Lefty Driesell's Homage to John Wooden: 'The UCLA of the East'
"Today, people remind me of it all the time,'' Lefty Driesell said Saturday, as he recalled what has turned out to be the signature statement of his colorful, controversial and ultimately successful 41-year coaching career.
"It'' was his promise, when he was introduced in 1969 as Maryland's new basketball coach, to make Maryland "the UCLA of the East."
The Maryland program never quite made it to those heights under Driesell, although the turnaround he engineered was stunning, from an ACC also-ran before his arrival to a national contender within three years. His 17-year stint at Maryland ended in the wake of Len Bias's death in 1986, but by the time he retired in 2003 he had coached four programs into the NCAA tournament, and he later was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, Driesell's legendary boast served to illustrate how high a bar Wooden had set: in 1969, his Bruins had won their third straight national title, and fifth in six years, and would win four more in a row and five more in all before Wooden retired.
"We weren't the UCLA of the East, but we did pretty good,'' Driesell, now 78, said. "And I got people interested in (Maryland), and it gave the players a goal to strive for, something high to shoot for; a little confidence.''
As it turns out, that boast wasn't Driesell's idea. It came from Jay McMillen, a former Maryland player -- and teammate of future Terps coach Gary Williams, who eventually won the national title Driesell never did. McMillen had gotten together with Driesell and other Maryland athletic department officials at the 1969 East regional finals, which happened to be at Cole Field House on Maryland's campus, and where Driesell's Davidson team was playing Dean Smith's North Carolina squad for a Final Four berth.
Coincidentally, Jay McMillen had a brother that Driesell wanted to get to know better -- Tom, already the most highly-recruited high-school player in the country as a junior. Jay McMillen was hinting that Driesell might be happy taking Maryland's vacant coaching job, and in turn Driesell was hinting that he'd like Tom McMillen to follow him there if he went. Jay was as much of a fan of Wooden as anyone was, but he didn't want his brother to go all the way to California to play, nor did he even want him going as far away as Chapel Hill, where Smith was recruiting him hard for the Tar Heels.
So, the elder McMillen threw this out to Driesell: "I said, 'Maryland really could be the UCLA of the East,''' he recalled Saturday. "So when he took the job, he just repeated it.
"It was received somewhat outlandishly, but I wanted him to think about the advantages at Maryland. UCLA was in Los Angeles, but Maryland was close to D.C., near all the political stuff. Maryland was in the ACC, UCLA was in the Pac-10. I thought Cole Field House was as good (as), or better than, Pauley Pavilion. Maryland's academics were up-and-coming. All we had to do was get the basketball program up to par.
"It wasn't done as a stupid thing. At the time, I really believed it.''
So did Driesell, who had no trepidation repeating it when he was hired, knowing he'd be reminded of it every day afterward. But, he said with a laugh, "I said that as a recruiting pitch to try to get Tom.''
Said Tom McMillen, "Oh, I heard about it, all right,'' and he did sign with Maryland the following year and not only became the defining player of Driesell's early years, but earned a Rhodes Scholarship and eventually made it to both the NBA and Congress. On Saturday, McMillen was inducted into Maryland's Alumni Association Hall of Fame, and Driesell drove up from his Norfolk, Va., home to be there.
Ironically, McMillen's Rhodes Scholarship interview took place the same week that Driesell's Terps and Wooden's Bruins met for the first time, at Pauley Pavilion in December 1973; UCLA won 65-64. That was the same season in which both programs suffered historic losses to North Carolina State: Maryland in the ACC tournament championship to deny the Terps an NCAA berth, and UCLA in the Final Four to end their run of seven straight national titles.
Tom McMillen said he had never seriously considered going so far away for school. "But,'' he said of Wooden, "he was God-like in the profession. He had a very simple philosophy, but his teams always executed it ... Yet although he was philosophically old-fashioned, his teams were always so creative. He ran the fast-break. He built his teams around the talent, around (Kareem Abdul-) Jabbar and then around (Bill) Walton. He was modern in his approach.''
Driesell praised Wooden as "a great, great coach. We need more coaches like him now. A good man, a Christian man.'' One of the lessons he learned, and passed on to his own teams, was, like many Wooden taught, not directly related to basketball.
"I saw that Coach Wooden always made his players pick up the tape they'd left on the floor of the locker room whenever they visited someplace -- you know how you take off the tape and throw it down,'' Driesell remembered. "So after that, I made my players clean up the locker room after every game on the road. I told them, 'Leave it the way it was when you came in.' It's something you never think about, until he did it.'
"He was a great, great coach and a better human being.''