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Maryland Basketball Is in a Transition Game Since Lefty Left

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The Washington Post

At Cole Field House, Lefty Driesell peers over a bannister at the Terrapins practicing basketball. In a closet, stacks of pre-season schedules with Driesell’s name stenciled on them have been shelved. During a Maryland-Duke game, Blue Devils fans daringly call for the former coach, but are booed for their tastelessness.

Driesell’s absence from Maryland’s program is felt in small ways. After 17 very loud and colorful years with Driesell as the Terrapins’ coach, Cole has become a somewhat subdued place, except during Atlantic Coast Conference games, and the subject of the coach’s departure remains sensitive more than midway through the first season under Bob Wade. With Driesell serving as an assistant athletic director, with an office just down the hall from Wade’s, the program is in a peculiar state of transition.

Driesell’s name is mentioned either tentatively, wistfully or angrily. The Terrapins are just beginning to discover which fans were Driesell’s and which are just plain Maryland fans, and the process of separating his tradition from the program’s is proving a painful one.

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The process has been helped by Driesell himself. He maintains a distance and has been to just one game, at North Carolina, when he was rehearsing for his duties as a part-time television commentator.

“I’ve tried to stay away from practice and games because it’s really not my team,” Driesell said. “People have to realize that. So that’s why I haven’t been around.”

But he has remained a hot topic at Maryland. At a recent meeting of the Terrapin Club executive board, several members questioned Chancellor John B. Slaughter and interim athletic director Charles Sturtz on the process of replacing Driesell with Wade, which was done just two days after Driesell’s forced resignation and without a search committee, although committees were formed to name a successor to football Coach Bobby Ross and Athletic Director Dick Dull.

“I felt the meeting went very well,” Slaughter said through a spokesman. “We had a useful and constructive dialogue. I felt it was cordial and this discussion will, of course, be continued in the future.”

Slaughter declined to amplify his remarks, and Sturtz and Wade could not be reached for comment.

Even under normal circumstances, it would be a difficult transition. But the larger-than-life Driesell was not a usual coach, and to many he was Maryland basketball. Feelings run high for him and against him, and that his departure was anything but usual exacerbates an already tense situation.

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“People love him or hate him,” said Ralph Frey, president of the Terrapin Club, the chief booster club that raises funds for athletic scholarships. “Just like the way they felt about Franklin Roosevelt.”

The group that was most affected by Driesell’s resignation was the Fastbreakers, an organization of hard-core, long-term fans founded by Driesell 17 years ago to drum up support at home and on the road. The Fastbreakers sit in the area behind the bench and travel to most road games. Most also are members of the Terrapin Club.

“It was the way it was handled,” said Jack Thomson, the Fastbreakers’ president and a Terrapin Club member. “Lefty had a lot of supporters, and he had also alienated some people. But whichever, most felt that he was not given his fair share in the way that he was pushed out. Nobody has anything against Coach Wade, he’s a real fine gentleman. It was the initial shock and the way it was handled, whether you are pro-Lefty or not.

“Maybe the chancellor should have made a search committee. If Coach Wade was still the one picked after interviewing four or five people, and he probably would have been, then probably no one would say anything.”

Last season, the Fastbreakers had 110 members. This season, only about half have renewed their membership, according to Thomson, who added that renewals still are coming in.

That is indicative of the depth of feeling that remains, and there is no question some long-term supporters have been hesitant in coming back.

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“It’s been slow. A number of people right off the bat said, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to another game,’ ” said Thomson. “But if you have a feeling for the program and the kids, you show up again.”

The program is struggling, with the Terrapins 6-12 overall and 0-10 in the ACC. With two freshmen, two sophomores and one junior in the starting lineup, not to mention a just-promoted high school coach, their personality still is undefined. Scheduling has not helped: Maryland did not begin its season until almost a month after teams around the rest of the country, which meant that students were not present for a home game until Feb. 4.

Attendance has suffered, but should improve as the Terrapins now have six home games in a row. The Terrapins have averaged 8,938 through 10 games at Cole (none sellouts), compared to 10,091 all last season, although for each of the two ACC games when students were on campus Maryland drew more than 11,000. As of mid-December, only 1,284 of 2,200 season tickets had been sold.

The reception has been good, however, from those who do attend the games. “There hasn’t been one boo, and that’s surprising from a hard-core basketball school,” said Randy Hoffman, associate athletic director.

Carolyn Wade, who travels with her husband and attends every game, said, “Everyone has seemed to go out of their way to make us feel welcome and to make it as easy a transition as they can. When we first came, I felt a little bit apprehensive. But I haven’t felt that since the first week.”

But it will take time for Wade to develop his own tradition. ACC games have been competitive, but there is a lack of feeling in some of the old rivalries. Games with Duke, Driesell’s alma mater, used to be perhaps the high point of the season because of the hazing he took from students. Maryland clearly needs to cultivate new rivalries, and that can come only with time.

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“That you do miss. It added a lot of fun,” said Gertie Lewis, mother of one Terrapins player, center Derrick Lewis, and one high school player being recruited by the Terrapins, Cedric Lewis. “Fans are going to have to get to know Coach Wade.”

Clearly, what Maryland needs to do is first, win some games, and second, develop an image and personality apart from Driesell. The most obvious void caused by Driesell’s absence is the loss of one of the greatest salesmen in college basketball.

That means Maryland’s marketing and advertising department has lost a strong selling point. The Terrapins have some large corporate sponsors, such as Anheuser-Busch, that advertise via posters and concession stands. No dropoff is immediately anticipated there, because they have long-term contracts. But among smaller, local advertisers there may be some negative reaction.

“They buy small ads in the program mainly out of the kindness of their hearts,” said Laura Bartlett of the Maryland marketing department. “There are some local people who may take it more personally. They may have been good friends with Lefty, and they may have some bitterness left. We haven’t had that reaction yet, but that’s not to say we won’t.”

So Maryland has had to come up with a new pitch. Driesell didn’t need much advertising, because he sold himself by kicking chairs and saying things like, “I’m so dumb I don’t even know the score.”

This season, Maryland has been without a theme and focus--with the only recognizable slogan the ambiguous “Maryland Momentum,” signifying a program in transition--so marketing decided to pull back somewhat, recognizing that the results might not be worth the expense. Rather, Bartlett has concentrated on introducing Wade and the young Terrapins to their public.

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“We just try to get Wade’s name out there,” Bartlett said. “We don’t really have a personality to develop yet.

“Lefty was so colorful, he kind of spoke for himself. It was like, ‘Hey, come on out and see Lefty and the guys.’ Now the approach is, ‘Hi, I’m Bob Wade. Come and see us.’ ”

Hoffman isn’t sure marketing is the most important ingredient. “Lefty was so controversial that he had his fans and also his detractors,” Hoffman said. “But the majority of our fans are pure basketball fans.”

In every way, from marketing to soothing hurt feelings, the final verdict won’t be in until next year, when the Terrapins will no longer be in a season of grace. They will, instead, be faced with the task of re-establishing a winning record and a new personality.

“What’s wrong with the old image?” Driesell said. “We had a great tradition, we had good academics, we won 20 games every year, we won more games than anybody but Carolina. I don’t think they need to change all that much.”

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