By Lewis Bowling, GoDuke the Magazine
Winning basketball games was what this man did everywhere he went. He was an all-state player on a Granby High School team in Norfolk, Va., that won a state championship. The Duke Blue Devils signed him in 1951, and in his two seasons earning a letter, Duke won 38 games with 14 losses. He coached three seasons of high school basketball, and led Newport News to a state championship. As head man at Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State, his teams won six conference tournament championship games and 16 regular season titles. When he retired in 2003, only legends of the game Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith and Bobby Knight had more total wins. Now, with his selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame this year, this man attains legendary status himself — an honor long overdue.
Most people in ACC country remember Charles Grice Driesell as the longtime coach of the Maryland Terrapins. Now, you may hesitate just a bit at the formal name, but when you see “Lefty” Driesell, you start thinking of the balding coach who would stomp the court when the game was not going the way he wanted. Driesell won 786 games as a college head coach, so perhaps all that stomping wasn’t necessary. He was the first coach to win 100 or more games at four different schools and take them all to the NCAA Tournament. No, he never turned Maryland into the “UCLA of the East” but for sure his Terps were among the top programs in the country during his tenure in College Park from 1969 to 1986.
In fact, his Maryland teams were so good that they prompted the NCAA to change its rules for March Madness. In one of the most memorable games in college basketball, Driesell’s Terrapins lost to North Carolina State in the 1974 ACC Tournament championship game, 103-100. The Wolfpack, led by David Thompson, went on to win the national title. Maryland only lost five games all season, and finished as the number four ranked team in the nation in the Associated Press poll, but the Terps couldn’t go to the NCAAs because only one team per conference was permitted. The following year the NCAA expanded the field to include at-large teams.
Driesell was committed to play basketball at the University of Tennessee, where his best buddy from Granby High School was going to play football. But the head basketball coach at Duke in 1950, Gerry Gerard, had a beach house near Granby High School, in Virginia Beach, and took an interest in the young lefthander. Lefty was still going to play basketball at Tennessee, until his mother intervened. One of the Driesells’ neighbors in Norfolk was Marion Early, who was a Duke graduate. Lefty would go over and shoot baskets with him and they became close. Mama Driesell pretty much decided the matter between Tennessee and Duke when she told Lefty, “You’re going to Duke.”
Another reason Driesell decided upon Duke was a girl he had known since ninth grade. Her name was Joyce. By the time Lefty had graduated from Granby, he knew for a fact he was going to marry that girl. He called the Tennessee athletics offices and asked if he came to Tennessee would he be able to marry Joyce. Tennessee told him that Gen. Robert Neyland, the Vols’ legendary football coach and athletic director, didn’t like for athletes to get married while attending school. So Lefty called Duke and got Ace Parker on the phone. Lefty told Ace, “Look, I know there is no way I’m going to wait four years until I graduate from Duke to marry Joyce.” Parker, who was also from the Virginia Beach area, told the young man that yes, a few Duke athletes had gotten married while in school. So basically Driesell ended up coming to Duke because of two women he loved immensely, his mother and his future wife.
Sure enough, Lefty and Joyce got married on December 14, 1951, during his sophomore year. An old ear problem flared up and kept Driesell off the courts that season, so he had some extra time on his hands, and getting married to his sweetheart is what he did.
Driesell had an operation when he was in high school after his ear had become infected. Before his sophomore season at Duke, he had to have surgery again, this time to completely remove the mastoid bone behind his ear. The doctor told him he would never be able to play basketball again, because there would not be enough protection for his brain. He went to classes, studied and got married, but he was determined to play the sport he loved again. He got another doctor’s opinion, and that doctor told him the tissue that had grown up where the bone had been “was as tough and thick as a big piece of leather.” So after playing on the freshman team in his first season of 1951, and having to sit out his sophomore season, Driesell played for the varsity in 1953 and 1954 under head coach Harold Bradley. Gerard had gotten sick with cancer, had to resign in 1950 and passed away in 1951. Driesell had been the last player Gerard had recruited to Duke. The 1953-54 team finished 22-6 and ranked 15th in the nation. Driesell scored a career high 19 points that season against Vanderbilt.
When Driesell arrived on the Duke campus in 1950, Dick Groat was establishing himself as one of the premier college basketball and baseball players in the country. Driesell spent many an hour working with Groat, especially learning the proper way to shoot jump shots. Driesell later used the shooting techniques learned under the Duke Hall of Famer to teach his players at all of his head coaching stops.
After graduating from Duke in 1954, Driesell got a tryout with the Minneapolis Lakers and averaged 39 points a game in a semi-pro league in Virginia. He got an office job making pretty good money at $6,500 a year with Ford Motor Company, but then was offered the head basketball coaching position at his old high school, Granby. Even though it only paid $3,500 a year, Driesell promised Joyce that he would make up the difference selling encyclopedias. In his only season at Granby, Driesell led the team to a 15-5 record, then took over at Newport News HS and guided that club to a state championship.
