Lefty Driesell, colorful Hall of Fame coach who elevated University of Maryland men’s basketball, dies

Charles Grice “Lefty” Driesell, the brash, folksy Hall of Fame coach who elevated the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball program by collecting 348 wins after promising that he would turn the program into the “UCLA of the East,” died Saturday, his family said.

He was 92.

Driesell died at the Virginia Beach, Virginia, home overlooking the Chesapeake Bay where he had lived for years. His health had been declining since his wife, Joyce, died in 2021, said his daughter, Pam Driesell.

“While our hearts are heavy with grief, we also give thanks to God for the 92 years Dad stirred up excitement, laughter, and fun in this world,” said a statement from his four grown children.

“From coaching on the basketball court to recruiting on the road to boating on the Delaware Bay to body surfing at Bethany Beach — there are endless stories and memories of Lefty adventure and antics. True to form, Dad took his life into OT and eventually went out just the way he wanted to – in his home overlooking the Chesapeake Bay and the beach where he courted his lifelong sweetheart, our mom, Joyce Gunter.”

Driesell coached Maryland for 17 seasons, amassing a win total that ranks him second in school history behind Gary Williams.

He was forced out in 1986 after the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias, a star player and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer, and subsequent tension between coaches and administrators over reforms designed to promote athletes’ academic success.

For years, Driesell said he couldn’t help but wonder whether circumstances surrounding Bias’ death prevented him from being named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. But, after years of lobbying and public statements of support by former players, coaches and media personalities, Driesell was elected to the hall in 2018.

In a rambling, rollicking speech that had those in attendance laughing, Driesell opened by saying, “I’m so happy to be here. This is probably one of the happiest days of my wife — my life and my wife, whatever.”

Then came the first self-deprecating joke.

“Is there anybody else in here 86 years old? Raise your hand, will ya?” Driesell said during his speech.

“So listen, if I screw up, wait till you get to 86.”

Driesell won 786 games at four schools — Maryland, Davidson, James Madison and Georgia State — while taking each to the NCAA Tournament. He also was named to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2007.

In December 2021, several of his former players and admirers came together virtually to celebrate his 90th birthday. The group included then-Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and broadcaster Scott Van Pelt, and was co-chaired by former Terps players Tom McMillen and Len Elmore.

“Lefty was the ultimate program builder. He did it at four schools,” McMillen said in an interview. “He and [the late North Carolina coach] Dean Smith were a lot alike. Both were intensely driven and both were big thinkers. Lefty took a sleepy program and put it on the map. He helped create an aura for Maryland.”

Pam said his former players “made such a difference in his life. They have been loyal friends.”

His cause of death was not immediately known. “It’s just been kind of a slow decline over the years since Mom died,” Pam said.

The coach could be underestimated because of his Southern drawl and friendly remarks, and because he often labored in the shadow of better-known coaches such as Smith.

His comments were often calculated. Arriving at Maryland in 1969, he said the Terps were to become the “UCLA of the East.” The Bruins were then college basketball’s dominant program under legendary coach John Wooden.

Driesell, who never won a national championship, never regretted the comment. He said there was nothing wrong with setting the bar high and providing his school with some national publicity.

Among his teams’ best-known games was a 103-100 overtime loss to North Carolina State in the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship that is considered among the best games in conference history.

The Wolfpack collected the lone NCAA Tournament bid available to the conference, and Maryland was left out — despite being ranked No. 4 in the country. The next year, the NCAA expanded the field to 32 teams and began placing at-large teams in the tournament.

Driesell’s wins included a victory over No. 1 Notre Dame on Super Bowl Sunday in 1979. His Terps players that day included Buck Williams, Albert King and Lawrence Boston, all of whom played in the NBA. He said he was particularly proud of coaching two other NBA players — McMillen, a Rhodes scholar who became a member of Congress, and Elmore, who attended Harvard Law School. He coached a second Rhodes scholar, Danny Carroll, at Davidson.

Terps, college basketball figures remember late coach Lefty Driesell

Bias, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 1986 by the Boston Celtics who died before playing an NBA game, might have been his best. “He would dominate my practices,” Driesell said. “I used to say, ‘Get out of here, Leonard. I’ve got to let these other guys learn how to play.’”

A grand jury investigated whether Driesell obstructed the investigation by trying to have Bias’ room cleaned up. But Driesell was not charged, and said: “I didn’t do anything wrong with Len Bias. If somebody says it’s because of Leonard, then they need to know the whole story.”

Driesell said he cried after watching the ESPN documentary “Without Bias” and remained convinced the cocaine that killed Bias represented the player’s only drug transgression. “He didn’t know what he was doing,” Driesell said.

Maryland had not been nationally ranked since 1958 when Driesell took over in 1969.

By his third season, the Terps were ranked and captured the National Invitation Tournament championship. He achieved top 10 rankings in five Maryland seasons — 1973, 1974, 1975, 1980 and 1984, according to the team’s website.

Driesell is widely credited with originating “Midnight Madness,” the popular national tradition of staging pep rally-style celebrations to open the first official day of team practice. In his version, players ran around the football stadium track.

In 1973, he received the NCAA “Award of Valor” for helping rescue children and others from a town house fire near Bethany Beach, Delaware.

Driesell was born on Christmas Day 1931 in Norfolk, Virginia. He graduated in 1950 from Granby High School, where he later returned as coach. He enrolled at Duke, where he played basketball and graduated in 1954. While at the school, he eloped with his wife, Joyce, in 1952.

Driesell’s first collegiate coaching job was at Davidson (1960-1969). The Wildcats won 20 games in his third season and were nationally ranked for the first time in its program history.

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In 1969, Maryland athletic director Jim Kehoe sought to lure Driesell for big money — $14,000 a year.

“It was a five-year contract,” Driesell once recalled. “I was making 12 [thousand dollars] at Davidson. He told me I’d be the highest-paid coach in the ACC. He said, ‘We’ve got Vince Lombardi coaching [the Washington NFL franchise] in the winter and Ted Williams coaching the Senators.’ He said, ‘If you come, we’ll have the big three.’”

Driesell couldn’t resist Kehoe’s pitch, but he had a lot of work to do: The Terps had endured three straight losing seasons before he arrived.

“The [Cole Field House] court was like sitting out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I said, ‘Coach Kehoe, we’ve got to put down some seats around the court to get a little home-court advantage.’”

Kehoe relented, but only after Driesell agreed that basketball coaches and managers would assemble the seating themselves before games.

Driesell retired in 2003 after coaching Georgia State to a 103-59 mark. He kept in close touch with McMillen and many other former players.

Driesell is survived by his son, Chuck, the former men’s basketball coach at The Citadel who lives in Bethesda; and three daughters: Pam of Atlanta; Patti Moynihan of Charleston, South Carolina; and Carolyn Kammeier of West Chester, Pennsylvania.

No information was immediately available about services honoring Driesell’s life.