Two Saturdays ago Lefty Driesell presented the University of Maryland with its greatest basketball victory since, well, he last great one. That came in September when Tom McMillen registered at College Park. Now Driesell paced excitedly in the locker room, wearing-the game net around his shoulders and chewing on an unlit cigar. His team had upset South Carolina in overtime 31-30 and, Driesell told reporters, "We won with the good Lord's help." Then he saw Howard White, a sophomore guard, remove a tiny carved black cat from his locker, and Lefty covered all bases, as usual. "Keep rubbing the cat, Howard," he said. "We play Clemson Monday." Howard White must have rubbed well, for Maryland's Terrapins beat Clemson 56-52 and were off to their best start (9-3) in 13 years.
Driesell credits Maryland's success neither to miniature cats—he gave them to every team member before the season—nor to God. He does not even say the orange laces he has the Terrapins string into their sneakers before key encounters or the pregame meal of vegetable soup and cheese sandwiches that he superstitiously crams down their gagging throats are responsible. "Selling," says Driesell. "It's selling. That's all there is to coaching."
McMillen, the most sought-after high school prospect since Lew Alcindor, understands. He saw a great deal of Driesell last year. "He knows the way to succeed in coaching," McMillen says. "Whether or not it is right or wrong, ethical or unethical, a coach must always sell his program and himself. Coach Driesell has mastered the art of salesmanship."
Lefty Driesell began his pitch the moment he accepted the job at Maryland in March 1969. "I think I can build Maryland into the UCLA of the East Coast," he said at his press conference. "I don't know the governor of Maryland, but he ought to get involved in recruiting, too. I am going to win the national championship here."
Later in the spring a full-page, $600 ad appeared in the Washington Post aimed at the egos of four high school stars. The immediate result of this Driesell hard sell, however, was an NCAA reprimand.
In the fall of that year Driesell set out to convince the students at Maryland that an evening of basketball at Cole Field House actually could be fun. He placed rows of folding chairs around the basketball floor in order to increase crowd noise and audience participation. And then he tried to find a gimm ck like the famous stomp that had helped him win three Southern Conference championships at Davidson. To get the idea across he stomped himself. When he would become enraged at an official or wanted to fire up the crowd he would leap from the bench, throw down his jacket and jump on it. Mercifully, a new NCAA ruling restricts coaches to the bench, thus rendering the stomp extinct.
"When the fans think you're going to get beat you have to come up with something," he explained last week. His something hit him suddenly as he walked out for a South Carolina game at Cole Field House last season. It was almost like an involuntary spasm. He threw his left arm into the air, and his fingers made a V sign—for victory, Driesell insists, not peace. At each subsequent home game he gave the crowd one, two or three victory signals, depending upon the quality of the opposition. Now the crowd watches silently for the gesture, and when it comes Cole Field House erupts.
Because of his exuberant spirits and tough recruiting, Driesell has not always been the favorite of men whose teams he plays. But think nothing of it. Driesell doesn't. He is a campus folk hero and riding high. The pep band plays Hail to the Chief when he arrives on court before a game, he and his three assistants sit in golden director's chairs with their first names on the backs, and the students are contributing to an athletic scholarship fund by snapping up a whole line of Lefty products. There are T shirts and sweat shirts bearing his name and, most popular of all, the Lefty tie. It displays a cartoon of Driesell holding a basketball in one hand and making a V sign with the other.
Students who were first drawn to Cole Field House to watch Driesell gradually discovered the team. It finished the '69-'70 regular season with a 13-12 record and in the process outdrew every school in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But if life was fun for the fans, it was not always that neat for the players, some of whom had a difficult time adjusting to their new coach. Losses produce fury in Driesell, and it is not unusual for him to scream at his athletes for a full hour after a game. "You learn to pray when you play for Lefty Driesell," said last year's star, Will Hetzel. Now his ballplayers are used to his explosive temperament. "We know when he's going to yell at us," says Captain Barry Yates, "and it doesn't bother us much now."
Probably the tantrums will bother Tom McMillen and the freshman team, perhaps the best in the country this year, even less. Its record is 10-0 and McMillen is averaging 28.4 points a game. Guard Jap Trimble has 19 and Rich Porac, the other guard, has 14. In addition there is 6'9" Len Elmore, who tore a knee early this winter and is resting for a while. The team that advertising and selling built might turn out to be so good—next year, of course—that a speechless Driesell will be reduced merely to waving signals at the stands. How many Vees would he need for a national championship?