Maryland plays in a difficult conference--perhaps the most difficult in the country. The UPI poll, taken among college coaches themselves, lists three of the seven ACC teams in its top 20--North Carolina is third, Maryland 10th and Virginia 18th--and a former conference member, South Carolina, is ranked fourth.
Home court advantage is everything, and Driesell has apparently done everything in his power to make Cole Field House a roaring snakepit. The V-for-victory signs, the distinctive "Lefty stomp" the Hollywood director's chairs on the sidelines with his name and those of his assistants painted on the back, the braless cheerleaders who yell BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE whenever an opponent dribbles the ball before a foul shot, the pep band playing "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Hail to the Chief"--all of these are an integral part of the Driesell hype--a determined program to build local interest to a fever pitch. Ringling Brothers-style.
Yet Lefty is quiet, even modest after the game. When he loses, he has little to say. When he wins, he says less. But he must win. It is his credo, the sole justification for the license he has taken as the most demanding coach in Maryland history.
The show continues throughout the game, too. Driesell is everywhere--stomping when a referee's decision goes against him, storming onto the court to protest a call, diving on his belly on the sidelines to get closer to the action, roaming up and down the boundary of the court, screaming, cheering, bellowing in his downhome Norfolk, Virginia accent, cajoling his players, lambasting officials--and the fans devour all of it greedily. It's all in the contract. All part of the package that you pay for when you hire Driesell.
"I think I have to try anything to build enthusiasm, to get the team and the fans interested in winning." Driesell says. "If I did anything less. I think I would be failing the players, the fans, and myself. When the quality of the players and the program improves, they won't need this extra incentive. Then the strategies become less important."
But the Driesell brand of showmanship depends on Maryland winning for its validity, and if the Terrapins don't win, or don't win impressively. Driesell is made out to be a buffoon. After the Terrapins had compiled six marginally impressive victories in seven games against weak competition in December, and lost the seventh by 20 points at Virginia, Sports Illustrated staffer Curry Kirkpatrick unloaded on Driesell and Maryland with a fairly unbridled display of sarcasm.
"Maryland was going to be the best this and the biggest that, but what it came up as was a victim of foot-in-mouth disease. For a while the case looked fatal, but then Lefty Driesell spoke even louder... What can be said about a sophomore basketball team that died?... The young Terrapins, and in particular Tom McMillen, have been praised, pampered, and publicized so much by their loquacious coaching stall--Charles G. Lefty Driesell and his trusty sidekick. George (The Rave) Ravelin--that they were in real danger of becoming the most overrated team since Wayne and Shuster."
Driesell claimed not to have seen the piece by Kirkpatrick, and said that his players hadn't said anything to him about it. He may or may not have been playing straight with the press, but then, that seems to be his way. He has denied frequently the statement he is alleged to have made about Maryland aspiring to be the UCLA of the East, and refuted twice something he apparently said in early December to a member of the Washington press corps about Elmore resembling Bill Russell. When the reporter maintained that Dreisell had made the comparison, the coach retorted, "you weren't talking to Dreisell, then."
Driesell is a master at covering his tracks, and his recent public pronouncements have been decidedly low-key. As it turned out, the Sports Illustrated article may have been a little hasty. Without much difficulty at all Maryland won the invitational tournament, which Driesell had predicted would be taken by St. John's. The Terrapins led Western Kentucky by 20 points at the half and eased to a 90-69 triumph. Against St. John's, which had defeated Harvard by six points on the previous night, Maryland romped effortlessly, leading by 12 points midway through the game. The Redmen had been ranked eighth going in to the tournament: Maryland was 14th. It was Driesell's first important victory of the season, and he achieved it despite substituting liberally from the very first.
"Now maybe we'll get some recognition instead of criticism," he said after the championship game, and when the ratings came out on Monday. Maryland had cracked the top 10.
Clearly, one good game does not make a season, especially when you've already been whipped in your first conference game. Yet it is difficult to envision how a Driesell team could lose at Cole Field House unless it came up against an incomparably superior opponent. The wall-shattering roar that bursts forth whenever anyone wearing a Maryland uniform does anything is almost unearthly. It begins as soon as the first Terrapin comes on the court for warmups, and it builds ceaselessly until the team leaves the floor two hours later. It is worth at least ten points against a good team, as much as twenty against someone like Western Kentucky.
And even if Maryland fares poorly over the regular season, the team will have a reprieve in the form of the ACC playoff in March. Last year a North Carolina team that won the League title over a 14 game season lost it to South Carolina in a three game knockout tournament. Instead of going to the NCAA playoffs, where the other regular-season conference champions were, the Tarheels had to settle for the NIT at New York, which they won easily.
Driesell is well aware of the investment that Maryland alumni, fans and athletic officials have made in him, and consequently, leaves nothing to chance. The top school boy prospect in the nation last winter, 6-9 Tom Roy, plays for the Maryland freshmen now, along with two other high school All-Americans. There is an academic counselor on the athletic department staff, although a quarter of Driesell's squad is majoring in either recreation or physical education. And the team is incredibly well-publicized. Since it is situated between Baltimore and Washington. Maryland attracts press coverage from both cities, as well as extensive radio audiences. A year ago. Only one radio station bothered to broadcast Maryland games. Now you can hear the Terrapins on 29 stations in Washington, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Half of the Maryland schedule will be televised, three of the games nationally. Driesell, besides his weekly television show, does post-game radio interviews for WMAL. The game program runs to 140 pages, and even the beer ads mention the basketball team. There are 13 pictures of Driesell inside. The man is omnipresent.
But the difference between the Driesell publicity hype of last winter, and that of this winter is that now he actually has a ballclub that can beat people. McMillen, true, is considerably overrated. He failed to make the tournament all-star team, and was not a terribly important force in either of the Terrapins' victories. Elmore, White and O'Brien carried the squad, which seemed either unwilling or unable to get the ball to McMillen inside. He is still gangly and calf-like, and there is a consistently confused expression on his face, almost as though he does not yet realize the circumstances into which he has been thrust.
But Maryland is so talented and deep that it does not appear to need him--at least not yet. Despite what Kirkpatrick says. Maryland should have a successful season, and should be selected for the NIT tournament, just on its record, even if it finishes third or worse in the ACC. And the reason, behind all the charlatanerie and press releases, is Driesell, and his recruiting genius, Ravelling. Whether Driesell is a good technical coach is open to debate. His 176-65 record during 12 seasons at Davidson was well above average, but not in the same league with that of John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Al McGuire or Butch Van Breda Kolff when he was at Princeton. It was been speculated that Ravelling recruits the horsepower. Lefty fills the house, and whatever happens from that point is purely coincidental. Still, it would seem that most colleges, if offered the glittering prospect of national prominence and perhaps the NCAA title, would jump at the chance of acquiring Driesell, even with the built-in peculiarities of his program.
Most, but not Harvard. When applicants were being interviewed for the position of basketball coach at Harvard after Floyd Wilson resigned. Driesell was among them. But after Harvard's objectives were outlined to him, Driesell withdrew from consideration.
"Let's say," comments associate athletic director Baaron B. Pittenger, "that it became mutually apparent that the man and the job were not made for each other."
And so, Harvard hired Bob Harrison, and Maryland chose Lefty Driesell Both schools wished, basically, to build ballclubs that would be competitive nationally. Maryland, which hopes for a little more, has taken one method and philosophy, Harvard another. It will bear watching which made the better choice of fitting the man to the dream.