Lefty Driesell honored by former Maryland men’s basketball players, Gary Williams, Kevin Willard

COLLEGE PARK — The stories about late Maryland and Hall of Fame coach Charles Grice “Lefty” Driesell were plentiful.

“He would always say to the guys, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get,’” said Keith Gatlin, a former guard on the 1984 Terps squad that captured the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship. “I still live by that today.”

“What I got from him mostly was about being a teammate and understand that it’s not only you,” said Jeff Baxter, another guard on that 1984 team that was recognized during halftime of Saturday night’s 85-80 loss to No. 14 Illinois at Xfinity Center. “When I came out of high school, I was ‘Da Man,’ and when I got here, he said, ‘Jeff, there are other members of the team besides you.’”

“When they write the ultimate book on basketball, he’s going to have a couple of chapters because everybody felt that they knew Lefty,” fellow Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams said.

The tributes to Driesell flowed after Saturday morning’s announcement that the venerable coach had died at the age of 92 at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In 17 seasons at the helm, he guided Maryland to a 348-159 record, eight NCAA Tournament appearances, the 1972 National Invitation Tournament championship, the 1984 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament crown, and ACC regular-season titles in 1975 and 1980.

Before Driesell succeeded Frank Fellows in 1969, the Terps had not been nationally ranked since 1958. By the start of the 1971 season, they were ranked sixth in the country.

Williams, who is the only Maryland coach to rank ahead of Driesell in victories with 461, said Driesell refused to take no for an answer, and that included the notion that the school couldn’t compete with national powerhouses such as North Carolina and UCLA.

“That takes some guts to do that. Obviously, Lefty had that ability,” Williams said. “He was just great for the university, the state of Maryland.”

Driesell was the first NCAA coach to amass at least 100 wins at four different stops: Davidson (176 from 1960 to 1969), Maryland, James Madison (159 from 1988 to 1997) and Georgia Southern (103 from 1997 to 2003). His career record is 786-394 for a winning percentage of .666, and his number of Division I victories ranked fourth all-time when he retired in 2003 and currently ranks 15th.

Current Terps coach Kevin Willard quipped that during the four or five conversations he had with Driesell, “I think he told me his record quite a few times.” Willard said Driesell’s affection for the university was apparent.

“He had so much love for Maryland,” Willard said. “He always talked about Maryland, but more than anything, he would always ask me about my family or talk about his kids. … I always enjoyed more the fact that the conversation would get to [his son] Chuck or his kids or my kids.”

Driesell was voted Coach of the Year nine times in four different conferences. He was elected in 2018 to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Before Saturday’s game, a member of the university’s athletic communications division asked students who had arrived early to practice their dance mob rendition to throw up Driesell’s signature double-V signs before and during a pregame moment of silence for the late coach. At least one fan yelled, “Thank you!” at the start, and another shouted, “Amen!” at the end.

Baxter said Driesell made sure his players always enjoyed “top-notch” treatment. But that also meant that he expected “top-notch” effort from them.

“We would be losing a game or have lost a game, and he would turn to us and say, ‘I’m going to find me five,’” Baxter said. “So of course everybody gets all nervous and starts thinking, ‘That means we’re losing our starting spot,’ or, ‘He’s taking us out of the game.’ Right then and there, we would become motivated, and we would get going.”

Former forward Terry Long said Driesell set a high bar for his frontcourt players because Driesell was a center at Duke.

“He was always hard on us big guys in the post,” Long said. “He wanted us to be physical and hard, and one of his biggest things was, ‘You’ve got to be like Buck [Williams]. You’ve got to be mean and nasty.’ That was one of the things that I remember and cherish about his style of coaching.”

Off the court, Driesell established lifelong bonds with his players. One of Gatlin’s favorite memories was spending weekends with Driesell and his family, playing one-on-one with Chuck Driesell in the driveway on Saturdays and attending church with the family on Sundays.

“He was way before his time,” Gatlin said. “With the kids now, you have to connect before you can correct, and he really connected with us more so off the court.”

People often mistook Driesell’s Southern drawl for a lack of intelligence. Gatlin and former forward Herman Veal said Driesell would use that to his advantage on the recruiting trail, often targeting and winning over the mothers of potential players.

“He could throw on that old country boy [look], but when you sat down and spoke with him, you knew you were in his presence,” Veal said. “He had a master’s degree [from William and Mary]. Lefty was no dummy. Lefty was as dumb as a fox, as we would say.”

Driesell is recognized as the architect behind “Midnight Madness,” the pep rally-type celebrations to open the first official day of team practice that spread nationally. As legend has it, Driesell organized a one-mile run around the track for his players inside the university’s football stadium at 12:03 a.m. on Oct. 15, 1971, that drew 1,000 onlookers.

Driesell also convinced athletic director Jim Kehoe to put seats around the court inside Cole Field House to create more of a homefield advantage for the Terps. Williams said Driesell’s ideas didn’t remain in College Park very long.

“A lot of coaches benefited from him because we as coaches steal from him,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that Lefty did that helped a lot of programs across the country.”

Willard echoed that sentiment, saying, “Obviously, Lefty was a huge part of Maryland basketball, but he was also a really big part of college basketball. So it’s tough when you lose a legend, especially at your school, but I think college basketball today really lost somebody that gave a lot to the game of basketball. So we just want to let Lefty’s family know that we said a prayer for him before the game.”