In the chilly autumn air three minutes past midnight in the quaint suburban D.C. town of College Park was the sound of crickets chirping and young men wheezing. It was October 15, 1970, and unbeknownst to the small group of men, their four supervisors and a few inebriated students who staggered by, an NCAA tradition was born.
Oh, you didn’t know it then. Nobody did. These young men were jogging, with shirt-tails and tongues hanging low, on the running track inside the football stadium in order to improve as basketball players. Make sense? Of course not. First of all, nobody runs on a college campus at midnight unless a frat house is somehow involved. Or a co-ed is trying to distance herself from a date gone bad. In any event, these men were putting in serious work at a time when their classmates were putting in serious play, and it all made for a weirdly wonderful scene.
“Where’s Elmore?” wondered Lefty Driesell.
Actually, Len Elmore, the fabulously ‘froed forward and incoming freshman star for the Terrapins, was one of the few who didn’t cheat. He finished well under the allotted six-minute time, as did the other freshmen. But as Elmore recalled, the upperclassmen pulled the veteran move, slipped past the glare of the flashlights and found a way to shave yards off the workout.
“They cut across the grass,” said Elmore. “They stayed in the dark so nobody could see them. I mean, some of the juniors and seniors would cross the finish line all shaking and pretending to fall out from exhaustion.”
As the huffing and puffing, both real and make-believe, continued into the night, no doubt at least one of the players muttered to himself: This is madness.
Yes. Midnight Madness.
Today, on college campuses across the country, Midnight Madness is a craze gone loco. There are students cheering, bands playing, Vitale screaming, basketballs bouncing and coaches bellowing into bullhorns, all in the name of kicking off the basketball season in pompous style. On the first official day of practice, players are introduced in a noisy ceremony and then run through drills and a brief scrimmage in front of a packed house. That’s Midnight Madness. In short time, it has become a sports tradition second only to Homecoming, a pep rally that pulls together the entire college community under one roof and gets folks hyped for some hoops.
Imagine, a basketball tradition that began outdoors, on a running track, inside a football stadium. Without a basketball.
“Crazy,” is how Lefty recalls the short training session that evolved into the mammoth of today. “But it really caught on.”
All Lefty wanted to do was to get his players to run a six-minute mile to be fit for fall practice later that afternoon, after a good night’s sleep. The year before, Lefty’s first season, the Terps ran their mile right before practice. But because so many were too gassed to dribble a ball immediately afterward, this time Lefty chose to run them just after midnight on October 15th, the first day that colleges can hold a sanctioned practice.
“Another reason why I had ‘em run at midnight,” said Lefty, “was because if someone didn’t finish in six minutes, they had to keep running the mile before they could practice. Well, too many players came in after six minutes. It messed up my practices. I didn’t have enough players to hold practice.”
He laughs and keeps talking with his trademark deep-voiced drawl. He turns 80 in December and passes the time eating crabs down by the Chesapeake, where he lives in retired bliss with Joyce, his wife of 59 years. The Lefthander coached 41 years at four programs, making them all winners. His 786 wins was No. 4 on the all-time NCAA coaching list when he retired. He is most famously connected to Maryland where, as a 37-year-old, left Davidson College because the Maryland gig offered a ton of money: 14 grand a year.
Until Lefty arrived in 1969, Maryland basketball was one step above intramurals. The Terps had one – one – postseason appearance in their history. Only one player (Louis Berger, 1931 and ’32) made All-America and just two (Gene Shue, Al Bunge) made all-ACC. The joke was that Cole Field House should’ve been renamed Cold Field House. Until Lefty transformed Maryland basketball, Cole’s basketball legacy was strictly tied to the ’66 Final Four where an all-black starting five from Texas Western beat an all-white Kentucky team, a watershed moment for NCAA basketball.
Lefty came, opened the windows and left the stench out. He recruited up and down the Northeast and found Elmore in New York City. Elmore was in elementary school when he told his teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher said: “That’s nice, Len, but maybe you should try to be a construction worker or a plumber or something like that.”
Elmore’s mother went to school the next day and set the teacher straight. Eventually, Elmore became the best player out of Power Memorial High since Lew Alcindor. And after graduating from Maryland, where he’s still the school’s all-time rebounder, he got his law degree from Harvard and did become a lawyer.
Still, Maryland basketball under Lefty was nothing more than a curiosity on campus initially. At the Terps’ first scrimmage the afternoon after their midnight run, about 1,500 students, by Lefty’s estimation, showed up at Cole. They were curious, nothing else. They weren’t hard-core Maryland basketball fans. Not yet, anyway.
“Lefty was a superlative marketer, so of course he tried to capitalize on what he started,” said Elmore. “Which he did.”
The following season, in 1971, Lefty and his assistants, George Raveling, Jim Harrison and Jim Maloney, kicked around a few ideas for the second Midnight Madness. And then Mo Howard, a frisky point guard, barged into the office one day.
“Coach,” he said, “why don’t we just hold practice at midnight?”
Lefty scratched his chin and knew something was up. He suspected the players were just trying to escape the mile run. But he gave it some thought and agreed. Yes, a scrimmage at midnight would work. And then word got out.
“People were excited about us, because we had a top-15 team,” Lefty said.
Indeed. He had Elmore, who had led the freshman team to an undefeated season in 1970. And Tom McMillen, a mop-topped center whose post-up game was almost as polished as his classroom genius; McMillen became a Rhodes Scholar. These two would change Maryland basketball forever.
Well before the Cole Field House doors opened for the Midnight Madness as we know it today, Lefty figured he’d created a monster.
“There was line wrapped around the building, waiting to get in,” he said. “And we had 10,000 show up for the scrimmage.”
Elmore looked into the stands, saw all the faces and knew Midnight Madness would become an annual.
“We created something that was great for the fans, the students, the school and also the team,” he said. “And when other schools started to copy us, that was the ultimate compliment.”
Maryland went 27-5, best in school history, and won the National Invitational Tournament. The next year, they reached the NCAA Elite Eight. A winner developed almost as fast as Midnight Madness spread.
“It’s a good way to get your season started and to get people excited,” said Lefty. “It became successful because of the students. The alumni are not going to come to Midnight Madness, or only a few of them. It’s for the students, and at that time of night they’re out partying, anyway, whether it’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Some of our academic people started complaining because if October 15 fell on a Monday night, then the students wouldn’t come to class on Tuesday.”
Lefty laughs. “I always tried to get my players to be in bed by midnight, and look what I’ve done.”
His thoughts on today’s Madness: “It’s way beyond what I ever thought it would become. TV has played a big role in that, they find a way to put anything on TV these days. And sometimes the Midnight Madness doesn’t even wait to begin at midnight. Well, it should. College students are just getting started at midnight. And they have all these lights and smoke and everything going on. They do anything to get people fired up about basketball, which I guess is a good thing.”
He has only one regret when he looks in the rear view mirror.
“I should’ve trademarked the name Midnight Madness,” he said. Another laugh. “Nowadays they have stores that conduct a Midnight Madness when they hold a sale. I could’ve made a lot of money.”
He’s done all right, anyway. He is happy and healthy in retirement, spending it with the love of his life and the grandkids. And get this: The man who began Midnight Madness mostly finds himself asleep when the madness begins.