When Lefty Driesell swaggered onto campus two decades ago and predicted Maryland would become the “UCLA of the East,” it wasn’t the women’s basketball team he had in mind.
The men’s team never approached the standard of sustained excellence established by UCLA during the 1960s and early 1970s. But in 1978 the Maryland women became the UCLA of the East by finishing second in the national tournament -- to UCLA.
Under the direction of Chris Weller, the program has prospered ever since.
The Maryland women have played in nine postseason tournaments, highlighted by two trips to the Final Four and three to the final eight. Weller’s teams have won seven Atlantic Coast Conference championships, more than any other school.
Through 1985, her Maryland teams were ranked nationally nine consecutive years and appeared in 130 straight weekly top-20 polls.
Now, as they prepare to defend their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship this weekend in Fayetteville, N.C., the Terps have a 15-game winning streak, a handsome record of 23-2 and the No. 5 ranking in the land.
More than by anything else, Weller would like to be measured by the consistency of her program. Eight times her teams have won at least 20 games a season, and her career record in 14 seasons is 286-114 overall and 112-47 in the ACC.
“I’d like to think we have a good, balanced program,” she said.
“She keeps us motivated all the time,” said senior Vicky Bullett, a 6-foot-3 forward who won a gold medal as part of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. “She relates to us and we follow her lead. We all want the same thing, to get better each game.
“She asks a lot of us, but we expect that. Otherwise, we won’t be as good as we can be. I’m glad she pushes us.”
Women’s basketball has come a long way since Weller played the game at Maryland in the mid-1960s. She cringes at the thought of it. The women’s game had six players to a side then, and there was no postseason competition of any sort, not even a state tournament.
“Archaic by today’s standards,” she said. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have paid to watch a women’s game then myself. I’d pay now, and I’m tight.”
As recently as a half-dozen years ago, only the top teams had a player as tall as 6-3. Now it’s not at all unusual for good teams to have two or three women 6-3 or taller. The players are stronger and better conditioned.
“The game is more precise and the girls are quicker and better athletes,” Weller said. “The play is more polished partly because the high school programs are so much better. There are fewer blowouts.”
The best women’s basketball rivalry in the ACC is Maryland vs. North Carolina State. It’s Weller vs. Kay Yow, both in their 14th seasons at their respective schools. Of the four ACC tournament championships Maryland hasn’t won, North Carolina State has captured three of them. There have been some classic battles.
“Like 1980, when I won my first ACC title,” Yow said. “Maryland had a great team and was hosting the tournament at Cole. That was the year Chris went on to take Maryland to the final eight, yet we beat them in the ACC final. Another time, during the regular season, Maryland was 17-0 and we gave them their first loss.”
Weller has her own favorite, the 1978 ACC tournament final when Maryland beat favored North Carolina State, 89-82, for her first conference championship.
“Our games with N.C. State are always great,” Weller said. “Always.”
For all her success, Weller is not completely satisfied. Schools like Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Rutgers and Iowa draw 5,000 to 10,000 spectators, but Maryland is lucky if it attracts 1,500.
Weller says that feels she has a marketable product but that people simply aren’t buying. Within a limited budget, she does promote.
She has put fliers on car windshields during football games. A student pep band was formed. Weller has dug into her own pocket to buy a keg of beer for the campus group that brought in the most spectators.
She has staged High School Night, in which every girl high school player in the state has been admitted free. There have been drawings for TV sets.
“We make game signs and put out a monthly newsletter,” Weller said. “We have a booster club, The Rebounders, and socials after games during which we give a game synopsis.”
Before the university was rocked by the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias in 1986, women’s basketball attendance averaged 800. Then crowds decreased in all sports. Attendance is coming back up -- 400 season tickets for women’s basketball were sold this year compared with 100 last year -- but the Bias tragedy and the events that followed it still haunt Weller.
“I was horrified because he seemed so in tune with being the best he could be,” Weller said. “It had a detrimental effect on the entire athletic program because of the way it was handled.
“No one said, ‘Maryland is a leader and has already addressed the drug issue.’ No one said Maryland had a fine group of coaches who ran ethical programs. People forever asked if drugs were a problem at Maryland. And how about academics? It wore down the staff and players. No one said anything good.
“Now there is pride among the athletes. It’s just now happening again. I can see it in my team. My players don’t look at others with awe anymore.”
Weller’s own program has been touched on occasion by controversy. An incident in the fall of 1984 involved Deanna Tate, now a Terp senior but then a recruited player who was enrolled at the University College, a separate branch of the University of Maryland system.
Weller allowed Tate to travel with the team as a manager on three road trips. What Weller didn’t know was that because Tate was still a recruit, the trips were regarded by the NCAA as an illegal recruiting inducement.
“As soon as I learned it was a violation, I turned myself in,” Weller said. “If I were the type of person who wasn’t honest, I could have tried to hide the fact that I had broken a rule.
“But I don’t believe in that. Winning isn’t anything if it’s not done honestly. Success isn’t success unless it’s honest.”
The ACC and NCAA prohibited Weller from off-campus recruiting for one year. Despite that handicap, Weller signed four of the best high school players in the country, including Christy Winters, currently a junior starter.
The Terps went 9-18 in 1984-85. In the fall of 1985, Weller committed what some of her coaching friends called “competitive suicide” by cutting two good players from the team. She says only that they “didn’t meet team standards and didn’t do what they were asked.”
The 1985-86 season was trying. The Terps compiled a 17-13 record, including a 6-8 mark in the ACC, yet ended the year in spectacular fashion by winning the ACC tournament championship. Soon after that, two weeks before the start of the recruiting period, when it would hurt the most, Weller was struck by a bombshell.
“The high school guidance counselor of one of the girls we had cut the previous fall obviously wanted to get even,” Weller said. “She accused our players of smoking marijuana and shoplifting. The shoplifting charge was never proved. There was a single incident of marijuana use where the player was disciplined according to university policy.”
Weller has also had several top players transfer out of Maryland over the years. The most notable was All-American center Kris Kirchner, who left for Rutgers after her junior season, 1979-80. Forward Sydney Beasley and 6-5 center Carolin Dehn-Duhr transferred to James Madison in 1985-86. After winning ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 1986-87, 6-0 forward Beth Hunt transferred to South Carolina. And after the 1987-88 season, sophomore guard Edna Campbell left for Texas.
The transfers have sometimes sparked negative publicity for Weller. After watching the North Carolina State men’s program endure allegations of cheating and academic abuses this season, Yow can empathize with Weller.
“Controversy surrounds a lot of programs from time to time, like ours now,” Yow said. “It causes pain, but you grow and come through stronger and wiser. Chris handled it, survived it, and is a better person for it.”