Charles “Lefty” Driesell is a former basketball head coach at Davidson College, University of Maryland, James Madison University and Georgia State. Lefty retired as the fourth-winningest college basketball coach of all time in 2003 and is now currently No. 10 on the all-time list.
In this interview Lefty and I discuss the origins of Midnight Madness, recruiting Moses Malone, the toughest defensive team he has ever coached against and much more.
SHAFIN KHAN: Talk to me about the origin of Midnight Madness, how did that begin?
LEFTY DRIESELL: It was Tom McMillen’s and Len Elmore’s sophomore year. We were just sitting around one day and I would always say “The harder you work the luckier you get.” You could start practice on October 15th back then. I always made my team run a mile the first day of practice and if they didn’t make it under six minutes they would have to run it everyday until they did. So, we said let’s run at midnight the night of October 14th. We put cars on the tracks so they wouldn’t cut corners on us. We had 700 or 800 people out there. The next year Maurice Howard one of the players said “Let’s have a scrimmage at midnight.” So, word got around that we were going to have a scrimmage and we had about 13,000 people there and that’s how it started.
KHAN: When you interviewed at Maryland, were any other schools pursing you at the time? What enticed you to choose Maryland?
DRIESELL: Well, Duke had offered me the [head coaching] job but I had already accepted the Maryland job. I mean we were 27-3 that year so I had all kinds of offers. N.C. State offered. I came to Maryland because it was in the nations capital and Cole Field house was the biggest arena in America. The NCAA Final Four was there two straight years when Texas Western won it there one year. It was just a chance to coach in the ACC which at the time was the number one basketball conference in America, it still might be.
KHAN: So, Duke had offered you the position as well?
DRISELL: Yes, but I had already accepted the Maryland job when the athletic director called me.
KHAN: Who were some of your idols growing up?
DRIESELL: [laughing] Well see, I grew up being a manager. I went to Granby high school from second grade to the 12th. I started playing football, baseball and basketball in the ninth. We won a state championship in football three years, basketball one year and baseball two years. So, the guys I looked up to were athletes playing in Granby high school back then and the basketball coach who became my coach. You probably won’t believe this but when I first when to Granby high school, Billy Story was the head football coach, head basketball coach and the head baseball coach. We only had two people in the athletic department and the athletic director. By the time I got to ninth grade we had a coach for each sport but when I was the manager before that Billy Story was the coach for all three teams. I used to like Ted Williams, I liked the way he batted and hit the ball. I idolized him as a baseball player. I used to go to New York in the summer time and watch the Yankees.
KHAN: Who were a couple of the toughest coaches you went up against?
DRIESELL: Well see, suppose I tell you who they are and someone is a friend of mine that I didn’t mention. I don’t want them to get mad at me. [laughing] I don’t to say who the best were or I’ll make a lot of people mad. They were all tough. When you coach in the ACC and in the Southern conference, I mean all of them were hard to beat. You had to out work them and had to out think them to beat them, it would be hard for me to pick out individual coaches. It’s hard for me to say.
KHAN: What year do you think you had the best team?
DRIESELL: [laughing] I don’t know, the teams that won the most. My last year at Davidson we were 27-3. I don’t know what our best record was at Maryland but I think we had six teams in the final top ten and at Davidson we had five teams in the final top ten. My goal was always to coach my team into the final top ten. If you ever got a team in the final top ten you got a real great team.
KHAN: What would you say was your biggest accomplishment at Maryland?
DRIESELL: About ninety percent of my players graduated which made me very happy. Tom McMillen was a Rhodes Scholar. Maryland had never had a Rhodes Scholar to my memory.
KHAN: Who was the hardest recruit to sign back in the day?
DRIESELL: [laughing] They were all hard. I never signed a recruit easy. I mean Moses Malone was the number one player in the country and obviously turned out to be a great player and a great guy. He and I were great friends until he died.
KHAN: If you could say something to Moses right now, what would you tell him?
DRIESELL: That I love him. He knew that. A lot of people will say that somebody else was the first high school player to go straight to the pros but Moses went straight to the ABA. Spencer Haywood went to the NBA from Detroit. Spencer Haywood was Moses’s idol and he wanted to be the first guy to ever be pro out of high school. He was a great player and a great individual.
KHAN: Who were a couple of the best defensive coaches of that era in the ACC?
DRIESELL: Mike Krzyzewski always had good defensive teams. Everybody was good, there were really no teams that were bad on defense that I could recall. Back then you didn’t have the three point shot. I always played a double post. I played two post men. Most of everyone else played single post. That was the only way you could get three points back then, if someone fouled you inside. We emphasized getting the ball inside, I did that for a long time too. When I got to Georgia State we started shooting three’s. We shot three’s at James Madison too but I always was a big man coach. I liked to get the ball inside.
KHAN: Do you ever wish the three-point was implemented earlier in your career?
DRIESELL: No, I don’t like the three point shot. I think every other one they shoot is a bad shot. I like the old times.
KHAN: What were your relationships with other ACC coaches like?
DRIESELL: I was friends with a lot of those coaches because they gave us a trip every summer. All the coaches we would go to Hawaii or somewhere like that. They were great trips, that’s when you would get to know a lot of the other coaches.
KHAN: Which of those coaches did you form a special relationship with?
DRIESELL: Well, I liked [Jerry] Tarkanian. Tark and I used to not play golf and we used to sit on the beach and talk basketball.
KHAN: Were you ever aware of other programs paying recruits?
DRIESELL: I don’t think people cheated that much back then. It might have happened but if it did I didn’t know about it. I think all this cheating has come up recently. I don’t know, I never did that.
KHAN: Who was the best team you ever faced?
DRIESELL: Cincinnati, when they won the national championship. That was by far the best defensive team I ever played against. Ed Jucker was the coach. They committed the fewest fouls in the country, they were a really great defensive team. Look up the year Ron Bonham played, the year they won the national championship. They were the best defensive team one my teams ever played.
KHAN: What does being in the Hall of Fame mean to you?
DRIESELL: It means everything. I mean I’ve been hanging around the gym since I was in the second grade. I always wanted to be a coach. I’m in about twelve Hall of Fame’s but the Naismith Hall of Fame is the one Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson and the greatest basketball players and coaches of all time are in there. So, I think every coach that has ever coached would love to be in the Naismith Hall of Fame. I’ve always wanted to be in the Naismith Hall of Fame and I’ve always wanted to be a very good coach. It meant a great deal to me.
KHAN: Who was the best player you ever coached?
DRIESELL: I don’t know. I’ve coached a lot of great players. Len Bias was a great player. John Lucas was a number one draft pick. Brad Davis and Buck Williams both got their NBA jerseys retired so obviously they were great players. I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of people now but I had a lot of great players. I just couldn’t say who the best was. I couldn’t name them all.