As the sterile winter sun claimed its place in the sky at College Park, Md. last Sunday, a persistent drone swelled up from a red-brick airplane hangar and mixed with the gruff sounds of morning traffic along U.S. 1. By high noon the buzz was a roar, the ground a metronome swaying in time as the spacious University of Maryland Cole Field House started a-rockin' and a-shakin'. The congregation had the spirit because Preacher Man was holding another revival service.
It was the battle for No. 2, and for the status of being top dog, East Coast division. It was undefeated Maryland against undefeated North Carolina State. It was Maryland's Preacher Man against all those who hate him, with a packed field house and uncounted nasties out in television land looking on in anticipation. Would Preacher Man do The Stomp? Would he reserve his right to remain silent? Would he get kissed, or hissed? Would he kneel, fight or bite? Would Lefty Driesell win and thus endure another day as a happy but afraid man?
Two hours later the sun had moved a little, the airplane hangar was still and the answer was in. Lefty would endure, but forget the happy man bit for awhile. This game had loomed big as any for Driesell, a onetime encyclopedia salesman who appeared on the University of Maryland campus three years ago and set about the audacious task of building himself a national champion. For hammer and nails he used guile, gall and God. He advertised for players; they arrived. He enlarged upon a courtside manner that included taking off his coat and jumping up and down on it. That was The Stomp. He crawled on his belly like a reptile, prayed on his knees and fought hand-to-hand combat with opposing players—and his own, too. "If you know me, you know from Oct. 15 to the end of the season I don't get along with anybody," says Lefty. "I don't really care what other people think of me. And I ain't afraid of failing."
But stress is a heavy mantle and it showed as Preacher Man prepared his team for North Carolina State. He closed his practices and refused to talk to outsiders. Day by day observers could see the screws to his pressure plate turning tighter and tighter. Preacher Man is successful but his acerb style leaves him with as many enemies as a hard-working meter maid. He feuds with the media whenever the prose turns from a paean to a panning, such as the time a reporter noted he had 48 photos of himself in his den. Such things are cause enough to draw the curtain on practice, zip up his players' vocal cords and launch a letter of protest. It is not clear whether he thinks he is George Allen or vice versa, but his critics call him an egotist and a farce, scorning his country homilies, claiming his banter and pomp are only a supercilious bluff to hide the fact that he cannot coach.
"They sort of had to eat their words when we won the NIT last year, though," says Tom McMillen, Maryland's leading scorer, who was up at five a.m. one day last week for a meeting with Senator Mike Mansfield about an off-season job. "He has to be on the defensive to the public. To see his real personality you'd have to go over to his house for breakfast with the team and watch him with his family. His goal is to be a total winner. It bothers him to take a vacation. He misses the time away from work."
He doesn't miss much else. Originally Maryland had scheduled a game with Wake Forest for Saturday night, the eve of the Big One. Driesell got that moved to later in the season. Last week he put alarm clocks in his players' rooms, waking them up by dawn's first light for practice so they would be accustomed to the early action of a noontime start.
Playing on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference is a tense business, right up there with finding the lights on in your living room when you are trying to sneak home late at night. Maryland, for instance, lost five games last year, all in the ACC, all on the road. But Norm Sloan, the N.C. State coach, was optimistic as he headed into Maryland. "We're playing at noon and the game is on national television," he reasoned. "That could even things out."
Sloan's team prepared by beating Duke and then Lehigh, scoring 115 points (only 12 over its average) in the second game on Friday night. That over with, the Wolfpack piled into a bus, drove to Petersburg, Va. and spent the night there before traipsing into College Park on Saturday afternoon.
This season is something of a paradox for N.C. State. The Wolfpack is on probation for one year for a series of recruiting violations and is barred from postseason NCAA competition. Thus the regular season has added significance. To get this far State had used a little-big-men connection. The little was Monty Towe, 5'6" and still hoping to grow so that one day he will be able to leap up and touch the rim. The big were David Thompson, 6'4", and Tom Burleson, almost a foot taller than that.
