Saturday, March 29, 2008

From NY Newsday

Driesell put Davidson on college basketball map
Joe Gergen
9:53 PM EDT, March 25, 2008

Consider what Bob McKillop has wrought at Davidson College a charming sequel to a basketball version of the little train that could. It's not his fault that the original was so much more colorful. That's due almost entirely to the personality of the previous conductor, Charles Driesell, known to one and all as Lefty.

The man's teams won 786 games in 41 seasons at four institutions of higher learning and appeared in the NCAA Tournament 13 times in five different decades. He coached some of the great players in college basketball history at Maryland. But what remains truly remarkable about the Lefthander's career is that he lifted Davidson, a historic liberal arts college whose enrollment at the time was fewer than 1,000, to the level of a national basketball powerhouse during the 1960s.

As he pointed out just the other night from his home in Virginia Beach, "I can succeed anywhere. I know how to coach." He did not speak in the past tense. Driesell, 76, may have formally retired from the profession five years ago but still considers himself more of a participant than an observer.

The current Wildcats may have shocked the nation this season, first by their inclusion in the AP Top 25 ratings, later by their advance to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. All the more reason to marvel at what Driesell created 40 years ago when Davidson finished among the Top 10 four times and twice came within a basket or two of the Final Four. The same program had suffered 11 consecutive losing seasons when the onetime encyclopedia salesman unpacked his belongings on a campus 19 miles north of Charlotte.

"I had an assistant," he recalled, "but he was a baseball coach, too. My office was about 10 feet by 10 feet. My mother helped me paint it." Driesell was 29 and fresh off a 57-game winning streak and a state championship at Newport News High School in his native Virginia. He said he took a salary cut from $6,200 to $6,000 for the chance to coach in college. Oh, yes, the recruiting budget was approximately $500.

That didn't stop him from snagging his first recruit, Terry Holland, from the clutches of Wake Forest in the formidable ACC. Holland would become a successful coach at his alma mater and later at the University of Virginia. In Driesell's very first game, Davidson upset Wake, whose team would advance all the way to the East Regional final at the direction of point guard Billy Packer while the Wildcats faded to 9-14. But it would be Driesell's lone losing season at Davidson.

He recruited by car, driving thousands of miles by day and sleeping in the back at night. He convinced blue-chip center Fred Hetzel, from Washington, D.C., to forgo Duke. He won a tug of war with the Notre Dame football staff for Dick Snyder, an all-star quarterback from Canton, Ohio. He got Mike Maloy, a superb forward from Long Island City, to take a chance on the South. All three would be selected to All-American teams during the decade.

"We played the best teams in the country," Driesell recalled. "We played Cincinnati the year they won the national championship. We broke Ohio State's home-court winning streak when they had Gary Bradds. We played Duke, Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, NYU. We had a 2,000-seat campus gym but we used the Charlotte Coliseum (11,666) for big games like Duke. People weren't afraid to play good teams on the road in those days."

The Wildcats were ranked as high as No. 3 in the country in 1964 and No. 2 in 1969. They received the preseason nod as No. 1 by Sports Illustrated at the outset of the 1964-65 campaign. But they were doomed to disappointment. The '64 team was shocked by VMI in the Southern Conference Tournament at a time when leagues were permitted only one representative in the national showcase. One year later, Davidson was upset in overtime by West Virginia, snapping a 23-game winning streak. The '68 and '69 teams both reached the Elite Eight before excruciating losses to North Carolina.

One of the top players in the country in 1969 was Charlie Scott, a sharpshooter who had grown up in Harlem. While he was in high school, Scott's family moved to North Carolina where he soon was befriended by Driesell. After attending the Davidson basketball camp following his junior season, he verbally committed to the school, then changed his mind and signed with Dean Smith at the university in Chapel Hill. In the championship of the East Regional in 1969, Davidson turned the ball over with the score tied at 85-85 and Scott hit a jump shot from the top of the key just before the buzzer to thwart the Wildcats once more.

That game was staged at Cole Field House in College Park, where Driesell began the following season as coach of Maryland. Davidson enjoyed one more ranked season under Holland, then gradually faded from the national spotlight. The Wildcats, celebrating their basketball centennial, are back and Driesell is thrilled. He drove to Raleigh last weekend and witnessed the victory over Georgetown, appeared on the Davidson radio network at halftime and sent a note of congratulations to the team afterward.

"I love this team," he said. "That Stephen Curry is a great shooter. The point guard [Jason Richards] leads the country in assists. And Bob McKillop is a really fine coach."

Driesell said he expects the Wildcats to give third-seeded Wisconsin all it can handle Friday in Detroit. But then he never did believe any program was better than his, no matter how big. His final team, Georgia State, qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2001. Its first-round opponent was Wisconsin. Georgia State won and a reporter asked him afterward how a mid-major team like the Panthers could beat an elite team from the Big Ten.

"Ask the players from Wisconsin if we're mid-major," he growled.

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