Big Gheorghe gave to me
Seven (Give or Take) Voters (Should Be) Voting
Six Simpler Memories
Five shows to binge watch on TV
Four Random Thoughts
Three Punk Rock Playlists
Two Digits Throughout History
And the debut of Mac McFis-ty
The season of guest surprises continues today, as FOGTB Dave Fairbank wandered off the beach, swigged a Red Stripe at Tortuga's, and continued one of the quests he embarked upon years ago in his days as a mild-mannered ink-stained wretch. Our JMU readership will dig it.
He was born on Dec. 25 in humble surroundings to parents of modest means. His life’s work was a calling that took him to homes and venues far and wide. His message and success brought him great recognition and many followers. His methods weren’t embraced by everyone, and he had plenty of detractors. He was a larger than life figure known by one name.
Nope. Lefty has been passed over by the Springfield selectors for years, despite one of the mountainous careers in college basketball history. In my prior life as a keyboard jockey at a daily newspaper, it became kind of a small ‘c’ cause of mine to stump for Lefty. I fear that as the years pass, his accomplishments and stature will fade into old photos and dry numbers on a ledger, which is the polar opposite of the man.
Lefty was a presence, a big man whose steely determination was offset by a southern drawl and manners that charmed young and old. A Norfolk, Va., native, he was blunt and funny and combative and maddening. He was generous and big-hearted, but not above calling reporters who he didn’t think were fair to him. In an era of buttoned-down coaches with carefully crafted images, he is a throwback we are unlikely to see again.
I have my suspicions about why Lefty has been rejected by the voters, but his resume’ and contributions to the game speak for themselves – or should, anyway. Start with the numbers: In 41 years, Lefty’s teams went 786-394. He is the only coach in history to win at least 100 games at four different schools. He took all four of those schools to the NCAA tournament, one of only two coaches to do so (the other is Eddie Sutton).
When he retired in 2003, he stood fourth in career victories, behind only Bob Knight, Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp. He is still ninth on the all-time list, as coaches such as Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Roy Williams passed him in recent years.
More remarkable, Lefty never walked into a situation with a stacked deck. He carved out wins and made basketball matter at schools where that wasn’t the case: Davidson, Maryland, James Madison, Georgia State. Davidson hadn’t had a winning season in the 11 years before Lefty arrived in 1960. Maryland won just eight games each of the two years before he came to College Park in 1969. At JMU, then school prez Dr. Ron Carrier saw a chance to elevate the program’s, and the school’s, profile with a big-name coach a couple of years removed from his tenure at Maryland. He more than delivered, elevating not only JMU, but the entire CAA. His four predecessors at Georgia State had a combined .295 winning percentage. Lefty more than doubled that, going 103-59 at a downtown Atlanta commuter school that was barely on the local sporting radar.
Lefty invented Midnight Madness, which ought to be worth at least a plaque in Springfield by itself. College basketball practice traditionally started Oct. 15. Lefty usually had his teams run a timed mile on the track to begin the first practice. But because many of the players were gassed, they often weren’t sharp afterward. To begin his third season at Maryland, he decided to have the players run their mile just after midnight on Oct. 15. Hundreds of students lined up around the track to watch. Lefty saw an opportunity, and he and other coaches eventually turned midnight practices on opening day into parties and spectacles.
Full disclosure: I’m a Maryland native and College Park grad (Class of 1980) who spent many hours in the Terps’ great old barn of a gym, Cole Field House, watching Lefty’s teams. The joint buzzed and Maryland games were a hot ticket. Later, I covered a bunch of his games when he was at JMU, and the Convocation Center rocked.
Terry Holland, Lefty’s first recruit at Davidson and later a coaching rival at Virginia, was emphatic that his former college coach and mentor belonged in Springfield.
“There are many coaches with lesser credentials who are in the Hall,” Holland wrote to me in an email, “but I am not sure there are ANY with his credentials who are not in the Hall.”
The hole in Lefty’s resume’ for Springfield appears to be a national championship, though there are other coaches enshrined who didn’t win titles. Lefty didn’t make good on his vow to make Maryland “the UCLA of the East.” He never even got to a Final Four, though as Holland pointed out, the system denied some of Lefty’s best teams at Davidson and Maryland the chance to compete for a championship. Before the NCAA field expanded, only conference tournament winners were invited. Lefty’s famously talented 1974 Maryland team (Tom McMillen, John Lucas, Len Elmore) stayed home after losing to David Thompson and eventual NCAA champ N.C. State 103-100 in the ACC title game in what many folks in these parts still consider the greatest college game ever played.
I suspect that Lefty isn’t in Springfield due to perception and poor exits. He was forced to resign at Maryland in the aftermath of All-American Len Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose in 1986. At JMU, he announced following the 1996 season that he intended to coach just one more year. He was fired less than 24 hours later. He stepped down at Georgia State, and for good, in Dec. 2003, when he couldn’t shake a cold that sapped his energy and stamina. One of the giant careers in college coaching history ended with a quiet, mid-season departure. No farewell tours, no victory laps, no testimonials.
Maryland announced that it planned to honor him with a banner in the rafters of its arena during a ceremony in February. Georgia State named its court after him. Worthy gestures. But the game’s greatest honor inexplicably eludes him. The man ought to be in Springfield. Here’s hoping that the award isn’t posthumous.