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Perspective | Lefty Driesell was a character, a comic, and an all-time great coach

Perspective | Lefty Driesell was a character, a comic, and an all-time great coach

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Among the many descriptions people have come up with for Lefty Driesell, the best one came my late colleague, longtime Post columnist Ken Denlinger.

Lefty, he wrote in 1984, was “God’s unique [Christmas] gift to the world” in 1931. Unique indeed.

Lefty died Saturday morning at 92, after as unique a life as anyone has ever led.

He was a great, yet often underrated coach. He won 786 games and reached the Elite Eight four times — twice at Davidson and twice at Maryland. But he had the misfortune to coach in the ACC for 17 years against Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, Norman Sloan and his former pupil, Terry Holland — who, among all of those who did Lefty imitations, did the best one of all.

He was also part of what was considered at the time the greatest college game ever played, the 1974 ACC championship game between Maryland and North Carolina State. The Wolfpack won 103-100 in overtime in a game played with no shot clock, no three-point shot and virtually no turnovers.

That was the last season in which only conference champions went to the NCAA tournament, what was then a 25-team event. After the State players got on their bus, they looked up to see Lefty standing in front of them.

“Men, I just wanted to tell you I thought you played one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I was proud of my team and I’m proud of you. You’re a great team. I hope you win the national championship. You deserve it.”

The Wolfpack won the championship after upsetting Bill Walton and UCLA in the semifinals.

Lefty’s greatest rival — and nemesis — was Smith. Years ago, when the NCAA was considering adding a third referee, I asked Lefty how he felt about it.

“I’m against it,” he said.

“Because that way, when I play Dean,” he said, “It’ll be eight against five instead of seven against five.”

One year when Maryland was playing Carolina in Carmichael Auditorium, Terps assistant coach Dave Pritchett walked into the bathroom and found Lefty standing on a toilet seat.

“Coach, what in the world are you doing?” Pritchett asked.

“I just know Dean’s got a microphone here somewhere,” Lefty said.

Yes, Lefty was paranoid. In that sense, he was like most coaches — only more so.

He was also funny. Once, when introducing Dean at a banquet in Hawaii, he said, “Dean Smith’s the only coach in history to win 800 games and be the underdog in every one of them.”

And yet, when word began to circulate that Dean had dementia, the coach he heard from most often was Lefty. “He called at least once a week,” Smith’s wife, Linnea, said. “Even when Dean was fading, Lefty could still make him laugh.”

Lefty’s most repeated line was the one from his opening news conference in College Park, when he declared Maryland could become “the UCLA of the East.”

No one has ever done that, but Maryland did beat UCLA in Cole Field House in December of 1982. Of course that was the same night that Chaminade beat top-ranked Virginia in Hawaii and Maryland’s victory became a footnote.

It was Gary Williams who finally took Maryland to the promised land, winning the national title in 2002. Williams and Lefty had their differences over the years but eventually became friends.

“I’m not sure if anyone ever turned a program around faster than Lefty turned Maryland around,” Williams said Saturday morning. “I was there just before he got there, and playing in Cole Field House was like playing in an old, dark museum.

“He came in 1969 and three years later they won the NIT when it was still a big deal. Then they played in that classic game in ’74. He put seats on the floor and the fans lit up the place every night.

“He started Midnight Madness. He made Maryland matter. When they write the book someday about the game’s all-time giants, he has to be one of them.”

Lefty is still the only college coach to win more than 100 games at four schools: Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State. He also took all four to the NCAA tournament. In 2001, after Georgia State upset Wisconsin in the first round, someone asked Lefty to describe the differences between coaching in the ACC and coaching at a mid-major like Georgia State.

“Mid-major,” Lefty roared. “Mid-major! I ain’t never been mid-anything. Go over and ask Wisconsin if we’re mid-major.”

Lefty was forced to resign at Maryland in the wake of Len Bias’s death. An urban legend grew that Lefty had wanted to clean the room of any evidence that Bias died of a cocaine overdose, but a grand jury cleared Lefty of any wrongdoing.

Largely because of that fiction, it took Lefty until 2018 to get into the Hall of Fame. I wrote about that injustice frequently before finally figuring out that no one cared what I thought. I called former NBA commissioner David Stern and asked for help, knowing people did care what he thought. He agreed to look into it.

Sure enough, Lefty got in that spring. I have no illusions as to why it happened when it happened.

Soon after the announcement, I got a call from Lefty. “I’d really like to invite you as my guest,” he said. “But they only give me 10 seats and I have 11 grandchildren.”

Lefty had his battles through the years with Georgetown Hall of Famer John Thompson. And yet, when Lefty was finally inducted into the Hall, he was escorted to the podium by Thompson and Krzyzewski. It was Krzyzewski who gave the induction speech.

“I honestly believe if Maryland hadn’t made him the scapegoat in the Bias case, he might have been the all-time winningest coach,” Krzyzewski said on Saturday. He was that good.

“I wish I could have spent more time with him the last few years,” Krzyzewski continued. “We talked all the time. I loved hearing his voice. He and [wife] Joyce were such an all-American couple. Four kids, grandchildren, great grandchildren. They were great people.”

Joyce and Lefty, high school sweethearts in Newport News, Va. were together for 70 years. Once, doing a magazine piece on Lefty, I discovered for all his self-deprecating talk, he had been an honor student as a Duke senior.

When I asked him how that had been possible he said, “that’s because Mama [Joyce] wrote all my papers for me.”

Joyce died suddenly while making dinner in April of 2021. “I never thought she’d go first,” Lefty said to me a few days later. “Never.”

Not surprisingly, he was never quite the same, although his mind was as sharp as ever. He called often with ideas on how to fix college basketball. The only noticeable difference was that he started calling me “John” instead of “Faahnsteen.”

Several years ago, Chuck, who is now the coach at the Maret School in Northwest Washington, had a player named Luka Garza. After seeing him play, Lefty called Maryland’s Mark Turgeon and Krzyzewski and urged them to check Garza out. They both did — in a token matter. Garza landed at Iowa.

His sophomore year, Garza scored 20 points in an NCAA tournament first-round win over Cincinnati. It was an afternoon game. Perfect column for me: D.C. kid makes good.

I called Lefty. He answered on the first ring: “Faahnsteen,” he said. “I told you he could play.”

One story that sums him up best happened on Halloween night 1984. I made a recruiting visit with Lefty and assistant coach Ron Bradley to a Dunbar senior named Sean Alvarado, who lived in Anacostia.

As we got out of the car, about a dozen little kids ran up to us screaming, “Trick or treat!”

Lefty pulled out his billfold and peeled off bills until all were gone.

As the kid ran off, Lefty shook his head, laughed and said, “Damn, I hope I didn’t have any big bills on there.”

Typical Lefty: He’d give away his last dollar and laugh about it. On and off the court, he was a unique gift. And he sure could coach.

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