Lefty Driesell: Father of Midnight Madness

The Oscar-nominated film Midnight in Paris is about a golden era of writers, artists and musicians who could instead have been a movie about college basketball coaches, if only Woody Allen were more of a St. John’s fan.

In the movie, a modern-day novelist romanticizes the rainy nights of a 1920s Paris that was home to Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Cole Porter. At the stroke of midnight each evening, the writer is transported to these roaring ’20s.

Imagine, instead, Today’s Coach -- proper and well paid; a walking replica of nearly every other coach he faces -- studying the plaques at the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Or he might be walking the concourse of the Palestra in Philadelphia, gazing at a trophy case at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse or taking a seat on the bleachers at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse. At the altar of any of these college basketball shrines, it isn’t so hard to imagine a coach being taken back in time.

In our movie -- let’s call it “Halftime at the Garden” -- Today’s Coach finds himself on a court with the coaching legends of 1985, each one seemingly more colorful than the next.

There’s Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, still hauling around that ACC tournament trophy that he won the year before, the one that he’d promised to bolt to the hood of a car that he would parade around Tobacco Road.

North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano -- by now the rock star Jimmy V -- is running around, looking for someone to hug.

A familiar towel is draped across the shoulder of Georgetown’s John Thompson. Sad-eyed UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian has a towel, too, that he is chewing. What is it with these 1980s coaches and their towels?

Al McGuire is no longer Marquette’s head coach, but that doesn’t stop the eccentric street philosopher from drawing a crowd. Today’s lesson: how and when to draw the perfect technical.

Uh-oh. Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs is headed to the public-address system again.

And here comes the Preacher, Dale Brown. The passionate LSU coach has Today’s Coach cornered and is bouncing the conversation from one topic to the next, from the time he met Mother Teresa to his own mother’s struggle to raise him on a maid’s wages, from the time he took one team into a leper colony and another to Angola State Penitentiary.

Brown asks the young coach if he has ever considered climbing the Matterhorn, which is one more thing that the world-traveling Brown has done. The man’s answer, however, confuses Brown. “No,” Today’s Coach says. “But I have climbed the coaching ladder.”

Al McGuire
AP Images

‘Weirdo to eccentric’

Back to the present. Few would dispute that college coaches have evolved from colorful to corporate during the past two or three decades. There are strong personalities among today’s coaches, but few who cross what McGuire called the line from “weirdo to eccentric.”

Fewer coaches still can make fans chuckle simply at the anticipation of their next antics. The coaches of 1984-85 could do that.

“I set out very calculatedly to become known,” Valvano once said. “The only thing I miscalculated was how easy it would be.”

But they’re a dying breed, these old cowboys. Most of the coaches of today have moved on to the wealthier and safer suburbs of college basketball.

“There aren’t going to be many Lefties and Jimmy V’s and even Bobby Cremins,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I think coaches today are more nervous about being approachable.”

Never one to mince words, Tubbs put it another way: “It’s changed over the years, and more in the direction of ‘blah.’ ”

The coaching profile changed, the old guard agrees, with the escalation of coaching salaries during the 1980s, the political correctness of the 1990s and both the social networking and the early player exits of the 2000s.

Most coaches were paid a standard coaching salary before shoe contracts came along, regardless of their level of success. Tom Penders, the coach at Columbia, made the same as McGuire at Marquette. Tubbs was paid $49,500 when he arrived at Oklahoma, the same as Barry Switzer, a fellow renegade who had already won two national football titles. John Wooden never made more than $35,000 during any of his 10 championship seasons at UCLA; he made less during his 27 seasons in Westwood than Ben Howland currently makes in a single season there.

Then shoe companies began offering $100,000 contracts to the top 10 coaches in the 1980s, and coaching revenues began to soar to more than $500,000 with summer camps, commercials, speaker’s fees, TV and radio deals beyond their base salaries.

The college coaches were stars, then as now, even during a time when the players stayed for four or five years, and it was always clear which coaches shone the brightest. The supplemental shoe contracts just made their differences more obvious than ever.

The gap between coach and player as the face of the college game widened even further in the 2000s, when high school players began to enter the NBA draft and fewer All-Americans and Final Four stars returned for their sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

Coaching salaries were major investments for schools, whose athletics directors often wrote behavioral clauses into their contracts. Ironically, there was something far more liberating about being paid $35,000 a year than there is $3.5 million.

