COLLEGE PARK — A moment of silence for Lefty Driesell? The tribute doesn’t seem to fit the man.

If there was silence, Lefty would cut through it with his folksy humor or his fiery court stomps. If there was empty space, Lefty would fill it — under his watch, Cole Field House morphed from a sterile, cavernous void to one of the most heated, loudest environments in college basketball.

If the water was still, Lefty Driesell would stir it. The sport — and life itself, if we’re being honest — was more interesting with him in it.

Still, as a sellout crowd of Terps fans quietly raised a “V” sign throughout Xfinity Center on Saturday, hours after the 92-year-old died at his home in Virginia Beach, it was a moving scene. A question sprang to mind: What would Maryland basketball be without Lefty Driesell?

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Before him, there was little to say about Maryland’s program.

After, for better and for worse, Lefty had left his mark.

Gary Williams’ Maryland career somewhat bookended the Driesell era. He was a player for Bud Millikan in the 1960s, when the Terps were an afterthought against their Atlantic Coast Conference neighbors. He took over in 1989 — three years after Driesell had been forced out — and delivered on the championship potential that Lefty’s best teams had shown in flashes.

The image of the late Lefty Driesell is displayed on the scoreboard before an NCAA college basketball game between Maryland and Illinois, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
The image of the late Lefty Driesell displays on the scoreboard before Saturday's game in College Park. (Nick Wass/The Associated Press)

Even Williams, who did not always see eye to eye with Driesell, acknowledged that he may have never risen quite so high without a lift from Lefty.

“He had done it; he had gotten [Maryland] on a national level,” Williams said. “Even though some things weren’t right when I got here, we were able to get it back on a national level. It’s easier, when it’s already been done, to repeat it.”

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The man knew how to transform things. Under Driesell, an unremarkable college program was supercharged, not as dominant as its ACC rivals but still altogether a force, reaching The Associated Press Top 10 rankings in nine of his 17 seasons. What was the first day of basketball activities, a mere date on the administrative calendar, became “Midnight Madness” — a Driesell brainchild and one of the sport’s most imitated promotional events (“As coaches, we steal from each other,” Williams quipped).

Driesell once told The Athletic that he took the job at Maryland for $14,000 — at a time when getting folks to take notice of your games was as much about being a carnival barker as it was about strategy. It was charismatic figures like Lefty who built not just Maryland but the sport itself to where it is now, with coaches making millions.

There are coaches who succeed in a time and a place, but the kind of winning Lefty did could move around with him. He’s the only NCAA Division I coach to win at least 100 games at four schools.

He was witty, willful and wanted to beat North Carolina (and coach Dean Smith) perhaps more than any man who ever lived.

“When we beat them,” former forward Terry Long said, “Coach was as happy as a kid at Disneyland.”

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A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Driesell had an exaggerated Southern drawl that he wryly would use to paint himself as a rube. But those who knew him well knew better. “We’d say Coach was dumb like a fox,” Herman Veal said.

Recruiting was where he was most wily. Lefty knew how to work a living room, former player Keith Gatlin said, and recruit decision-making parents to his cause. Mothers especially loved him.

“He went to my mother, and oh man,” Gatlin said with a laugh. “He sold her before he sold me.”

Driesell coaxed out toughness and grit. When the Terps struggled, he’d look down the bench and tell his players, “I’m gonna find me five.” His team would lock in, each player trying to ensure he’d be in the trusted group.

While he’ll always be remembered for coming up short of the Final Four, his teams made life hellish for the Tobacco Road powerhouses of the time. He coached great players: Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, John Lucas, Albert King, Buck Williams, and, of course, Len Bias.

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In a more just world, Bias might simply have been the best player Driesell ever coached. He was the dominant force of the 1984 team that finally broke through and won the ACC tournament — a team that Maryland happened to be honoring Saturday at halftime against Illinois.

But, while Bias’ play helped propel Maryland to great heights, his death from a cocaine overdose was the cataclysmic event that ended Driesell’s tenure and led to a three-decade alienation from the program he put on the map.

It was only in 2017 that Driesell got a banner hung in his honor, and in 2018 he got ushered into the Naismith Hall of Fame — honors that his many supporters, including former rivals like Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, thought were long overdue.

The gut-wrenching nature of Bias’ death undoubtedly played a role in the delay. Former player Jeff Baxter, who was Bias’ teammate, acknowledged that any leader takes a fall when bad things happen. But he refuted the idea that Lefty, who took the extra effort to show his players he cared about them, could have been a 24/7 monitor who could have stopped Bias from tragedy.

Ultimately, Baxter said, a reconciliation was due.

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“It was so good to see Maryland finally recognize that, that he was a powerhouse here,” Baxter said. “I’m so glad to see him get his roses.”

The 1984 team gathered on the court Saturday, holding an unintended wake for their old head coach. The Terrapins wore white uniforms with cursive script, a throwback to the Lefty days, and coach Kevin Willard led the team in a pregame prayer for the Driesell family. The game itself, in which the Terps battled the No. 14 Illini until the final seconds, seemed like a Lefty kind of defeat as well — a loss that forces a superior opponent to respect you.

None of this is what it is without Lefty Driesell, a shaper and transformer who never quite achieved his stated goal of making Maryland the “UCLA of the East” but pushed the program uphill to places it had never thought of before.

“Lefty had no fear,” Williams said. “Lefty would not take no for an answer. [He said,] ‘We’re gonna be good. We’re gonna eventually be a good basketball team.’”

Maryland was at its best after Lefty. But it would never have gotten there without him.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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