He made midnight a time for madness

The college basketball tradition that resumes tonight began in 1971 with Maryland's Lefty Driesell.

Published October 13, 2006

One in an occasional series on ACC basketball leading up to the conference tournament in March at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

Maryland coach Lefty Driesell had a problem.

The NCAA had long mandated that teams couldn't get to work before Oct. 15, which made for a long first day in College Park. The first thing Driesell had his players do was run 1 mile on the track in six minutes and then reconvene in the gym for a regular practice.

"It used to mess up my first day," he recalled. "They were all tired from running the mile."

Then it dawned on him.

"Look. Oct. 15 starts at one past midnight," he told his staff and players before that day rolled around in 1971. "We're going to get started before anybody this year."

Word had leaked out on campus of the unorthodox time for the run and about 1,000 fans sat in the stadium bleachers for their first look at their team. Driesell parked cars on the football field and turned on their headlights to illuminate the track so he could spot any players trying to cut corners to make the designated time.

At 12:03 a.m. (he waited a couple of minutes just in case his watch was running a bit fast) the Maryland Terrapins officially began the season. They also unintentionally began a signature event:

"Midnight Madness."

With the ACC tournament coming to the St. Pete Times Forum in March, it seems only proper to recognize the contributions of a coach and a program from that league.

"A lot of people don't give Lefty credit, but he had a lot of innovations that were clever and grew into something very big," said Tom McMillen, then a Terrapins sophomore. "It's so funny. I think he was doing it then to be cute and symbolic, we're going to be first practice-wise, but it's one of Lefty's most enduring legacies."

Back in 1971, Driesell knew he was onto something and the following year, at the suggestion of one of his players, he kicked it up a notch.

"I didn't think I could do that doggone mile (in six minutes)," said Maurice Howard, one of two freshmen - the other was John Lucas - on the 1972-73 team. "I asked coach, 'Rather than run, why don't we should just scrimmage?' "

Driesell knew the team would be special, with McMillen, Jim O'Brien and Len Elmore back from the NIT championship squad. He had the talent to lead the Terps to their first NCAA Tournament since 1958. (He did.)

So, he went along with it.

The midnight run became a midnight practice.

"It was quite a scene," Howard said of the crowd estimated at about 9,000. "They just wanted to see what kind of team we would have and it turned out to be a pretty good scrimmage, too."

Well, not for him. He slightly fractured his left ankle and missed the first three weeks of practice. That didn't stop other coaches from taking note and imitating Maryland.

Major programs. Smaller programs. It didn't matter. It had different names and different gimmicks. Over the years, coaches rode in on motorcycles. Coaches body-surfed through the crowd. Coaches jumped out of a coffin as Michael Jackson's hit Thriller blared (that would be Billy Donovan at Florida in 2000). Players unveiled dazzling dunks. Some teams began using it as a recruiting tool, pairing it with a big football game the next day. Schools held contests for the fans.

In 1994, CNN showed a portion of defending NCAA champion Arkansas' Midnight Madness. ESPN also got involved for the first time and televised three Midnight Madness practices: Cincinnati, St. John's and Florida.

"When I was at the University of Detroit, we did it," ESPN analyst and former coach Dick Vitale said. "We called it 'Hoops Hysteria.' We just wanted to get people excited about basketball. That's what it does. It sets the stage and sends the message loud and clear, hoops is here, baby. Get ready for college basketball."

Beginning in 2005, teams could start at 7 p.m. on the Friday nearest Oct. 15, which this year is today and certainly takes the midnight out of the madness.

It still remains an event, one that draws thousands and thousands of fans. Although ESPN last televised it in 1997, ESPNU jumped in last year and was at Memphis, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State and Oregon. Today, ESPNU will be at North Carolina (tape-delayed at 10:30 p.m.), Indiana (live at 11:30) and George Mason (taped at 12:30 a.m.). It will have cut-ins from Cincinnati.

At its birthplace, Maryland coach Gary Williams has worked to keep the tradition alive and growing. As part of "Maryland Madness," both the men's and women's team will come out for a practice, preceded by an alumni game that bridges the school's past to its present.

"We have guys in their 50s to recently graduated players," he said. "It's a great chance for those guys to gather and brag about the teams they played on. It's a lot of fun."

Thanks, Lefty.

"I think it just kind of evolved," Driesell said. "It's just a way to kick the season off. But I should have gotten a patent on it."