Friday, September 18, 2009

Time to Get Lefty Driesell into the Hall of Fame

Lefty Driesell called me last night. He has called on a regular basis ever since my heart surgery to check up on me--a number of people have done this including my favorite basketball scout, Tom Konchalski who remains the only man I know who refuses to put any kind of answering machine on his phone or carry a cell phone.

Lefty didn't call last night about my health. He had just receive the form one has to fill out to be nominated for the basketball Hall of Fame and he asked me again if I could figure out how it was that he hasn't made it to the Hall yet.

I told him I simply couldn't figure it out.

Lefty won 786 games as a college coach, meaning he is currently, I believe, ninth on the all-time list. What's more, he won those games at four schools that were exactly nowhere when Lefty took the job. Davidson, a school which had 900 male students in 1960 when Lefty arrived, had averaged seven wins a year for the previous 10 seasons. Over the next ten it finished ranked in the top ten nationally four times and reached the final eight of the NCAA Tournament twice. Maryland was the dregs of the ACC when Lefty took over in 1969. It was a national power by 1973 and went to the tournament nine times while Lefty was there even though only one ACC team could go until 1975 and only two could go until 1980. He took over a down program at James Madison and became the dominant team in the CAA and then took Georgia State to the NCAA tournament in 2001, winning 29 games and beating Wisconsin in the first round of the tournament.

The man could build basketball programs like no else could.

And yet, he's not in the Hall of Fame. The excuse that he didn't make the Final Four doesn't carry water because there are other coaches--including, most recently Temple's John Chaney--who didn't make The Final Four who are in the Hall. Lou Carnesseca made one Final Four while spending his entire career coaching traditional power St. John's and won 260 games LESS than Lefty. He's in the Hall. No one is saying those guys don't deserve it but certainly Lefty should be there too.

Old rivals like Dean Smith and John Thompson have both said publicly that Lefty deserves to be in Springfield. Anyone who knows basketball would agree. But the secret society of 24 that votes hasn't picked Lefty. He's been a finalist twice--but not since 2003. He's retired and it is as if the alleged basketball experts who run the Hall of Fame have forgotten him.

There's really only one reason that Lefty's been left out and it is a bogus one: Len Bias. Since Bias's death in June of 1986 of a cocaine overdose all sorts of myths have grown surrounding his death. It reminds me, on a much different level of another seminal sports event in 1986: Billy Buckner's boot in game six of The World Series. To this day there are people who think the Red Sox were still ahead when Buckner made the error and would have won the game and the Series if he had fielded Mookie Wilson's ground ball cleanly. Not true. The game would have gone to the 11th inning.

In the Bias case there are lots of people who think his death led to Maryland's probation in the early 1990s. Indirectly, it did. Bias's death and the surrounding furor gave Maryland Chancellor John Slaughter an excuse to force Lefty out of the job. Slaughter was going to prove he was a great reformer and leader. He wanted to hire an African-American coach and did: yanking Bob Wade from the high school ranks even though Wade's reputation wasn't exactly sterling among college coaches. Sure enough, Wade broke NCAA rules, was caught lying by NCAA investigators and Maryland was nailed with a two year probation that included one year off of TV and two years out of postseason in 1991 and 1992.

Only in the sense that Bias's death allowed Slaughter to get rid of Lefty--with nine years left on his contract--did it have anything to do with Maryland's probation. Lefty was never once accused of violating NCAA rules. In fact, Maryland had to pay him every dollar of his remaining contract because the only way it could NOT pay was if Maryland was found guilty of a single rules violation under his watch. It was not.

And yet, the myth remains. There are still stories told about Lefty trying to cover up for Bias even though police investigations debunked those rumors years ago. There is no question that Bias's death shadowed Maryland for years--why the school retired his uniform when he never graduated and died the way he did remains a mystery. It's as if the uniform hangs there saying THIS is part of our legacy. But it has shadowed Lefty more than anyone. After 23 years it is time to give the myths a rest. Basketball people from Smith to Thompson to Mike Krzyzewski (who coaches at Lefty's alma mater and has a fair amount of influence) to Dick Vitale to Gary Williams should band together and DEMAND that Lefty get into the Hall of Fame RIGHT NOW. He's 78 and last I looked not getting any younger. While they're at it, they should also demand that the Hall stop being so secretive about its voting process. If you choose to vote for any Hall of Fame you should be publicly responsible for explaining your vote. If you don't want to do that, don't vote.

Look, I am (no pun intended) biased. I covered Lefty while at The Washington Post and came to like and respect him even though we did battle almost constantly when I was the beat write. He would frequently wake me up early in the morning to yell about something I'd written. He would swear never to speak to me again, then would come over to greet me at practice that day, usually by saying something like, "what's up son, you got a scoop?"

I have about a million Lefty stories, far too many of them relating to Dean Smith. Late in his career, when he was closing in on 800 wins I pointed out to Lefty that if he coached a few more years he might go by Dean's all time record of 879 wins.

"Never happen," he said.

"Why not?"

“'Cause if I ever got close, Dean would come back."

Probably true.

I've told this one many times but it bears repeating. In 1981, when Gerry Faust became Notre Dame's football coach I was sent to cover his first game. Faust was as outgoing and friendly as any football coach I've ever met and his story--devout Catholic who had coached at Moeller High School and been plucked for his dream job--was compelling. On game day he drove around campus in a golf cart greeting fans as they came in. "Gerry Faust--great to see you. Let's go whip LSU today!"

