Rightly or Wrongly, Lefty Takes the Fall Alone

Maryland’s basketball program did not always turn out dopes and dopers. The university did, at one time, mass-produce the most solid of citizens, including academically upright student-athletes and hoop shooters who did not go home to celebrate their selection in the professional draft by going face-down on a mirror, then falling to the floor, dead.

No, the Maryland basketball program once manufactured the likes of Tom McMillen, a long-ago Rhodes scholar who might very well be elected to Congress next week, and Len Elmore, a physically gifted gentleman who, now that he has exhausted most of the skills of his body, is spending his days exercising his brain at the Harvard law school.

To some athletes, believe it or not, schools are not for fools. An MBA is just as important as the NBA.

But, courtesy of a bunch of Lefty Driesell’s mouth-breathing basketball players, many of whom evidently thought very little of rooms without orange rims, the University of Maryland’s reputation as an institution of higher learning has taken a beating, and, courtesy of the late Len Bias, the school is being ridiculed as an institution of learning how to get higher.


Lefty finally took the fall. Coach for 17 years, with a contract calling for nine more, Charles Driesell resigned at the college’s request Wednesday, saying little more than: “I do not want to coach if I am not wanted.” Which is another way of saying: “I do not want to keep this job if I am being fired.”

Somebody had to go, so Lefty went. If Bias hadn’t dropped dead, if he were busy throwing passes to Larry Bird right now instead of being nothing more than late and great, Driesell would still be telling the Terrapins to run laps and getting them ready for Carolina and Virginia and Duke.

If the poor kid hadn’t croaked himself with coke, nobody would have gone poking noses into the other Maryland players’ scholastic records, noticing that the only passing that Lefty’s players had been doing was the kind they did with a ball.

If , as usual, is the operative word in College Park. If Moses Malone had become the big man on campus instead of turning pro in his teens, Driesell could have made good on his much-publicized promise to make Maryland “the UCLA of the East.” If this guy had done this, or that guy had done that. . . .


Take a hike, Lefty. Take the money and run. In their infinite wisdom, the administrators who presented you with a 10-year contract are prepared to fork over $136,000 for each of the next four years, and $86,000 for each of the years after that. For doing nothing. Which is what you are so good at, Lefty. Doing nothing.

Oh, you did know how to go to bat for your ballplayers. Like the time one of them, Herman Veal, was accused of sexually assaulting a young woman. Next thing anyone knew, the woman is telling of her telephone call from a certain basketball coach who advised her to drop all charges. Attaboy, Lefty. That’s what a coach is supposed to do--give advice.

Then there was the time, nearly 10 years ago, when a Washington newspaper revealed that some of Maryland’s most talented basketball players happened to be on academic probation, on the verge of flunking out.

You reacted swiftly to that one, Lefty. By saying that those guys were going to get on the ball? Nah. By watching them sue the paper for millions of dollars, for invasion of privacy. A suit, of course, they did not win.


Remember the time a Baltimore reporter took one of your star players to supper, and the kid started ordering iced teas, and the reporter didn’t realize until later that “Long Island” iced teas had more in them than ice and tea?

The player, Ernest Graham, opened up that night, telling how little Coach Lefty was doing for his career. Remember how you wrote that reporter’s editor, Lefty, trying to get him fired for exposing a student to demon rum?

Coach, you were a barrel of monkeys.

For the sake of all the honest and earnest alumni of the university, it is a pity that so many prominent ones will be remembered for their failings. Like poor John Lucas, an intelligent and decent fellow if ever there was one, whose success on basketball and tennis courts has been gutted by his repeated tumbles into cocaine canyon.


Or like Bias, a great player and a good kid, one everyone liked, whose legacy will be a death that opened others’ eyes.

It was when Bias was being buried that school officials finally decided to check into what was going on. What they found was a lineup filled with athletes whose classroom eligibility would expire--what a coincidence!--soon after the basketball season did.

What they also found was that the chances of a Maryland basketball player leaving with a diploma were only slightly better than the chances of a sewer worker leaving work smelling like Sophia Loren.

Just before Halloween, the chancellor of the university, John B. Slaughter, left home disguised as an innocent. He told interested listeners that he had not been “as attentive” as he should have been, that he should have had “more insight” before committing the college to another decade of Lefty Driesell, with one of those pay-or-play contracts that earns the guy a paycheck just for being alive.


Someone asked the chancellor if he intended to resign, and if not, why not?

“I have no intention of resigning,” Slaughter said.

Answer the question, sir. Give us one good reason why, when Charles (Lefty) Driesell goes out that door, he should not be holding it open for you.

Maryland now has a new coach, which is good. It also needs someone to replace the man in charge, who could always find work at the neighborhood zoo--as an ostrich.