By In Stuff

No Left Turn


Well, it was sad to see that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame did not name Lefty Driesell as a finalist this year. It was a little bit more than sad, actually. It baffles the mind.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a bit Lefty’s extraordinary basketball life.

The most common response I got was simply: “I had no idea that Lefty was NOT in the Hall of Fame.”

You would think he would be, yes. You would think that a man who won 786 games — still Top 10 all time even though teams played many fewer games then — who won everywhere he went, who invented March Madness, who almost singlehandedly made Washington a college basketball town and so on would be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. You would think honoring coaches like Lefty Driesell is the very reason you have a Basketball Hall of Fame.

But there’s something about Lefty Driesell that the Hall of Fame misses. I suspect it is Lefty’s bad timing. He built one of the greatest teams in the country at Davidson — DAVIDSON! — but they could not quite overcome Dean Smith’s North Carolina (mainly because Smith somehow took Charlie Scott away from Driesell).

He built one of the greatest teams in college basketball history at Maryland — but they just so happened to be in the same conference as N.C. State when David Thompson played there. The two schools played what many still call the greatest basketball game ever played; N.C. State won and went on to become national champions. Maryland lost and went home. It was like that in those days.

He was on the brink of building a mind-blowing college basketball team when he successfully recruited a pretty good high school basketball player named Moses Malone. But his family needed the money, and so when he was drafted — on something of the lark — by the Utah Stars of the ABA, he turned pro.

And he built a magnificent team at Maryland in the mid-1980s, built around the great Len Bias, but that team lost 46-43 to a charmed Villanova team in the Sweet 16. Maryland had beaten Villanova just two months earlier, but this time Villanova played a plodding style, lots of switching defenses. “I thought we just shot bad,” Lefty said after the game.

“This game, or more correctly a facsimile of such, was supposed to be played for keeps,” wrote Tom Melody. ” What it was, though, was awful. This one, sports fans, was played for sleeps.”

I bring all this up because while Lefty Driesell did not make the finalist list, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino did. Massimino does not the career resume of Driesell, at least not at the Division I level. He has 481 Division I victories and 375 losses — compare that to Driesell’s 786-394 record. Lefty’s teams won 16 regular season championships; Massimino’s teams won five. Lefty won big at four different schools, taking all of them to the NCAA Tournament at some point. Massimino coached at three Division I schools but only took Villanova to the tournament.*

*He STILL coaches at NAIA Division II Keiser University in West Palm Beach, even at age 82.

BUT … Massimino’s team won that ugly game in 1985. They followed up by slowing down the game (it was one year before the shot clock) and playing great defense and beating a Dean Smith North Carolina team with Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty. They knocked off Keith Lee and Memphis in the Final Four and then, of course, upset Georgetown in the final, one of the great upsets in college basketball history. It is a fantastic run.

And that’s why Rollie Massimino is a finalist. He had that run. Lefty never did. Driesell’s teams never quite made a Final Four. They made the Elite Eight twice. They won the NIT Tournament when it still meant something. But Lefty never quite had the timing down.

Bo Ryan, with 394 career Division I victories, is also a Hall of Fame finalist … he, like Massimino, had success at lower levels. He also had a couple of terrific runs to the Final Four.

Bill Self, who is just 54 years old and still should have many more years as a coach, is also a finalist. I’m not sure the point of putting in an active coach like Self, long before he can ever appreciate it.

I should say: I would put Massimino, Ryan and Self (eventually) in the Hall of Fame. Absolutely. But Lefty should go first. His impact on the game, his genius as a coach, his ability to build winning teams … all of it is so obvious that it just doesn’t make sense that the Hall of Fame keeps missing it.


