HILL: Lefty Driesell and the passing of the ACC golden era

FILE - University of Maryland head basketball coach Charles "Lefty" Driesell shouts encouragement to his team as they clash with Duke University at College Park, Md., Feb. 2, 1974. Lefty Driesell, the coach whose folksy drawl belied a fiery on-court demeanor that put Maryland on the college basketball map and enabled him to rebuild several struggling programs, died Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. He was 92. (AP Photo/William Smith, File)

When a prominent person passes away, people write nice syrupy homages titled “Remembering So-and-So.”

How do you write such a thing when someone is as unforgettable as Coach Lefty Driesell? It is like he never left. He retired decades ago but it seems like he must have still been coaching somewhere at age 92.

The most seasoned of Tobacco Road basketball fans will remember the great Davidson Wildcat teams he brought to the Triangle in the 1960’s. Fred Hetzel, Mike Maloy, Dick Snider ― Lefty had “little ole Davidson” ranked pre-season #1 in Sports Illustrated in 1964 which was no small feat given UCLA under John Wooden was right at the beginning of their decade-long dynastic run.

After a 27-3 record and #3 ranking in 1969, Driesell up and left for Maryland which was a backwater for college basketball. Lefty promised to make Maryland “The UCLA of the East” ― and he darn near did. Had it not been for David Thompson and Tommy Burleson having the game of his life in the 1974 ACC championship game ― universally recognized as THE greatest ACC basketball game ever ― Maryland might have won their first national title instead of NC State and replaced UCLA as the dominant power in college basketball.

My father was assistant AD at Duke when Lefty was playing center for the Blue Devils from 1950 to 1954. He said he had helped Lefty get a job coaching a JV team at Carr Junior High School next to Durham HS during college to earn a little extra money.

Dad was in charge of handing out game day tickets to all athletes and, most importantly, those little red meal tickets. When he graduated — with honors, no less — Driesell kept two of them in his wallet. “You never know when you might get fired in coaching” he told my father. “But when I do, at least I will know I can come to Duke and get a free meal for me and my missus!” (with whom he had eloped and gotten married during college).

Bones McKinney at Wake Forest and Lefty Driesell were the top entertainers when it came to coaching personalities in the South. Tall and lanky, both would flail their arms wildly, stomp their feet and get mad at the refs for all of the “bad calls” they got at Cameron Indoor Stadium which would only further energize the already-rabid home crowd.

Being a Duke grad, Lefty was subject to special ridicule by the always-antagonistic Duke students. A group would sit behind the bench in skull caps to tease Coach Driesell about his bald pate ― except they painted a fuel gauge on them with the arrow pointing to zero. In the aftermath of Watergate, two students would carry a huge banner around the court which read in huge blue letters: “Duke has only made two mistakes ― Richard Nixon and Lefty Driesell!”

But Driesell could recruit. He stole Durham’s own John Lucas right out from under the noses of Duke and Carolina. Had it not been for a particularly ill-timed racial slur made by the owner of the Soda Shop in downtown Davidson, Driesell probably would have signed Charlie Scott to play for the Wildcats and knocked the Tar Heels out of two successive Eastern Regional finals in 1968 and 1969 instead of the other way around.

Driesell said a “moral victory” after a loss “was like kissing your sister.” He hated traveling every year to the ACC Tournament in Greensboro because North Carolina was home court advantage for The Big Four teams. He vowed to take the trophy and bolt it to the hood of the biggest Cadillac he could find and drive it around the whole state after he finally won it in 1984 ― which would have been the greatest stunt ever.

In 2005 at the ACC Tournament in Washington, D.C., I saw Coach Driesell leaving the MCI Center after J.J. Redick led Duke to another title. I introduced myself and asked him if he really did keep those two meal tickets in his wallet from Duke over fifty years ago.

“Sure did. Never knew when I might get fired from a coaching job and needed to get a meal for me and my wife!” was all he said as he smiled and walked away in the crowd.

At a time when college athletics is being supplanted by big-time corporatism and coaches assume all of the warmth and congeniality of AI-generated automatons because of their fear of being canceled by anything they say and do, Lefty Driesell can be fondly remembered as one of the giants of the bygone golden era of the ACC.