Charles “Lefty” Driesell, the Hall of Fame Maryland basketball coach who introduced “Midnight Madness” and was known for his charm, died Saturday at 92.

Driesell coached the Terrapins for 17 seasons and won more than 300 games and, during his time in College Park, Driesell elevated the culture and stature of the program. He vowed to make Maryland the “UCLA of the East,” added courtside seats to Cole Field House and had a signature foot stomp when the performance from his team wasn’t up to his standard.

At Maryland, Driesell twice earned Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year honors and led the Terrapins to ACC regular-season titles in 1975 and 1980. He won an NIT championship in 1972 and an ACC tournament in 1984. Driesell guided the Terps to eight NCAA tournament appearances, and his teams were ranked in 13 of his seasons in College Park, reaching the No. 2 spot in four straight seasons in the 1970s.

“Words cannot express all that Coach Driesell embodied and the impact he made on the game,” Maryland coach Kevin Willard said in a statement. “Most importantly, however, was his commitment to his players and the depth of relationships he made with all those around him. Maryland and the college basketball world lost one of its monumental figures today.”

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Driesell’s time at Maryland ended in tragedy. Shortly after being chosen with the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft, star forward Len Bias died of a drug overdose on campus. The coach was forced to resign.

“I make this announcement with mixed emotions because I’ve loved every one of my 17 years as head coach at Maryland,” Driesell said at a news conference on the floor of Cole Field House. “But it is obvious that the administration wants to make a coaching change, and I do not want to coach if I am not wanted.”

Driesell also coached at Davidson, James Madison and Georgia State before retiring in 2003, then the fourth-winningest NCAA Division I men’s basketball coach. In 2018, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

COLLEGE PARK, MD - FEBRUARY 11:  Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams (L) receives a commemorative ball from former Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell (R) before the game February 11, 2006 at Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland. Williams and his team beat Virginia earlier in the week to become the Maryland coach with the most victories, passing former coach Lefty Driesell with 349 wins. Duke defeated Maryland 96-88.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
COLLEGE PARK, MD - FEBRUARY 11: Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams (L) receives a commemorative ball from former Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell (R) before the game February 11, 2006 at Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland. Williams and his team beat Virginia earlier in the week to become the Maryland coach with the most victories, passing former coach Lefty Driesell with 349 wins. Duke defeated Maryland 96-88. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

But, when Tom McMillen thinks of his former coach, it’s not so much the accolades. His mind goes back to a hotel room at 4 a.m., the morning of a game, when Driesell knocked and entered.

McMillen, who played center at Maryland before his professional basketball career and three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, largely chose the Terps because of his father. McMillen’s dad was in poor health, and by attending College Park he ensured that his dad could watch nearly all of his home games. But, late in his senior year, Driesell told McMillen the news: His father had died.

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For McMillen’s father’s funeral, Driesell chartered a flight to New York for the entire team to attend.

“The fact that he did that, I’ll never forget it,” McMillen said. “He had a great humanizing side to him that a lot of people didn’t see. They saw him stomping around and acting like a wild man on the court, but he actually had a very soft and tender side.”

Driesell could put aside on-court rivalries. He faced former North Carolina coach Dean Smith throughout his career, but as the legendary Tar Heels coach suffered from Alzheimer’s, Driesell kept in close contact.

“They fought like cats and dogs,” McMillen said. “But Dean and Lefty were very close at the end.”

Driesell was also lauded as a hero.

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In 1973, Driesell was credited with saving the lives of at least 10 children from several burning buildings in Delaware while he was on a fishing trip with friends. He broke down doors, and the kids managed to get to safety, according to the Washington Star-News, because of his efforts.

“Don’t build me up as any kind of hero,” Driesell told the Star-News. “All we did was try to get the kids out. It was just lucky that we were fishing right in front of the houses.”

Still, he earned the NCAA Award of Valor.

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Driesell was known for his superstitious tendencies. If Maryland lost a game along Tobacco Road, McMillen said, Driesell wouldn’t let his team return to the hotel where it stayed ever again.

He took a personal responsibility to fill arenas.

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When Gary Williams played at Maryland, he remembered the “vacuum” the Terps played in at Cole Field House, with fans far removed from the action. Driesell moved seats onto the floor, and, with himself as the conductor, Maryland fans created a rowdy, raucous home-court advantage.

“He had a trademark,” Williams said. “When things weren’t going well, he had a great stomp. He would hit that floor with his foot, and I looked at it and I thought, ‘Man, I hope he doesn’t break his foot.’ What I liked about Lefty, people knew how he felt. You know what I mean? You see some coaches, they’re all buttoned up and everything. Lefty was never like that. Lefty let his feelings be known, and I think that really helped create that Cole Field House atmosphere.”

Driesell also struck a commanding presence when he walked into a room. Williams, a high school coach in 1970, recalled Driesell recruiting one of Williams’ players. Recruits wanted to play for Driesell, and he helped turn Maryland’s fortunes around with the likes of McMillen, Bias, John Lucas and Len Elmore.

“When he was recruiting Tom McMillen, Tom evidently had gone to Princeton for a visit,” related Barry Gossett, a prominent Maryland booster. “He came back and told Lefty that he looked at the library in Princeton and looked at the library at Maryland, and Princeton had, let’s say, 16,000 books in their library and Maryland only had 4,000. So Lefty said: ‘Well, if you read all 4,000 books, I’ll get you more.’ That’s the kind of guy Lefty was.”

Added former Maryland coach Mark Turgeon: “Lefty was a bigger-than-life personality. He loved the game of college basketball and was always trying to promote and make it better. He was a great friend, and while I was at Maryland he would call me with endless ideas of how to make the program better. The world lost a great one today.”

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Lefty Driesell, center, new basketball coach at the University of Maryland, chats with George Raveling, right, an assistant, before a news conference, March 19, 1969. (AP Photo/William A. Smith) (William A. Smith/AP)

Driesell went on to coach at James Madison in 1988 before moving to Georgia State. At each stop, he brought a program to new heights, winning 100 or more games with each school. At the time of his retirement in 2003, only Smith, Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight had more career wins than Driesell’s 786.

He was beloved by Maryland fans. Stan Goldstein, a Maryland booster and longtime fan, began ardently following the Terps when Driesell increased the excitement around the program.

“He was a very funny guy,” Goldstein said. “He was a down-home guy with homespun humor. He was quite a character. So every time I think of him, you can tell, I’m smiling. He was just that kind of guy.”

Driesell’s former players stayed in touch with him throughout his life. They threw him a 90th birthday party two years ago that included speeches from former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, ESPN host and Maryland alumnus Scott Van Pelt and Congressman Steny Hoyer, among many others.

McMillen last saw him two weeks before his death. Until the end, McMillen said, Driesell maintained his humor and his ability to tell stories and recount memories. When McMillen learned of Driesell’s death Saturday, he was filled with gratitude for that one additional trip he made to visit his onetime coach.

“It was a gift to have those moments with him, and he’s a very special person in my family, in my life,” McMillen said. “One of a kind.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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