While Martin Harmon was in North Carolina last week to promote his new book, “Charles ‘Lefty’ Driesell: A Basketball Legend,” he dropped a signed copy by UNC basketball coach Roy Williams’s office.
Harmon meant his gift only as an expression of his and Coach Driesell's admiration for Williams and his accomplishments.
Although Harmon did not have it in mind, his book, in the most poignant chapter, shows how Driesell faced the toughest time in his coaching career. The story of Driesell’s troubles might give some comfort to Williams, who recently faced his own off-court challenges.
Driesell played basketball at Duke and coached at Davidson (1960-69) before spending 17 years as basketball coach at Maryland (1969-86). After remarkable successes, that assignment ended after the tragic death of Len Bias, a star at Maryland and first-round NBA selection. Bias’s death by a drug overdose prompted a series of investigations and evaluations of Driesell's responsibility for players’ conduct and academic progress.
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Although Driesell was cleared of any responsibility for Bias's actions, the University of Maryland’s administration used the basketball program's record of player graduation rates and academic course selections to force Driesell into a negotiated resignation.
What is the responsibility of a basketball coach to ensure that team players are performing satisfactorily academically and moving on a path towards graduation? If players were encouraged to take substandard courses, did the coach know, and, if not, should the coach have known?
Like Driesell, Coach Williams had to face questions of what he knew or what he should have known about his players’ academic courses and performance.
In 1986, University of Maryland administrators said that Driesell had failed to meet such responsibilities.
Driesell disagreed vehemently. He presented statistics that showed that his players performed well compared to other undergraduates at Maryland and other NCAA Division I schools. To no avail.
Twenty-seven years later, however, the Maryland administration finally agreed with Driesell. Last year, current Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan wrote, “From my perspective, Lefty's greatest contributions are found in the impact he had on the lives of his student athletes. Lefty had a genuine focus on his players and pushed them for success on and off the court. Lefty's players always had one of the highest graduation rates in Division I.”
Although Driesell has been inducted in to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and received many other honors, Harmon thinks he belongs in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor Coach Williams earned in 2007. Harmon shares pages of records and accomplishments by Driesell to prove his point: 786 wins at four different schools, winning conference championships and NCAA tournament bids at each of the four, leading the recruitment of African-American players to formerly all-white schools, and coming up with promotional ideas like Midnight Madness that have drawn new fans to the game.
Harmon’s strongest point may be that Driesell took four different college programs (including James Madison and Georgia State), none of which had winning traditions, and turned every of them into powerhouse successes. According to Harmon, sports media commentator Billy Packer says Driesell is “the greatest program builder ever.”
But Harmon believes the Len Bias tragedy and its aftermath may be the underlying reason Driesell has not yet cracked the Naismith Hall of Fame.
That would be a terrible injustice.
I think any Hall of Fame that excludes “the greatest program builder ever” is an incomplete assembly.
Whatever happens on that front, Driesell should cherish Chancellor Kirwan’s tribute that his “greatest contributions are found in the impact he had on the lives of his student athletes.”
As one of his former players, I think that recognition of Driesell’s contributions to his players tops anything a hall of fame induction might bring.