SI Vault
Craig Neff
November 10, 1986
The cocaine death of Len Bias, the Maryland basketball star, has prompted criticism of the school's athletic policies—and last week led to coach Lefty Driesell's resignation
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November 10, 1986

One Shock Wave After Another

The cocaine death of Len Bias, the Maryland basketball star, has prompted criticism of the school's athletic policies—and last week led to coach Lefty Driesell's resignation

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Dull, at least, had admitted making mistakes, admitted bearing some of the responsibility for an athletic department without any particular purpose or philosophy other than to win games and make enough money to keep afloat. "I'm one of the fortunate ones now because I've relieved myself of this agony," said Dull after resigning.

The sad part of Driesell's story is that he had proved he could win with true student-athletes. In his nine successful years at Davidson, 98% of his players had graduated and 22 of them had gone on to become doctors or lawyers. His Maryland teams had included Len Elmore, now at Harvard Law School, and Tom McMillen, a former Rhodes scholar who played 11 years in the NBA and went into Tuesday's elections as the Democratic candidate for Congress from Maryland's Fourth District. Overall, Driesell's 56% graduation rate at College Park still exceeds the university-wide rate of 41%.

To be fair, one must judge Driesell with some perspective. Consider the fact that only 12 of some 30 black players given scholarships by Driesell in his 17 years at Maryland have graduated. Deplorable though it is, that 40% graduation rate is not out of line. Only 27.3% of all black athletes at Maryland graduate within five years, and just 22% of the school's total black student population. Nationwide, the figures aren't much better.

Driesell also got mixed signals from the university about its commitment to academics. For one thing, Slaughter himself, the chairman of the NCAA Presidents Commission, an organization supposedly dedicated to the correction of abuses in intercollegiate athletics, had intervened in admissions decisions on Driesell's behalf. Slaughter admitted as much to the Baltimore Sun last summer. He said he had done so for Driesell and for football coach Bobby Ross in several cases involving academically suspect students. He admitted that it was a mistake.

In one instance in 1983, Slaughter had, at Driesell's request, asked the director of a remedial studies program to accept Terry Long into his curriculum. The director reluctantly did so and Long, who had previously been rejected by the admissions office, was given a full basketball scholarship. Long has since flunked out of school twice and been readmitted both times. A condition of his readmission last summer was that he never play basketball for Maryland again.

Just how was Driesell to interpret Slaughter's involvement? And what message was he being sent about his academic record when he was given a new 10-year contract (five years as coach, five as assistant athletic director) in 1984—a contract that was renegotiated up by Dull last year? Dull says Driesell had earned such a long-term commitment, because in his tenure at the school, " Maryland had never been on probation, its basketball program had a high respect level, and Lefty had passed up other opportunities to go to other institutions." Driesell might well have assumed from all this that he was doing something right. Or at least nothing wrong.

John Slaughter, 52, is a thoughtful man with a warm, hearty laugh. "It was encouraging to me that before I walked down the hallway with him to resign," says Dull, "that he embraced me and we talked about our friendship continuing after this situation has passed."

Slaughter, who has a Ph.D. in engineering, has brought an analytical mind to the task of restoring his university's academic integrity. He judged Driesell on what seemed to be properly measured facts. He had reprimanded him in 1983, when Driesell allegedly made harassing phone calls to a female student who had accused one of the Maryland basketball players of sexual assault. Everyone, from the campus women's center to the school paper to the university's legal aid attorney, had demanded Driesell's head on that one. (Driesell admits calling the woman three times, but denies having tried to intimidate her.)

Slaughter held firm then. "One of the things I'm very fortunate about is that I have a tremendous sense of self-confidence," he says. "It doesn't bother me much that there might be a lot of people who disagree with me."

There generally aren't—Slaughter is admired as an educator. But both he and his reputation have been strained by the Bias case. "It's been all-consuming," he says. "I don't think I've spent more than two hours on any other issue at one sitting since June 19."

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