Tubbs believes times also changed when society entered into a period of political correctness in the 1990s. Before then, Tubbs said that when he would criticize officials, about the worst thing that would happen is that a columnist or a broadcaster might call him a poor sport.

“How would it go over today if [Oklahoma coach] Lon Kruger goes over to the microphone and tells [fans], ‘Regardless of how terrible the officiating is, please don’t throw things onto the floor?’ ” asked Tubbs of an incident in a 1989 game against Missouri when he drew only a technical foul for doing and saying just that. “Well, I’d say [you’d get] a suspension for a few days.

“Can you imagine how bad I’d have been if I’d have had Facebook or could tweet? I’d have been fired so many times.”

Yes, social networking also has changed coaches’ lives.

“Today, you go to the wrong spot, somebody’s going to take a picture of you on their cell phone and put it on the Internet or whatever it is … the tweets,” Cremins said.

The former Georgia Tech coach recalled a night when all the coaches of the Atlantic Coast Conference went out for a night on the town. Clemson coach Cliff Ellis was singing, as he once did with the popular beach-music group The Villagers. They were very publicly having the times of their lives.

“I’m not sure you could do that today,” Cremins said.

Actually, he’s certain that you couldn’t.

Wistful, Today’s Coach longs to return to the roaring ’80s -- and maybe stay there.

Bones McKinney
AP Images

‘There are only two plays that I know …’

Back in 1985, stories and laughter fill a gymnasium that again includes Valvano, Tubbs, Brown and others.

Temple’s John Chaney and Nolan Richardson, the newly named coach at Arkansas, are telling stories. Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps is waxing philosophical. Louie Carnesecca’s over there, wearing one of his garish sweaters. Auburn’s Sonny Smith and New Orleans’ Benny Dees are telling jokes, but they’re just the opening acts for Oklahoma City’s Abe Lemons, one of the funniest coaches ever. When asked about running set plays, Lemons said, “There are only two plays that I know, Romeo and Juliet and put the damn ball in the basket.”

Iowa State coach Johnny Orr enters the room to the Here’s Johnny theme and a pump of his fist. Elsewhere, Stormin’ Norm Stewart and Jud Heathcote are providing their own unfiltered views of the world. A young Cremins winks at Today’s Coach, as if he knows they will meet again one day.

Is there no end to the cast of characters who were coaches in the 1980s?

By now, Today’s Coach has made a coaching friend from 1985 who points toward a door at the end of the gymnasium. They walk through it like that cornfield portal in Field of Dreams, into another gym from yet another time -- the coaching world of 1963.

Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp is there, wearing his lucky brown suit with a lucky buckeye in one pocket. Tennessee’s Ray Mears is parading around the court in his bright orange jacket, attempting to engage conversations with the very fans who are serenading him with catcalls. A bowl of green jello, his lucky pregame meal, is waiting for him. This is one superstitious lot.

Homespun Babe McCarthy is telling folks how he helped his Mississippi State team evade the injunctions that would have prevented the Maroons (as they were known back then) to cross his state’s lines of racial segregation and play against Loyola Chicago’s four black starters in the 1963 NCAA tournament.

Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney, off by himself, is fastened to the bench by a seatbelt installed to save himself from his own tantrums. A soft drink is by McKinney’s side, one of the 25 that he downs daily.

The guy wearing the red towel over his head must be Ed Diddle, who started that tradition of towel waving at Western Kentucky. What is it with these coaches and their towels? Diddle is also famous for his colorful quotes, which shows while he attempts to set up a group photograph.

“Line up alphabetically according to height,” Diddle says, not for the only time.

Today’s Coach watches Bob Knight, a 23-year-old assistant at Army, try to approach the recently retired Pete Newell, who is more than twice his age and already the legendary figure that Knight will become. Newell led California to a national title in 1959 and the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1960. Today’s Coach knows they would finally meet about five years later and form one of college basketball’s great friendships.

The coach from 1985 turns to Today’s Coach and declares this, the 1963 season, the golden era of coaching.

“Are you crazy?” Today’s Coach asks. “1985 is the golden era.”

And it dawns on Today’s Coach. He is paid more than all of these 1963 coaches combined. He coaches in an era of relative civility, where counterparts rarely snipe at each other in public. He is under little pressure to play the showman.

Maybe the coach of 2012 has it pretty good.

To borrow from Midnight in Paris, maybe 2012 is the golden era of coaching.

Story appear in the official 2012 NCAA Men’s Final Four program, which can be ordered at IMG Products.