- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
For Charles (Lefty) Driesell and his Davidson Wildcats the obligation to play in last week's eight-team Southern Conference championship tournament made about as much sense as Billy Conn's calamitous 1942 kitchen brawl with his father-in-law. Having nothing to gain by a victory over the old man, the world light-heavyweight champ nevertheless let fly a haymaker. He broke his hand on pop's hard skull, thereby bringing about a four-year postponement of a million-dollar title fight with Joe Louis. Bound by conference rules to risk a similar fate, fifth-ranked Davidson traveled 20 miles down the road to Charlotte, N.C. to take on weakling members of the conference family, knowing that failure to lick them would mean the loss of a shot at the national championship.
Davidson was 22-2 in 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 have to 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, basketball teams 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 shots and were beaten.) But try to convince his players? Hard-pressed for pep-talk material in the moments before the tournament opener with VMI (5-17), Driesell fetched only smirks when he declared with a straight face: "Look at it this way. This game is the first of an eight-game tournament for the national championship."
For Driesell, a 6'5" agonizer who is losing his hair at 36, a defeat at this point conceivably could have brought an ignominious end to his magical Davidson career. Maryland was trying to steal him with a fat contract. "Rumors, just rumors," he insisted. But if he had it in mind to say yes to Maryland, then he 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 from bona fide scholars. Elegant Davidson College admits no athletic tramps. Yet Driesell has turned out aggressive, hard-running outfits that explode their way to the hoop and on defense play as diligently as deputies escorting dangerous felons. Going to his scrubs as early as the first half, Driesell watched his latest class blast VMI out of the conference tournament 99-75.
Richmond was the Wildcats' opponent the following night and opted to counter Davidson's hurly-burly style with Greenfield Jimmy Smith tactics, Greenfield Jimmy having been not only the father of Billy Conn's wife, but a sweet counterpuncher who put Billy in dark glasses after the kitchen caper. Although not quite that belligerent, Richmond shoved and elbowed energetically enough to hold Mike Maloy, Davidson's skinny, 6'7" All-America, to six rebounds. But Davidson is 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 their deserved rest, the Wildcat regulars laid the foundation for a 97-83 victory.
In the Saturday-night final East Carolina—also advancing according to form—would make the last effort to deprive the Southern Conference of its only suitable representative to the NCAA playoffs. Coach Tom Quinn, a roosterish, gum-chewing man wearing mod blue that, on him, looks like Prohibition gangster attire, brought his team out in a zone, which Davidson immediately shot to pieces from inside and out with a five-man barrage. In little more than five minutes the Wildcats led 21-11. "Get in there and throw your damn shoulders," Quinn yelled at his men. He might better have suggested grenades. The high point of the game—the final score was 102-76—came when Rocky Crosswhite, a pebble-muscled 6'9" senior who affects a spit curl and is approximately Driesell's No. 10 man, brought a thunderous roar from the crowd by sinking a free throw for Davidson's 100th point. It was fitting, Davidson's intellectual climate being what it is, that Rocky do the honors. He is a campus literary lion whose essays in The Davidsonian frequently slice patches of flesh off the hide of none other than Lefty Driesell.
Following the final buzzer, the Wildcat Club, a group of Davidson alumni, hinted that it wished Driesell to stay at Davidson by presenting him with a Thunderbird. He grinned 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 with my mouth."
Nine years ago when Davidson hired Driesell from a field of two candidates, college officials had absolutely no intention of going after championships. In the season immediately preceding Driesells 1960 arrival, Davidson had lost to Erskine, Catawba and Pfeiffer. Such defeats were not of themselves particularly distressing to the college, athletics being held lightly in the total scheme of things, but a measure of mild concern grew out of the fact that the misnamed Wildcats had not enjoyed a winning season in 11 years. In fact, they had been whipped six consecutive times by—good Lord!—the McCrary Eagles. It would be nice to start winning a few games, though not so many as to become coarse.
Driesell looked like the right man for the job—competent but undistinguished. The son of a Norfolk, Va. jeweler, he had played basketball at Duke, averaging only 5.1 points as a senior and, at the time Davidson interviewed him, was 27 and coaching at Newport News High. There he had run up a string of 57 straight victories, a record that ought to have put Davidson officials on their toes but instead was dismissed as flash-in-the-pan high school stuff.
Driesell accepted a 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 a year peddling encyclopedias door to door. Davidson President D. Grier Martin, now retired, told him he could give out 11 scholarships—at least nine fewer than collegiate powers generally allot—over a four-year period and tendered him the customary advice that the college would ask nothing more than "a representative team." Driesell nodded. He did not bother to tell President Martin the source of his coaching philosophy, namely, one Julie Conn—no relation to Billy, but a man of similar temperament.
"Behind at the half one time," says Driesell, "Julie went into the dressing room steaming. He punched a locker and busted up his hand somethin' terrible. It was just dripping blood. Then he went from one player to another and shook that bloody fist under each guy's nose and said, 'Look what you did to me.' I learned everything I know from Julie."