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27 Responses to No Left Turn

  1. Mark Daniel says:

    I was in HS in the ’80s and a huge fan of Big East Basketball. I didn’t follow the ACC at all, other than seeing the occasional game on the weekend and in the tourney.
    But in ’86, Driesell was fired from Maryland amidst some scandal. This gave him the reputation of being a corrupt coach. I don’t think I knew why he was fired back then, but I do recall believing that Driesell was some kind of shady huckster.
    I had to look it up just now to find out why he was fired. Apparently, Len Bias died, and with the media attention that ensued, it was found that several Maryland players weren’t going to class and were failing all their courses. Driesell was fired (I found out just now that he wasn’t fired, just “reassigned”).
    Anyway, perhaps that reputation I recall still lingers, to the detriment of his HoF case. I don’t know why it would linger, though. John Calipari, he of the two vacated final fours, was enshrined in 2015.
    If it’s because of the lack of final fours, I suppose that doesn’t bode well for Gene Keady, who was on the list of candidates this year also.

  2. Rob Smith says:

    I’m not sure why this is a surprise. Things may have been different back then, but how many people really remember? Today writers & fans are always caught up in the championship narrative. How many championships did Tom Brady or Joe Montana or LeBron or MJ or Coach K, or whoever win? If you don’t have a championship narrative, especially if you’re a coach, then you just don’t have what they are looking for.

    I’m not saying, btw, that I agree. I watched Lefty show up at Georgia State and take a non existent program that nobody cared about to something like 25 wins. And this was when he was old and at the end of his career. He was quite obviously a great coach. He just needed some kind of signature win to put the bow on it. Not even having a final four appearance makes it really tough to get over the top with a lot of voters.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I’m not saying this is right but a lot of people thought of Lefty as a great recruiter but not a great coach. I can’t say one way or another but that might be part of the problem along with his reputation, alluded to by the previous commenter, of being a bit of a huckster.

      • Rob Smith says:

        I don’t think anything else would have mattered if he had a Championship. That’s the barometer for everything. If the Falcons won the Super Bowl, Matt Ryan would join the future short list for HOF. Since his team blew a lead, he’s no longer on that list. That’s the way things roll these days.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          I don’t know if I agree about Ryan. Obviously, we have to see how the rest of his career plays out. I don’t think winning one Super Bowl would have cemented his case for the HOF and I don’t think losing it destroys it. Look at Joe Flacco; won a SB, got a huge contract, and is basically a slightly above average QB. Ryan is clearly better than Flacco and he could make the Hall even if he doesn’t win a SB.

  3. Al Michaels says:

    I think there is something else more shocking about the Hall finalists this year. Most Top 100 lists, those that list the top 100 players in NBA history, have Sidney Moncrief on it. Sure, he’s in the lower quarter, anywhere from 75-100, but he’s still on it. This is his first year as a finalist, 28 years after he last laced them up.

    That’s unbelievable. The NBA HOF is the weakest Hall of the big 3 (half of the people are unknown even to big basketball aficianados) but how does a great player never become a finalist before 28 years have passed. Most other sports would have him on their senior or veteran’s committee.

    • invitro says:

      Moncrief ranks only #105 in NBA/ABA career WS, but that’s because his career was short, which is probably why he hasn’t gotten HoF support. His career WS/48 ranks #30, which is the highest among eligible players (Kevin Johnson is next at #43). So I’ll approve of your Moncrief endorsement. Even if he should get dinged for skipping out on some decline years, he should be in.

      I’m curious about something. Wikipedia says he sat out the 1989-90 season, when he was 32, but offers no other information. He was still a super player at age 31, with a .151 WS/48. He returned to play the 1990-91 season with Atlanta, and then retired. Why did he sit out the one year, and why did he retire so early? (He wasn’t so good in 1990-91, a .079 WS/48, a borderline starter or good bench player.)

      • otistaylor89 says:

        Sidney Moncrief was my favorite player growing up. He had a great college career and his NBA career was shortened by knee issues going back to college days (I believe it was on of the reasons he sat out a year). At 6’4″ he could cover point guards to someone as tall as Larry Bird in the 2nd half of the 1979 Regional Finals.
        He’s a HOFers in my book.

