More than 30 years after leaving Maryland, and more than 15 years after retiring from coaching, Lefty Driesell is officially going to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Driesell ranks ninth in college history with 786 career wins over 41 seasons. He’s the only coach to have 100 victories with four different programs (Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State). While he had been named a finalist in February for the fourth time, he’d fallen short of induction in his previous three attempts.
When Driesell came to College Park in 1969, the program had one NCAA tournament appearance to its name and was coming off an 8-18 finish under Frank Fellows. Pushing to make Maryland the “UCLA of the East,” Driesell went 13-13 in his first year, then reeled off 16 straight winning seasons, as the Terps became a regular contender in the stacked ACC.
During 17 years at Maryland, Driesell went to the NCAA tournament eight times, although he never advanced beyond the Elite Eight. He was a two-time ACC Coach of the Year, and he coached two first-team All-Americans. Overall, he went 348-159 with the Terps, setting a program record for career wins (which Gary Williams would later surpass).
Perhaps Driesell’s most lasting contribution to college basketball came on Oct. 15, 1971, the first day the NCAA allowed teams to practice. Driesell — who later told Sports Illustrated he was “just trying to get an early jump on practice”— had the Terps run a mile on the track a few minutes after midnight. The spectacle attracted hundreds of students, and within a few years it evolved into Midnight Madness, now a mainstay across the country.
Driesell’s tenure at Maryland ended unceremoniously in 1986. After former Terps star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose, the news broke that Bias had failed several of his classes and was 21 credits short of graduation despite spending four years at the school. In October of that year, Driesell resigned from his coaching position, saying at a news conference, “I do not want to coach if I am not wanted.”
Maryland wasn’t the beginning of Driesell’s career — he’d coached Davidson for nine seasons prior to his arrival in College Park — and it wouldn’t be the end of it, either. In 1988, he became James Madison’s coach, winning five CAA regular-season titles in nine years. When the Dukes fired him in 1997, he went to Georgia State, where he spent five full seasons before abruptly retiring in January 2003.
Support for Driesell’s Hall of Fame case has increased in recent years. In 2016, former Terps Tom McMillen and Len Elmore wrote a guest column for The Diamondback arguing he deserved to be inducted. Later that year, his friends and family launched a website, leftyhof.com, making the case for his enshrinement.
Even Driesell’s rivals have shown their support. Former Georgetown coach John Thompson has said Driesell was “one of the best that ever did it,” and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski deemed him “one of the top coaches ever in the college game.” Former UNC coach Dean Smith said he found it “impossible to believe” that Driesell wasn’t in the Hall of Fame.
According to the Naismith website, coaches become eligible for induction after their 25th season, which for Driesell was 1984-85. He had to wait a lot longer than he should have, but at 86, Driesell is set to finally become a member of basketball’s most hallowed institution.