Lefty Driesell, Maryland coaching legend, dies at 92

The fiery and folksy men’s basketball icon also spent nine years at Davidson

Lefty Driesell speaks during induction ceremonies for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The legendary Maryland coach — who also played at Duke and coached at Davidson — died Saturday at 92. (Elise Amendola / AP Photo)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Lefty Driesell, the Hall of Fame 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. He was 92.

Driesell died at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, his family said.

Maryland honored Driesell with a moment of silence before its game against No. 14 Illinois on Saturday evening. Terrapins players wore throwback uniforms that echoed Driesell’s 1970s heyday at the school.

Driesell finished with 786 victories over parts of five decades and was the first coach to win more than 100 games at four NCAA Division I schools. He started at Davidson in 1960. He went 9-14 in his debut, one of only two times over an entire season in which he would finish with a losing record as a college coach.

Driesell won three Southern Conference tournaments and five regular-season championships at Davidson over nine years and went 176-65 before being hired at Maryland.

He brought Maryland into national prominence from 1969-86, a stay that ended with the cocaine-induced death of All-American Len Bias. Driesell then won five regular season conference titles over nine seasons at James Madison and finished with a successful run at Georgia State from 1997 to 2003.

“His contributions to the game go way beyond wins and losses, and he won a lot,” former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Driesell finally made the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. “It’s an honor he’s deserved for a long time.”

On top of launching Midnight Madness in 1971, Driesell helped knock down racial barriers in the college game. He made George Raveling the first black coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference by hiring him as an assistant in 1969. Driesell’s effort to recruit Charlie Scott to play at Davidson helped make the future NBA star become the first African American scholarship athlete to attend UNC.

Scott initially committed to Davidson before choosing UNC but acknowledged that Driesell paved the way.

“I think if there had never been a Lefty Driesell, there would never have been a Charlie Scott attending North Carolina,” said Scott, who joined the Hall of Fame in 2018 with Driesell. “My commitment to go to Davidson really opened up all the other schools in the recruiting process.”

Race played no factor in Driesell’s effort to recruit the best players.

“He did so many great things in marketing the game and opened up so many doors for many African Americans players and coaches like myself,” said Len Elmore, who played for Driesell at Maryland from 1971-74. “Lefty was a trailblazer and an innovator.”

Walking onto the court at Maryland to the tune of “Hail to the Chief,” Driesell would thrust both arms in the air — two fingers extended on each hand with the V for victory sign — amid a standing ovation. On the sideline, he would often stomp his foot to show his displeasure with a call, and if things got really intense he would peel off his sports jacket, toss it to the floor and trample it.

Yet, Driesell rarely raised his voice off the court and had a knack for charming the parents of potential recruits with an assuring, homespun style that smacked of his Southern roots.

“Lefty was somewhat of a character,” said Gary Williams, the Terps’ coach from 1989-2011, who was at Maryland on Saturday when the 1984 team that won the ACC title was recognized. “When they write the ultimate book on basketball, he’s going to have a couple chapters.”

Driesell was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, but his entry into the Naismith shrine proved more elusive. He was a finalist four times before receiving the necessary 75% vote three months after his 86th birthday. The long snub, many speculated, came because Driesell was forced to resign at Maryland in 1986 after Bias overdosed on cocaine in a campus dorm after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.

Before Driesell arrived at Maryland, the team was an ACC doormat and had trouble drawing fans to old Cole Field House. After going 13-13 in Driesell’s first season, the Terps announced their resurgence on Jan. 9, 1971, with a 31-30 overtime upset of No. 2 South Carolina at home. There was no shot clock then, so Driesell ordered his players to slow the game to a crawl against a team that had defeated Maryland 96-70 just three weeks earlier.

One of Driesell’s best teams never made it to the postseason. In the 1974 ACC championship game, the fourth-ranked Terrapins lost in overtime to No. 1 NC State 103-100 during a time when only the conference champion advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

A week later, a Maryland team featuring future NBA starters Tom McMillen, John Lucas and Elmore turned down a bid to the NIT, which it had won two years earlier. NC State went on to win the 1974 NCAA title, ending UCLA’s seven-year streak as national champions.

“Lefty’s team that year,” Krzyzewski said, “was probably as good as 20 national champions.”

Driesell is survived by four children. While at playing at Duke as a student in the early 1950s, Driesell eloped with Joyce and got married in December 1952. She died in 2021.

CAPTION: Lefty Driesell speaks during induction ceremonies for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The legendary Maryland coach — who also played at Duke and coached at Davidson — died Saturday at 92. (Elise Amendola / AP Photo)