"It's like athletics is suddenly a cancer," says Terrapin senior Dennis Cullinane, a steeplechaser on the school's track team. "A few basketball players screw up and all of a sudden people think every Maryland athlete is flunking out and getting all these special favors. That's totally wrong."
Lefty Driesell's travails began when he started recruiting what one Maryland athletic department official calls "academically marginal players who were at the bottom of the margin." It had become tough to attract the brighter kids, what with all the Dukes and George-towns around, so Lefty began grabbing the best players he could squeak through the admissions office. Sometimes the squeaking was awfully loud, and always admissions people fought him. But usually Lefty won, just as his teams did on the court.
Fifteen of the 19 freshmen Driesell brought in from 1980 to '85 did not meet the university's minimum admissions standards. Their combined SAT average of 670 was 100 points below that of Terrapin football recruits and some 355 points under the university-wide average. "You could see this coming," says one longtime athletic department source. "He kept going lower and lower on the graph. I remember a few years back some of us were sitting around saying, 'This is his worst group yet.' You could see that it was going to blow up in his face."
Blow up it did. In late June the academic counselor for the team, Wendy Whittemore, quit, telling
The Washington Post
that she felt education is not a top priority for Driesell. She said players generally missed 35% to 40% of their classes during the season, and that Driesell paid lip service to their academic needs. It was later learned that for the spring semester only two Maryland players had earned so much as a C average.
These were not aberrations, either: In the fall of 1984, Driesell's team had earned a collective 1.48 GPA—just over D+. Overall, only four Maryland basketball players in the last 15 years have had a B average for an entire academic year. "When I was there, it just didn't seem like there was enough discipline, enough emphasis on guiding you the right way," says former Terp basketball guard Steve Rivers, who graduated in 1984 and now teaches junior high school in New York City. "It was always, 'Let's give him such-and-such, an easy class, to get him through right now.' "
Driesell's academic counselors, who were under athletic department control—which is to say very little—were part of the problem. Whittemore's predecessor, Larry Roper, who also quit, at least partly in frustration over Driesell's approach to academics, admits he should have stood up more to the coach. Another ex-counselor complains that "there weren't any guidelines when it came to academics," yet admits steering basketball players into somewhat easier courses.
To talk with former counselors is to hear Driesell described as a man of good intentions who told his athletes to go to class, told them to study, but never did anything when they didn't. After a while, the players didn't take him seriously. More than one source close to Driesell's team, in fact, will tell you that some of his players just plain didn't like Lefty. He was too inconsistent in dealing with them, too volatile.
Driesell would contest all of that. He took a secret poll of his players in October. Handed them slips of paper, told them to write down whether or not he should stay. He says they gave him a vote of confidence. "The students, their [campus newspaper] poll was for me," said Driesell. "The players are for me. Glenn Brenner [a local TV sportscaster] had a poll and they were for me."
But his fate was not in public hands. It was in Chancellor Slaughter's hands, or more precisely his lap, where the entire Maryland athletic mess landed. Slaughter had long considered Driesell a friend, but he knew all too well that the coach had become a liability to the university. Here was the school square in the public eye, attacking all its problems with task forces and policy changes, saying it was going to become a model of athletic integrity and foresight for the nation—and there was Driesell, center of the storm, still claiming that nothing wrong had ever happened. He had to go.
His departure was the second within a month at the university. Athletic director Dick Dull had stepped down in early October, emotionally and physically burned out from the daily pressures of the Bias controversy. He, too, had been a basically good man.