        • Al Michaels says:

          otistaylor89 has it right. He “retired” from the Bucks because of his knees. He sat out a year, feeling better, then wanted to play closer to home so the Bucks let him out of his contract.

      • MikeN says:

        I remember when Glenn Robinson became the Bucks all-time leading scorer. Charles Barkley, “He’s no Sidney Moncrief! He’s a good player and all, but he’s not Sidney Moncried. And you’re no Ernie Johnson Sr.” “I’ll admit to that.” “You’re not even a Marv Albert.”

  4. Brian Rostron says:

    “who almost singlehandedly made Washington a college basketball town”

    Lefty got to Maryland a few years earlier, but John Thompson (who grew up in segregated DC, played for a legendary Carroll High team, had a famous feud with Hall of Famer Morgan Wootton as a high school coach, and coached an all-Black Georgetown team with a “Hoya paranoia” reputation) was about 10 times more important in the DC area in the early ’80s.

  5. Larry Schmitt says:

    Lefty not being in the Hall of Fame is as outrageous as Buck O’Neil not being in the Baseball Hall.

  6. invitro says:

    What about Bob Huggins and Eddie Sutton?
    Driesell: 786-394 (.666), 16 conf champs, 3 Elite Eights, 0 Final Fours.
    Huggins: 812-327 (.713), 13 conf champs, 4 Elite Eights, 2 Final Fours.
    Sutton: 806-326 (.712), 9 conf champs, 6 Elite Eights, 3 Final Fours.
    If I went by that data, I’d put Huggins & Sutton in before Lefty.

    • Rob Smith says:

      True, but Huggins and Sutton will never be in the HOF. Huggins lost his Cincy job where he was hit with NCAA probabation, got a DUI and had a zero percent graduation rate. Sutton lost his KY job under a scandal that included multiple NCAA violations. They makes Lefty’s issues about players not going to class look like a high school prank.

      But to your point, when you line up their records, they have better resumes.

      • invitro says:

        I find it strange that a coach is responsible for players’ graduation, and whether they go to class. The players are adults, it should be their choice if they attend class and do the work, like it is everyone else’s. Players should lose their scholarship if they don’t go to class, like I would’ve. If players don’t have the intelligence to do class work, then admissions should be blamed, not the coach, and the university should assist the player in transferring to a junior or community college. Oh well!

        • Marc Schneider says:

          Except that the coach has a vested interest in the players doing well to the exclusion of their class work. I’m pretty sure coaches in the past have made it more difficult for players to go to class or made it clear they would lose their scholarship if they didn’t play well. The coach’s incentive is to win regardless of whether the players graduate. Saying the players are “adults” is a bit disingenuous; they are 18-21 years old. Legally, they may be adults but my guess is you don’t have kids that age; they aren’t adults yet. It’s very easy for someone in authority to have undue influence over kids that age. I’m not saying the players don’t have any responsibility, but if you absolve coaches entirely, bad things will happen.

          • invitro says:

            “coaches in the past have made it more difficult for players to go to class or made it clear they would lose their scholarship if they didn’t play well.” — I guess I’m naive? I’ve never before encountered the idea that coaches would actually discourage the students from going to class; how would they do this? Why would they do this? Hasn’t checking attendance of athletes been in place for a long time? And what would be the mechanism of voiding a scholarship for poor play… is that even legal? Are you talking about the present or the distant past? Are there any examples of either of these two things?

            No, I don’t have any kids at all, but I tutored literally thousands of 18-21yo students, and taught them in a couple dozen classes, so I feel safe in saying I know 18-21yos as well as (probably much better than) any person here. But that’s kind of beside the point. As long as the coach isn’t committing some major malfunction of the like you mention, even if they’re young adults, they should be expected to behave like adults, and have to face the consequences if they don’t… again, just like I did, and I assume you did, and everyone else that went to college. The correct way to handle their being young is to not have a zero-tolerance policy, but give them warnings, put them on probation, etc., before doing something drastic. Which I think is what colleges currently do, or did when I was a student/grad student/instructor.