In the opening weeks sophomore Thompson was leading the nation in scoring, a fact hat excited the people of North Carolina as much as if it had been discovered that cigarettes add 10 years to your life-span. In recent games the 18-year-old's scoring diminished from sensational to just above highly exciting, but Towe was growing, if only in reputation.
Part of Towe's appeal is his size and part is his nerve, or perhaps lack of brains. Last week he was playing with a broken nose and wearing a face mask for protection, leading opposition players to ask: "Who was that masked man?" In addition, his left wrist was sheathed in a plastic splint to protect another broken bone and he was troubled by a pinched nerve in a leg. "He's got character leapin' out of him," Sloan says of his midget basket case. "He really takes his lumps. But I'll tell you, when he talks out there everybody listens."
On the floor, sophomore Towe is an improbable but forceful leader. He scampers about pointing out his teammates' mistakes and encouraging them to apologize through redeeming action. He controls the ball, parceling it out to open players or firing in a jump shot from outside if he can see the rim through the forest. Yet for all of his talent, Towe is not the player Thompson is, as indeed how many others in college ball are? Thompson is an extraordinary outside shooter with facile moves going to the basket, but his most spectacular attribute is his jumping. "Sometimes I go up to block a shot and I feel like the ball is just a little out of my reach," he says. "It seems like I can feel my arm growing. It's coming right out of my shoulder. And all of a sudden I can stretch and reach the ball."
But if Norm Sloan was well fixed, Preacher Man was hardly arriving at the prayer meeting unattended. Besides Olympian McMillen, he had Len Elmore, Bob Bodell and Jim O'Brien, nicknamed "Mo," "Bo" and "O," as well as John Lucas, a freshman guard familiar with the nets—he also is a fine tennis player. "Elmore is the heart and soul of their team," said Sloan. "He blocks shots. He shoots. They play a zone press and I don't think they even care if you beat it because if you do Elmore's back there waiting."
"We complement each other excellently," says McMillen, a junior pre-med major with a 3.8 grade average. He shares double-post duties with Elmore, also a junior. "Elmore's two greatest skills are his shot blocking and his rebounding. Shooting is my strength. By the time we're seniors, it'll be amazing."
Unfortunately for Lefty, they are still juniors, and only the game was amazing, as N.C. State and Thompson stole it all 87-85. Consider the ending first.
With the score tied 85-85 and 1:45 remaining, McMillen fired a wild hook shot. State got the rebound and ran down the clock until only 12 seconds remained. Sloan then made a surprise move, deciding not to run a set play. He hoped unplanned movement would produce an opening. What happened was that Burleson wound up 25 feet from the basket with time fleeting and frantically launched a shot that rattled in and out of the basket. Thompson picked up the ball and later the commentary: "I had faked and broken to the inside and was open, but Burleson didn't see me and took the shot. I had position on the boards and I just went up. The ball was there." There, and a second later Thompson had it safely in the basket.
"Isn't he beautiful?" said Towe. Well, not to Preacher Man, who submitted to a half-minute postgame interview and then took refuge behind his bolted locker-room door for half an hour before coming forth to pronounce it all "part of life."
It was Driesell's game plan, as much as "life," that undid him, however. He played the entire first half using a zone press, but State solved that easily and got the ball upcourt to free men, usually Thompson, who wound up with 37 points. The zone press had carried Maryland this season and Lefty was loath to shelve it until halftime—at which point he trailed 53-44. Then, after his team fought back and took the lead 85-83 with four minutes remaining, Driesell ordered a stall that inhibited Maryland's surge as effectively as any State defense could have. Driesell's strategy did get the normally reliable McMillen to the free-throw line twice in bonus situations but he missed and that, too, is life. It is also why N.C. Stale is 12-0 and Maryland is 10-1.
Packing it in for the Wolfpack, Thompson goes over Maryland's Tom McMillen to score.