By Tom McMillen and Len Elmore
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame welcomed its latest group of inductees this past week in Springfield, Massachusetts, and once again a coach who eminently deserves to be there, Charles “Lefty” Driesell, was conspicuously absent from the lineup.
This omission is especially startling because few people have contributed as much to basketball as Lefty. “Coach,” as we called him, had many accomplishments in his 17 seasons at Maryland. He compiled a 348-159 record — the school’s top winning percentage for men’s basketball — and coached six of the final Top 10 teams at Maryland. He led the Terps to an ACC title, the National Invitation Tournament Championship and more victories at Cole Field House than any other coach. At Maryland, he was twice ACC Coach of the year, and in 2007, he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball of Fame. He is also in the University of Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame and has received many other honors and awards.
However, his achievements are not confined to Maryland. He is the only Division I coach in history to win more than 100 games while coaching at four vastly different schools — Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State. He took each of the teams he coached to the NCAA tournament and was named Coach of the Year in each of the four conferences. His 786 Division I career wins ranked fourth-highest in NCAA history when he retired in 2003 — behind only Dean Smith, Bobby Knight and Adolph Rupp — while today’s coaches have the luxury of playing more regular season games. Most significantly, he accomplished all of this while running clean programs with no NCAA investigations.
Coach also showed leadership in hiring George Raveling in 1969, the first African-American coach in ACC history, thus paving the road to diversity in coaching and other current leadership positions in the ACC. He coached three players who participated on the U.S. Olympic basketball team, two ACC Athletes of the Year and had seven players drafted among the top picks for the NBA. In addition, he is the only coach in college sports to have coached two Rhodes Scholars and a Harvard Law graduate. We always found that Lefty was interested in our classroom performance, and indeed, his record shows that his players had one of the highest graduation rates in the NCAA. When evaluating the merit of a coach, the impact on the futures of those who played for and learned from him ought to be an indispensable factor in determining Hall-of-Fame worthiness.
Coach made his mark in other ways as well. At Maryland, he was instrumental in increasing student support resulting in home attendance records. Lefty originated the idea of Midnight Madness, thereby turning the start of the practice season into a celebration to encourage support of the team, an event that has since multiplied to become a tradition at colleges nationwide. In sum, Lefty’s varied impact on the institution of college basketball has few parallels.
When Lefty walked onto the Cole Field House court during the years we played, the band played “Hail to the Chief,” and for good reason. Through hustle, hard work and superior coaching skills, Lefty quickly turned a floundering Maryland basketball program, one that had just two ranked teams in the 46 seasons before he arrived, into one of the top programs in the nation. We won a national championship in 1972 at a time when the NCAA and NIT tournaments combined were hugely competitive because they allowed far fewer teams (41) to participate than the current NCAA tournament alone (68).
Coach had a distinguished and exceptional career. It is time for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame’s nominating committees to recognize what he achieved and put him among the other greats of basketball, with whom he has proven that he belongs.