour, and The ACC Game of the week (a nod to Jim Thacker & Billy Packer, wherever you are). The Atlantic Coast Conference was a hotbed of basketball, and every Saturday, names like Phil Ford, David Thompson, and Tree Rollins filled my TV screen.

Full disclosure–I was not a Maryland Terrapins fan. Quite the opposite, especially when Driesell boldly proclaimed that he was going to make Maryland “The UCLA of the East.” That never quite happened, although he led the Terps to eight NCAA tournament appearances and a 1972 NIT championship. That era of Maryland hoop featured stars like John Lucas, Len Elmore, and Tom McMillen, and the Terrapins were always a tough “out” in the ACC Tournament.

In 1974, the Terps finished on the short end of one of the greatest college basketball games of all time, losing to Thompson and NC State 103-100 in OT in the ACC Tournament final.  In those days, only the ACC tournament champion advanced to the NCAA tournament, so a great Maryland team was left out in the cold (the Terps elected not to play in the NIT after that heartbreaking loss), despite finishing at number 4 in the AP Poll.

It was under Driesell’s watch in June of 1986 that Terrapins star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, and although the school could find no wrongdoing on his part in the tragedy, Lefty resigned in the Fall of that year as Maryland’s head basketball coach.

Redemption for Driesell would happen in the college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he brough basketball relevance to James Madison University. In his time at JMU, Driesell would lead the Dukes to multiple CAA championships and an NCAA Tournament bid. The Shenandoah Valley was on the basketball map!

But Lefty wasn’t done. He would finish his career with another successful run at Georgia State, where he took the Panthers to the second round of the 2000-01 NCAA Tournament, and to the NIT the following year. He would retire in the middle of the ’02-’03 season, his 41st, with a career record of 786-394. With the possible exception of Maryland, it would be fair to say that Driesell left all his programs in better shape than when he arrived.

But more than that, Lefty was a believer in himself. In 1954, he left the Ford Motor Company to take a high school coaching job, supplementing a sizeable cut in pay by selling encyclopedias. He won that bet on himself, and the memory of Driesell walking off the court with both arms raised in the air, hands in the victory “V” salute will live forever in  Davidson, College Park, Harrisonburg, and Atlanta.

RIP, Charles “Lefty” Driesell…

RW