I wrote a glowing story after Notre Dame won easily about how everyone in South Bend was in love with the new coach whose personality was the polar opposite of predecessor Dan Devine. Sure enough, early Monday morning the phone rang.

"Wake up son, I gotta get on you.”

"In September? What can I possibly have done to make you mad in September?"

"Gerry Faust. He's won one damn game at Notre Dame. Dan Devine won a NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP and you're writing that Faust is Knute Rockne."

He did have a way with words. "What have you got against Gerry Faust?" I asked.

"Nothing. But I got plenty against you."

Several years later with Notre Dame foundering and 'Oust Faust,' signs all over the Notre Dame campus, the phone rang again. "Hey Fahnsteen, ya buddy Faust still riding around out there in a golf cart or did he get himself an armored tank!"

One for the Lefthander.

Final story. I was doing a magazine piece on him and went on a recruiting visit (before the NCAA created what some call 'the Feinstein rule,'--seriously--and banned coaches from taking media members on home visits because it was an 'unfair advantage.') to the home of Sean Alvarado in southeast Washington, D.C. It was Halloween. As we got out of the car a group of about a dozen kids ran up screaming, 'Trick or Treat!'

"I ain't got any treats," Lefty said. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his money clip and began tossing bills into the kids’ goody bags. He kept going until he ran out.

As they ran away, Lefty shook his head and said, "Damn. I hope I didn't have any big bills on there."

The man would give away his last dollar without checking to see how much he was giving away. He revived college basketball in Washington--revived BASKETBALL in Washington--and was a program builder wherever he went and did as much to grow the game in popularity as anyone who has ever coached.

He needs to be in the Hall of Fame. It is time for all of us who play any role in the game to right this wrong.


Dana King said...

You convinced me long ago about Lefty's HOF credentials. Here's what gets me: you have to fill out a form to get nominated? Doesn't that discriminate against posthumous honorees?

Anonymous said...

Interesting entry, John. Another ACC-related HOF issue I'd be interested in hearing your opinion on: Why isn't Ralph Sampson in the College Basketball Hall of Fame?

Jim said...

I was thinking the same thing as most Hall of Fames make you fill out a questionnaire? And if so, once you do it once, don't they have it?

The Basketball Hall of Fame keeps getting stranger.

gunnar said...

I am very surprised that Lefty is not in the HOF. I looked up my favorite coach at my alma mater, University of Washington, Marv Harshman. I was wondering if he had as many wins as Lefty, Marv had 659 wins. Marv got pushed out in the mid 1980's, I think 1986, largely due to age, not productivity...he had an elite 8 team in 1984! Marv is in the Naismith HOF! He is a great man, still alive, nearly 90 years old, and the mentor of current UW coach Lorenzo Romar. Lefty's credentials exceed Marv's! Lefty should be in the HOF.

Anonymous said...

John: I know the man pretty well and you have captured him to a T. You need to do your Lefty impression on one of your radio shows and post it here so others can hear it. It's too bad they won't be able to see you do his waving arms routine as well. He does belong in the Hall and it is great that you bring this up, just keep at it until it happens, "Fahn-Steen"

Anonymous said...

This article brings tears to my eyes........I was at Maryland when he came..........I use to haul my kids to the games and especially to the first Midnight Madness........We all loved him as everyone did. Couldn't wait to see him come on the floor with his arms raised with a victory sign. He needs to be in the
Hall of Fame.......hope they give it to him while he is still alive.

Jay said...

All good points about the case for Lefty Driesell being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Heck if for no other reason than he's bound to give a far classier speech than Michael Jordan could.

A Maryland Fan said...

I was 10 when Bias died, but I still remember my parents watching Maryland games when I was a kid and telling me "don't let those boys down in North Carolina fool you, coaches don't come better than Lefty." I wish the HOF voters could see this obvious fact.

Thanks, Fahnsteen. Keep beating the drum.

Dave Pincus said...

John, Great piece. It made me want to share an experience I had with Lefty right after Lenny died, which proved to me the kind of man Lefty is. I told this story once before in a letter to the Post that got printed in the A section about 20 years ago while I was a student at UM...

A few days after Bias's death my car broke down on my way to the memorial for Lenny at Cole Field House. My buddy and I traveled the last couple miles on foot. On our way back to the car after the memorial a big 'ol white Cadillac pulls off the road in front of us and calls out the window asking if "you boys need a ride." As we prepared to run for our lives (Adelphi Road not being the best part of town) I glanced in the side window and saw none other than Lefty Driesell looking out his window at me! He had seen that we were carrying some Bias materials that were given out at the memorial and thought we looked a little out of place in the neighborhood and might need help. He offered to take us to a service station or take us somewhere to call for assistance (no cell phones in 1986) but he ended up taking us back to my car, which started, and then went on his way.

This is a guy who just went through a horrible personal and professional tragedy--in the bright glow of the national (turned out to be international) spotlight--and who had to know that he was going to feel some serious heat in the coming days/weeks/months. And despite all that he took the time to help two punk 17-year old kids. How many public figures would take the time to do that? Not many. How many people--public or not--in the midst of such turmoil would do it? Besides Lefty, maybe none.

I ran into Lefty years later at a Final Four and we chatted briefly about the incident. He remembered giving me the ride and my letter to the Post.