            And finally (I know I’m being long-winded), I’m not talking about absolution, but rather a transference of duties from the coach to people that I think are supposed to handle those duties: admissions and other university administrators.

            And finally, take 2, I’m not in general comfortable with scholarship athletics anyway, which implies that I’m not comfortable with a university having an employee, the coach, whose duty is to win at all costs. The employees of a university should all be in academics, plus the minimum number of administrators (about a tenth of current numbers). All coaches should be volunteers who are paid for their other university duties, but not for coaching. Well, I can dream.

  7. I grew up and still live in Las Vegas, where Jerry Tarkanian had his incredible run as a coach, and he had to wait a looooooong time to get in, no doubt because of the NCAA issues (and let’s just say he gave the NCAA reason to be suspicious of him, and he gave no quarter in return). Lefty had his issues, too, from all that I hear, and I wonder what role that plays. Ideally, as with Tarkanian, he will get there while he can still smell the roses.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Tarkanian had a 761-202 (.790) winning record that included stops at powerhouses like Long Beach State, UNLV (which was no powerhouse before Tarkanian and not after) and Fresno State. He had 3 Final Fours and a Championship. His resume is WAY more impressive than Lefty’s. Tark’s NCAA issues were the ONLY reason he wasn’t voted in while he was still coaching.

  8. Unvenfurth says:

    You don’t remember the public insanity that broke out after Len Bias died? The only thing I can compare it to is how Trump critics are behaving now. When Len Bias died anyone who ever took a puff off a joint in college was part of this huge scourge of DRUGS that must be eradicated!!!! Lefty was tarred and feathered by that public hysteria that took place after the Bias death. He probably is still being unfairly penalized for his association with that incident.

    • invitro says:

      Bias didn’t die from pot. He died from cocaine. And getting hysterical or insane over young men dying from cocaine seems pretty reasonable to me. Do you think it would’ve been better for the public to just laugh Bias’ death off and say boys will be boys?

      • Crazy Diamond says:

        Invitro: I appreciate your making the distinction, because it’s a BIG distinction. Cocaine, especially crack cocaine, can kill you in one snort. Marijuana is a totally different drug altogether and is not – in virtually all cases – dangerous at all. Now obviously if you get super-potent stuff, that’s different, but the overwhelming majority is perfectly safe. I couldn’t care less if people smoke refer. But cocaine? That’s another story. That’s a dangerous drug that has destroyed cities and communities from the inside out. That warrants hysteria. Weed does not.

        • invitro says:

          Yes, but you need to be careful about one thing. If you consider tobacco cigarettes to be dangerous, then pot cigarettes are *extremely* dangerous. Pot has everything tobacco has, squared and then cubed. The CDC used to say that smoking a joint was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes, in damage done to the lungs. There are a lot of high-times wackos who ignore this fact (and it is indeed a medical fact), but if you smoke pot, you should expect to get lung cancer, and die ten years before abstainers.

  9. Austin Dave says:

    There’s a basketball hall of fame?

    Seriously, no one cares about it – I think because it’s for the sport overall. If the NBA created its own hall of fame think of how exciting that would be. Who would be in the first class?

    • Crazy Diamond says:

      I dunno…I think it’s kind of cool that Reggie Miller and Cheryl Miller are both (deservedly) in the same HOF. Pat Summit and Charles Barkley and Jerry West and Bob Knight – all in the same place. It’s nice to have such different types of people in the same Hall.

      • invitro says:

        Not to mention all the east Europe players that are barely known or unknown in the USA. (And, forgive me, but it’s one of my alma maters… it’s Summitt. 🙂 )

  10. invitro says:

    I guess Joe doesn’t write much about the NBA, but I’m still wishing for an article or two on the two big events of Dead Week — the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, and the firing of the Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak. I’m very interested to see what happens with the involved teams, but I guess I’m in a pretty tiny minority there :).

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