Allegany Communications Sports

We used to sit in Cole Field House most weekdays reading the different newspapers that were suddenly to our avail — the Washington Post, the great Washington Star, the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore News-American, the New York Times and our own campus newspaper, the Diamondback.

We usually found ourselves in Cole at roughly the same time each day, staying out of the heat or the cold, depending on the season, and, most importantly (but, in retrospect, not really), staying out of class.

It would be dark and quiet, and rather peaceful, with the only sounds coming from a health class taking place or the soft shuffles of the joggers running the upper ring of the William P. Cole, Jr. Student Activities Building.

But then there were the sounds of dress shoes approaching, and out of nowhere popped Jerry Claiborne, the University of Maryland head football coach at the time.

Through the 1970s, Claiborne had made Maryland football matter for the first time in nearly 20 years, making the Terps an ACC power and a nationally-ranked program, and he would one day be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

We would look up from our papers and see the great football coach, a man of gentlemanly demeanor, as he politely greeted folks along his way, and, then, in an instant, go right back to our newspapers.

Then there were the times we heard the sound of cadence, the unmistakable sound of pomp and circumstance. Like the sound of the crack of the bat, it grabbed you and came with the stirring gait of a field commander marching his troops.

It was Lefty Driesell, the men’s basketball coach at Maryland, and he was on his way to someplace very important because he always walked with a clip that led you to hear the strains of “Hail to the Chief,” the song that only a sitting U.S. president and the Maryland basketball coach at that time dared enter a room to.

He merely could have been going for a cup of coffee but, by gosh, it didn’t seem that way with the pace he was keeping, and down our newspapers would go once more. And we watched him. We watched him as he walked all the way to the other side of the concourse.

We watched him as we leaned forward as far as we could without falling out of our seats. We watched him until he was completely out of sight. For even though this happened most days of our mid-morning siestas at Cole, each time you saw him and each time you were in the presence of Charles G. “Lefty” Driesell, it was special. It was a moment, and it was memorable. He is the first person we had ever been around who was truly larger than life.

We went to Cole because it was cool, and not just the temperature. It was the coolest place to be. It was the only place to be on campus. Even with nothing but the P.E. classes going on at the time, you felt good there. You felt right there. You felt part of the family there. You felt as though you were needed there, and that you belonged there.

Lefty drew you there and made you feel that way there. He made you feel that way at Maryland. He made the University of Maryland a destination point.

He is one of the greatest basketball coaches who ever lived, and on Sunday afternoon when the university honored the 92-year-old Naismith Hall of Fame coach and his Maryland teams during the Terps’ 61-59 loss to Michigan State at Xfinity Center, his marching along the concourse of Cole on those faraway days, and my friends and I finding ourselves completely hypnotized to even be in his presence is what I thought of.

That Lefty was the greatest recruiter and a terrible coach is the biggest myth and one of the meanest notions in college basketball history. He said, “Ah kin coach,” and, brother, he could coach.

He coached with players nobody else wanted to coach, with the name Len Bias coming immediately to mind. And he coached at places where nobody else would dare coach, beginning with that commuter school not far from the nation’s capital, the University of Maryland.

Lefty changed all of that — not just Maryland basketball, but the entire university. Lefty Driesell put the entire University of Maryland on the map, and if you don’t believe that you’re either too young to have been there or just too dense to have understood.

Perhaps in the end that would be his undoing at Maryland. Certainly, nobody who was there to hear it will ever forget his “I’m in charge of the men’s center” comment. He was larger than life, but, perhaps, he had become larger than Lefty. But understand, not many of us would have been there to begin with had it not been for Lefty.

He would unjustly be made the university scapegoat for Bias’ death, even though nobody outside of the Bias family loved and continues to love Leonard Bias the way Lefty does. Certainly, Bias’ death was the reason he was kept out of the Hall of Fame for so long, which was every bit as unjust.

He was fourth with 786 Division I victories when he retired in 2002-03 and 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.

“He was one of the most innovative coaches ever to coach the game of basketball,” South Carolina-Upstate head coach Dave Dickerson, a player on Driesell’s final Maryland team, said. “… He was the best at knowing, seeing and making the next (thing) happen in college basketball.”

He was the best at filling a room and making anything or everything happen, merely by walking through a near-empty Cole Field House and putting to mind the song heard only by a sitting U.S. president or the one-time head basketball coach at the University of Maryland whenever they entered a room.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT