For Charles(Lefty) Driesell and his Davidson Wildcats the obligation to play in lastweek's eight-team Southern Conference championship tournament made about asmuch sense as Billy Conn's calamitous 1942 kitchen brawl with hisfather-in-law. Having nothing to gain by a victory over the old man, the worldlight-heavyweight champ nevertheless let fly a haymaker. He broke his hand onpop's hard skull, thereby bringing about a four-year postponement of amillion-dollar title fight with Joe Louis. Bound by conference rules to risk asimilar fate, fifth-ranked Davidson traveled 20 miles down the road toCharlotte, N.C. to take on weakling members of the conference family, knowingthat failure to lick them would mean the loss of a shot at the nationalchampionship.
Davidson was 22-2in regular-season play, 9-0 in conference competition. Obscure East Carolina,with the next-best record in the field, was 15-10 and 9-2. Davidson would haveto win three games in as many nights to take the tournament—or, in other words,to qualify for the NCAA playoffs. And, as Lefty Driesell well knew, basketballteams are even more prone than fighters to experience bad nights. (Indeed,against a so-so Iowa club this season, his boys had missed their first 15 shotsand were beaten.) But try to convince his players? Hard-pressed for pep-talkmaterial in the moments before the tournament opener with VMI (5-17), Driesellfetched only smirks when he declared with a straight face: "Look at it thisway. This game is the first of an eight-game tournament for the nationalchampionship."
For Driesell, a6'5" agonizer who is losing his hair at 36, a defeat at this pointconceivably could have brought an ignominious end to his magical Davidsoncareer. Maryland was trying to steal him with a fat contract. "Rumors, justrumors," he insisted. But if he had it in mind to say yes to Maryland, thenhe was about to lay down his own remarkable creation—a basketball dynasty(ranked among the nation's top 10 in four of the last six years) fashioned frombona fide scholars. Elegant Davidson College admits no athletic tramps. YetDriesell has turned out aggressive, hard-running outfits that explode their wayto the hoop and on defense play as diligently as deputies escorting dangerousfelons. Going to his scrubs as early as the first half, Driesell watched hislatest class blast VMI out of the conference tournament 99-75.
Richmond was theWildcats' opponent the following night and opted to counter Davidson'shurly-burly style with Greenfield Jimmy Smith tactics, Greenfield Jimmy havingbeen not only the father of Billy Conn's wife, but a sweet counterpuncher whoput Billy in dark glasses after the kitchen caper. Although not quite thatbelligerent, Richmond shoved and elbowed energetically enough to hold MikeMaloy, Davidson's skinny, 6'7" All-America, to six rebounds. But Davidsonis nothing if not balanced and deep, so husky Doug Cook pulled down 15,versatile Jerry Kroll grabbed nine and, before going to the bench for theirdeserved rest, the Wildcat regulars laid the foundation for a 97-83victory.
March 10, 1969
In theSaturday-night final East Carolina—also advancing according to form—would makethe last effort to deprive the Southern Conference of its only suitablerepresentative to the NCAA playoffs. Coach Tom Quinn, a roosterish, gum-chewingman wearing mod blue that, on him, looks like Prohibition gangster attire,brought his team out in a zone, which Davidson immediately shot to pieces frominside and out with a five-man barrage. In little more than five minutes theWildcats led 21-11. "Get in there and throw your damn shoulders," Quinnyelled at his men. He might better have suggested grenades. The high point ofthe game—the final score was 102-76—came when Rocky Crosswhite, apebble-muscled 6'9" senior who affects a spit curl and is approximatelyDriesell's No. 10 man, brought a thunderous roar from the crowd by sinking afree throw for Davidson's 100th point. It was fitting, Davidson's intellectualclimate being what it is, that Rocky do the honors. He is a campus literarylion whose essays in The Davidsonian frequently slice patches of flesh off thehide of none other than Lefty Driesell.
Following thefinal buzzer, the Wildcat Club, a group of Davidson alumni, hinted that itwished Driesell to stay at Davidson by presenting him with a Thunderbird. Hegrinned for just an instant, then went to the pressroom, where he announced,"I think we're gonna win the national championship, but I can't do it withmy mouth."
Nine years agowhen Davidson hired Driesell from a field of two candidates, college officialshad absolutely no intention of going after championships. In the seasonimmediately preceding Driesells 1960 arrival, Davidson had lost to Erskine,Catawba and Pfeiffer. Such defeats were not of themselves particularlydistressing to the college, athletics being held lightly in the total scheme ofthings, but a measure of mild concern grew out of the fact that the misnamedWildcats had not enjoyed a winning season in 11 years. In fact, they had beenwhipped six consecutive times by—good Lord!—the McCrary Eagles. It would benice to start winning a few games, though not so many as to become coarse.
Driesell lookedlike the right man for the job—competent but undistinguished. The son of aNorfolk, Va. jeweler, he had played basketball at Duke, averaging only 5.1points as a senior and, at the time Davidson interviewed him, was 27 andcoaching at Newport News High. There he had run up a string of 57 straightvictories, a record that ought to have put Davidson officials on their toes butinstead was dismissed as flash-in-the-pan high school stuff.
Driesell accepteda salary of $6,000, which, though $200 higher than his high school pay,represented a slash in earnings. At Newport News he had made $2,000 extra ayear peddling encyclopedias door to door. Davidson President D. Grier Martin,now retired, told him he could give out 11 scholarships—at least nine fewerthan collegiate powers generally allot—over a four-year period and tendered himthe customary advice that the college would ask nothing more than "arepresentative team." Driesell nodded. He did not bother to tell PresidentMartin the source of his coaching philosophy, namely, one Julie Conn—norelation to Billy, but a man of similar temperament.
"Behind atthe half one time," says Driesell, "Julie went into the dressing roomsteaming. He punched a locker and busted up his hand somethin' terrible. It wasjust dripping blood. Then he went from one player to another and shook thatbloody fist under each guy's nose and said, 'Look what you did to me.' Ilearned everything I know from Julie."
Yes, closerinspection would have revealed that Lefty Driesell did not blend perfectly intothe Davidson environment. Steeped in good breeding and Presbyterian morality,Davidson lies in the red-clay country north of Charlotte, the campusaccommodating an orderly assortment of red-brick buildings fronted by whiteGeorgian columns. The administration, an alumnus named Don Bryant recalls, usedto forbid students to engage in Sunday sports until, at last, tennis wasdeclared permissible, provided one did not keep score. The Davidson studentbody, to this day limited to 1,000 or so males, is expected to get on with thebusiness of becoming doctors, lawyers, ministers, successful merchants orscholars. Davidson ranks eighth among the nation's liberal-arts colleges inRhodes scholarships won. Intellects, then, were what Driesell gazed upon whenhe called his first squad together.
Scowling, hestraightaway told the players, "I understand you guys care more about yourfraternity teams than this varsity. That is gonna stop." He harangued themfor a solid two hours, during which he declared, "I have never lost anopener, and I don't intend to start now. So, first of all, we will beat WakeForest." Titters ran across the room. Yet by the time Driesell finishedgrinding his fraternity boys through preseason training, they realized they hadbetter beat Wake Forest. So they did, playing heads-up, letter-perfect ballfrom sheer fright. That season they won nine games and lost 14, while Driesellwhipped the faculty into a mood roughly approximating that of Adolf Eichmann'sjury.
Professors,administrators and alumni blanched when an incensed Driesell launched himselfoff the bench, hiked his left knee to his chin and then brought his foot to thefloor with a crash that threatened to take him directly to the boiler room."It was terrible public relations," says ex-President Martin, a tall,courtly man, himself once a Davidson basketball player. "It really became amajor issue. I asked Lefty to have a chat with me."
The chat failed,so additional chatting followed. "This led to some improvement but notenough," says Dr. Martin, who had his hands full holding Davidson brass atbay.
"In Lefty'ssecond season, I believe it was, I finally decided I'd have to put this wholepicture on the line and convince him that unless he could stop these things hewould not be our coach."
Driesell got themessage. He did not exactly become the embodiment of Davidson manners, but atcourtside he restrained himself just enough to quiet the professors lest theydiscover the subversive steps he was taking behind the scenes to make Davidsona winner. For example, the night his winless charges lost the sixth straightgame of the 1961-62 season he sent them to bed without a meal. The hunger drivebeing what it is, they immediately rang up a victory over Mississippi Collegein the consolation game of something called the Oglethorpe Invitational.Driesell rewarded them with a steak dinner and promised them a steak for everysucceeding victory. They reeled off 10 more wins, and Driesell was goingbroke.
The trouble wasthat from the beginning he had been trying to build a basketball program on apuny recruiting budget of $500 and had found defeats a handy excuse for feedingthe team pimento-cheese sandwiches and depositing the bulk of the squad's mealmoney into his recruiting coffers. "When we beat Richmond for our 11thstraight," says one of Lefty's early players, now an attorney, "it wasa real upset. After the game he said, 'Y'know, boys, I didn't expect you to winthis one. Will you settle for fish tonight?' "
Strapped thoughhe was, Driesell very early had begun to turn up in far-flung towns around thenation, wherever prospects existed. His wife, Joyce, seldom saw him. Usually hedrove an old Chevy station wagon owned by the college. He parked overnight infilling stations, sleeping on a mat in the back of the wagon, a pistol forprotection within reach. At dawn he would shave in the rest room, then expresshis gratitude for the filling station's hospitality by purchasing a dollar'sworth of gas.
