'It means everything:' Ex-Maryland coach Lefty Driesell elected to Naismith Hall of Fame
Shortly after his introductory press conference in the spring of 1969 at Maryland ended, Lefty Driesell was driving to visit a recruit when one of his assistant coaches asked him about a catchy line Driesell had delivered to the media assembled in College Park that day.
“I said to Coach, ‘What’s this UCLA of the East stuff? We’re overpromising,’ ” George Raveling, who was part of Driesell’s first staff at Maryland, recalled Saturday. “Coach looks at me and said, ‘George, son, in life, the first thing you’ve got to do is sell a dream.’ ”
It was a significant part of Driesell’s 41-year career as an NCAA Division I head coach, including the 17 seasons he spent turning the Terps into, if not the most dominant team on the East Coast, a formidable Atlantic Coast Conference and national power.
On Saturday, the now 86-year-old Driesell was honored accordingly with a dream of his own: making the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was one of 13 selected to the 2018 Class that will be inducted in Springfield, Mass., on Sept. 7.
Driesell, who was fourth with 786 Division I victories when he retired during the middle of the 2002-03 season at Georgia State, was introduced Saturday. He was the only Division I coach who was a finalist this year.
“It means everything,” Driesell said on ESPN. “It’s unbelievable that I’m here with all these great players. I’m the only coach. I think, there’s a lot of coaches that probably belong in here before me. It means all the world to me. It’s the capstone of my professional career."
Driesell credited his wife, Joyce, whom he called “my assistant coach, my first great recruit.” As he has often done, Driesell said that the honor will be shared with others.
“I had a lot of great players,” he said. “Like I’ve said before, when they told me I was in the Hall of Fame, it’s more an honor for my players and my coaches [whom he played for] and my assistant coaches, trainers and managers than it is for me. I’m 86 years old. I ain’t going to be here too long. It’s an honor for them more than I think it is for me.”
Making it on his fourth try: Driesell, one of the oldest living former coaches or players ever to be selected, made it on his fourth try after receiving at least 18 of 24 votes from the Honors Committee. He is also the second Maryland men’s coach, joining Gary Williams, who was inducted in 2014.
The circumstances that led to his departure from College Park — the cocaine overdose death of All-American Len Bias two days after the 1986 draft — was also believed to play a factor in why it took Driesell so long to get in.
“No pun intended — that was the bias against him,” former Maryland All-American Len Elmore said recently.
There is some irony that Driesell’s introduction as a Hall of Fame member came at the Final Four, given that the Terps never made it that far in the NCAA tournament until Williams led them there in 2001 and 2002, winning the title on the second trip.
Stellar 1973-74 team: Driesell’s 1973-74 team, which was ranked fourth when it lost to No. 1 North Carolina State, 103-100, in overtime for the ACC championship in a game many believe was the greatest ever played in college basketball, didn’t even get invited to the NCAA tournament.
The following year, the field was expanded to included at-large teams that didn’t win their conference.
“It was a whole different world back then,” Elmore said. “The flip side is, would [legendary UCLA coach] John Wooden have won 10 championships — or any championships — if he had to deal in today’s world? They thrived in that particular world where they didn’t have a conference tournament and we continually had to beat the No. 1 team in the nation.”
Taking four different schools to NCAA tournament: Driesell was the first Division I coach to win at least 100 games at four different schools, and took all them — Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State — to the NCAA tournament. He is also widely credited with inventing Midnight Madness in College Park in the early 1970s.
“I didn't take over Duke or North Carolina or UCLA,” said Driesell, who played for and also graduated from Duke before becoming a successful high school coach in his hometown of Norfolk, Va. “I took over four programs that were kind of down and I put ’em in the NCAA.”
Said former Maryland star Tom McMillen: “He should have been in a long time ago. He is the best turnaround coach in college basketball history. There’s no question, that’s what he should be remembered for.”
Others in class: Two of his teams at Davidson reached the Elite 8, including in 1969, when the Wildcats lost on a buzzer-beater by North Carolina’s Charlie Scott, whom Driesell had nearly convinced to play for him two years before.
Scott, who went on to become a star in both the ABA and NBA, was among those selected for the 2018 Hall of Fame class that also included former NBA stars Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Ray Allen as well as the WNBA’s first big star, Tina Thompson.
“I'm really happy for Lefty,” Scott said on ESPN. “Lefty was the person who first found Charlie Scott. He was the first one to recruit me, he was the first one who thought I was a good enough basketball player to play major college basketball. Lefty is a special person to me all the time.”
Joked Driesell: “If he had come to Davidson, I probably would have been in here [the Hall of Fame] four, five, eight 10 years ago.”