While he was at Duke, Driesell had to go to athletics director Eddie Cameron for his meal money. They forged a close relationship that eventually helped Driesell break into college coaching. Cameron called him after hearing the head coaching position at Davidson was open and arranged an interview for him. Davidson hired Driesell for the 1960 season and he became one of the youngest college head coaches in the country at 29 years old.
In nine seasons at Davidson, Driesell’s teams earned 176 victories against 65 losses while winning five Southern Conference regular season titles and three tournament titles. His Davidson teams became so good that Everett Case, the man who is generally credited with bringing big-time college basketball to the state of North Carolina, called Driesell one day with an enticing offer. Case was getting ready to retire from N.C. State and told Driesell that if he would come to Raleigh as his assistant for a year, he could get him a five-year contract to succeed him as head coach. Driesell was honored and considered the offer, but told Case that his team the next season at Davidson was going to be his best, and he couldn’t leave at that time.
In 1969 the University of Maryland hired him. Maryland had only played in one NCAA Tournament and produced only two ranked teams in its 46 years of play before Driesell arrived there. During Driesell’s tenure from 1969 to 1986, the Terps won 348 games with 159 losses and claimed an NIT championship, two ACC regular season championships, an ACC Tournament title and several top ten rankings. By 1971, two highly-touted players, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, were on the varsity, and Maryland finished 27-5. Suddenly, Driesell had Maryland among the top programs anywhere. In 1985 Maryland gave Driesell a 10-year contract extension, but tragedy struck in 1986 when his star player Len Bias died of a cocaine-induced heart attack shortly after his selection as the No. 2 NBA draft pick. This sad event led to Driesell resigning a few months later.
In 1988 Driesell was named the coach at James Madison, and from then until 1996, his teams won five Colonial Athletic Association regular season titles and one tournament title. From 1997 to 2003 he coached at Georgia State, where his teams won an Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament and four regular season championships.
Driesell accidently came up with the concept of Midnight Madness early in his Maryland tenure. For years, at Davidson and Maryland, he had required his players to run a mile in under six minutes on the first day of practice. But he began to realize that the players were often sluggish in basketball practice after the run. So at 12:03 a.m. on October 15, 1971 — the first day teams were permitted to practice that year — he had his Maryland players report to the football stadium to run their required mile. He would then practice his team later that day, after they had a chance to rest. Many students on campus heard about this midnight activity and thought it was a practice of some sort, so over 1,000 people showed up to watch whatever was going to occur with their beloved Terrapins. Thus Midnight Madness was born.
Perhaps more than the success Driesell had on the court at Maryland was what he did early one morning far away from the gym. He was out fishing near the shore in Delaware with Paul Williamson (for whom he had worked as a student teacher in Durham while majoring in education) when they noticed smoke billowing out from some row houses nearby. They ran to the houses, knocking on doors to let people know there was a fire. From one house, Driesell could hear screams of children inside, but he couldn’t open the door. He finally kicked the door down and scooped up several children, taking a couple out at a time. For saving many lives, Driesell was given an NCAA Valor Award. “We were just lucky to have been fishing close by and spotted the smoke,” he said. “I’m just glad we saw it. Anybody would have done the same thing Paul and I did. I’m just glad we could get those kids out of there.”
Coaching basketball seems to run in the genes of the Driesell family. Lefty’s son, Chuck, was an assistant coach at James Madison under his dad, and later became was an assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland before becoming head coach at Marymount University and The Citadel, among other stops. Chuck Driesell is now the head coach at the Maret School in Washington, D.C. One of Driesell’s grandsons, Michael Moynihan, is the director of operations for basketball at Mississippi State, while another grandson, Patrick Moynihan, is an assistant coach at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. Grandson Ty Anderson played at Georgia Tech and is now head coach at South Gwinnett High School in Georgia.
Not to be outdone by all of the coaches in the Driesell family, Lefty’s daughter, Pam, is a Senior Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.
Now 86 years of age, Driesell resides with his wife in a condo at Virginia Beach, living a life of retirement after more than 50 years spent in basketball as a player and coach. His four children have given him 11 grandchildren. When Syracuse visited Duke in February 2018, Driesell was there along with three of his younger grandkids. The old coach took those youngsters to meet Coach K, toured them around the famed Cameron Indoor Stadium and showed them the statue outside of Eddie Cameron. “This is where your granddaddy played before I started coaching,” a proud Driesell told his grandkids. Driesell is still proud to have been a Blue Devil, and Duke fans can be proud that much of what he learned as a Duke player he used to become one of the very best college basketball coaches.