Among theDavidson official family, Admissions Director H. Edmunds White was one of thefew to befriend Driesell in those days, though at times he wondered why. Hisduties required him to attend national conferences and visit high schools indistant regions. "There were numerous occasions," White says, "whenLefty would ask me where I was going next. I would say, 'Well, I'm flying toChicago for a College Boards meeting.' " Next thing White knew, he would bedriving to Chicago, Driesell's lanky frame seated alongside him. "I haveeaten dinner at hot-dog stands and stayed in motels, terrible places,"White recalls, pain written across his face, "because Lefty would say,'That's all the money I got.' "
Driesell knew hewould succeed because, for one thing, he stood ready to work harder than hisrivals. "I learned selling encyclopedias that if you make enoughcalls," he says, "someone will just take one outta your hand."Secondly, he knew he had a valuable package to offer—a top-caliber education atDavidson. He learned to use Davidson's stiff, unrelenting academic requirementsto attract brainy athletes and destroy the losing tradition that many on thefaculty had grown to prize as a barometer of institutional integrity.
To get hisprogram rolling, Driesell calculated he needed a player with genuineAll-America potential. Fred Hetzel—now with the Cincinnati Royals but then aWashington, D.C. schoolboy—was the boy he zeroed in on. Driesell promisedHetzel that his funny little Wildcats one day soon would be booking their homegames into the 11,666-scat Charlotte Coliseum, an arena capable ofaccommodating all of Davidson's living alumni with some 2,000 seats to spare.Hetzel was not convinced of that, but he was persuaded to sign his surrender ona letter of intent. Driesell immediately announced to the Hetzel family,"O.K., let's go to the best place in Washington y'all know." The billcame to $52. After Driesell dredged up all the cash he had, theproprietor—because he knew the Hetzels—consented to accept Driesell's check forthe balance. "That night," he says, "I slept in a Gulf station onthe Shirley highway outside of Washington."
In Hetzel'ssophomore year (and Driesell's third at the college) the Wildcats won 20 games,a development sufficiently alarming to spur Davidson intellectuals to action.Accordingly, early the following season a fraction of faculty and studentleaders called a 10 p.m. meeting in the college union to consider terminationof subsidized athletics. The team itself was in Columbus, Ohio to play apowerful Ohio State team that had won 50 straight games at home.
Across theDavidson campus, radios were tuned to a broadcast of the game. Minutes before10, the Wildcats achieved the unthinkable—victory by a walloping margin of 22points. The meeting at the college union was canceled.
That third teamwon 22 and lost four. Newspapers down the road in Charlotte reluctantlyconceded that they would have to live with Driesell who, as his own publicist,had established himself as the area pest. "He used to harass thenewspapers," said Charlotte Observer Columnist Mel Derrick, as he sat in amotel room with Driesell not long ago. "He'd call up and yell about gettinga two-column headline instead of a three-column headline."
"I stilldo," Driesell snapped.
"He phoned usonly this week, complaining about our choice of verbs," Derrick went on."He was burned up because one of our headlines said, NORTH CAROLINABLISTERS N.C. STATE, and another said, DAVIDSON STRUGGLES BY ST.JOE'S."
From their 22victories in 1963-64, the Wildcats went on in subsequent seasons to win 24, 22,15 ("I tried to be a nice guy that year," Driesell explains), then 24,and thus far in the current campaign 25.
Davidson'sschedule became big time, but not in every instance was this effected withCarolinian gentility. For example, in 1964, after Davidson had lost to Duke inDurham for the third straight time, Driesell burst from the dressing room totell a startled group of sports-writers, "If he"—meaning Duke Coach VicBubas—"doesn't come to my place next year, he's yellow."
Two daysafterward he issued a public apology to Bubas. "Yeah, under pressure fromthe college president," Derrick reminds Driesell.
"No," hewails, "may God strike me dead. Ain't nobody pressurin' me." In truthPresident Martin had become delighted with Davidson's basketball growth and,Driesell confides with a wink, privately had presented him with an honoraryDavidson degree commending him for calling Bubas yellow. Last month Bubas atlast brought his Duke team to play Davidson in the Charlotte Coliseum,delivering to the Wildcats their 21st victim of the season.
In recent yearsDriesell's wealth has multiplied, thanks to public appearances, a televisionshow and a lucrative summer basketball camp that he operates on campus. Butthere remain pockets of strong resistance to his program. Witness the fact thathis meager allotment of scholarships has risen but little, from 11 to 14.6.Since Dr. Martin's retirement last summer, the college has had a new president,Dr. Samuel Reid Spencer, who shows up for basketball games but has refused toindicate the extent of his enthusiasm. So it follows that, as the Wildcatsprepare to meet Villanova in the NCAA Eastern Regionals at Raleigh Saturday,Driesell may be using the attractive offer from Maryland to wedge morescholarships out of the Davidson administration and to learn where PresidentSpencer stands.
Whatever thefuture holds for Lefty, his works are in the record to marvel at. From theashes of defeat at the hands of Pfeiffer, he has taken Davidson to 174victories and only 64 defeats. Correct Davidson men may wince when they recallthat as late as last summer Driesell played ritzy Greenbrier golf course ofSulphur Springs in his bare feet, because his shoes pinched. Driesell'splayers, far more erudite than he, sometimes snicker at his grammar and hismisuse of words. But they had better believe him when Lefty Driesell pointsboth index fingers at them like six-guns and growls, "I may be dumb, but Iam not stupid."