Maryland saying goodbye to the ACC

Lefty Driesell has seen a few things in his 82 years on this planet, most of them spent on or near a basketball court.

The man more or less invented Midnight Madness. Now the preseason showcase not only has devolved into a glorified pickup game, it's not even held at midnight anymore.

So not much surprises him, or if it does, he has learned to take it all in stride.

On Sunday afternoon, Maryland, the school that employed him for some 17 years, will play its last regular-season game in the ACC, taking on conference winner Virginia, putting to bed a 61-year run in the conference. Next up, the Big Ten.

It's a head-scratcher, for sure, to someone like Driesell, who not only coached at Maryland but played at Duke. He was in Durham when the league debuted, part of the Blue Devils' 1954 roster, and he plans to be there Sunday when Maryland departs.

"I think it's a bad decision, but I heard [ESPN analyst and former Duke player] Jay Bilas say on TV the other day, 'Any businessman in the world would have taken the deal,'" Driesell said. "I guess that's my problem. I don't think college athletics is a business, or it shouldn't be, anyway. It's a sport that's turned into a business. So I guess I'm not upset. I'm not sad. Sad would mean I'd cry. I won't cry. But I am disappointed.''

That's the general consensus among fans as the end draws near -- disappointment has replaced anger, acceptance has taken over for frustration.

"At first, truly people were surprised,'' Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said. "You look at the long-standing history and the fact that change is challenging for everybody. Looking back, even beyond the Lefty years, to the tremendous [1974] game against [NC State and] David Thompson with Len Elmore and you think, 'Those things won't be anymore and that's hard.' But as we move forward to the transition into the Big Ten, it seems more and more people are excited about it.''

Plus it's just hard to get in a lather about these things anymore because they keep happening. Conference divorces are about as common as Hollywood splits, and so if we haven't come to enjoy them, we've at least become numb to them.

Syracuse left the Big East and the world kept spinning. Nebraska joined the Big Ten and lived to tell about it.

Maryland feels a little different because of its history. Like Syracuse, it is a founding conference member, but this foundation was built long before the Big East was a twinkle in Dave Gavitt's eye.

Sixty-one years is an awful lot of water under the bridge.

This is almost like two long-married octogenarians suddenly deciding they need to see other people.

"My immediate reaction was, 'What are we doing this for?'" former coach Gary Williams said. "But then I wasn't really aware of the situation.''

The situation, of course, is money.

The Maryland administration, at least, has been plain-faced in its rationale, not trying to hide behind insincere arguments of better academics and the greater good of all student-athletes (because, no doubt, the annually top-ranked men's and women's lacrosse teams are really going to benefit from this).

Maryland is, if not broke, at least darned close, and the Big Ten with its television network offers a welcomed financial buyout. Just why the school is broke is subject to debate still -- the current administration insists it was because its predecessors spent lavishly and dug the department into a hole; other sources say the budget was balanced, but the current administration's decision to can Ralph Friedgen and throw a bank at Mark Turgeon undid the delicate ledger work.

Regardless of how it happened, the numbers are more red than the Terps' uniforms and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's pockets are practically sprouting cash.

"There's no question, and I've been up front and honest with everybody, that the economic impact is tremendous for the athletic department and moving forward in the future,'' Anderson said.

The dash for cash, though, has made this all a bit more unseemly and acrimonious. Feel free to blame it on the last ember of idealism left in college athletics, the one that would at least like to pretend that it's still about the greater good of the student-athlete.

Whatever the reason, this has been the messiest of conference divorces, so bad that the two groups are still mired in a lawsuit over the exit fee, litigation that one source said could stretch on "for years."

And, or perhaps consequently, rather than enjoying a nostalgic exit tour, the Terps have been treated more like the scoundrel that is sneaking out of town. Most road losses end with an inevitable "A-C-C" chant. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the conference's resident Buddha, offered up a don't-let-the-door-hit-you farewell.

"If it was such a rivalry, they'd still be in the ACC,'' Krzyzewski said. "Obviously they don't think it's that important, or they wouldn't be in the Big Ten.''

To make sure his stance was clear, Krzyzewski says he has no intention of playing the Terps again, unless the Big Ten and ACC leave him no choice by pitting the two old foes against each another in the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

All of which serves as the backdrop for this final game, which will be an awkward trip down Memory Lane.

"I've been thinking about that a lot, actually,'' said Daniel Gallen, sports editor of The Diamondback, the student newspaper. "It will be interesting because it's the last game, and it will be emotional, I'm sure, for the older alums that come back, but I don't know. I'm not sure what to expect.''

Just how big the emotional tug is depends really on how you are. For young people like Gallen, for whom the 2002 national championship was barely in their lifetime, swapping out trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium for Assembly Hall and the Big House isn't such a big deal. The gas bill for the road trip will be heftier, but the atmosphere promises to be just as enticing.

For older alums, the ones with stories, memories and Duke hatred built up like well-earned calluses, this remains a bitter, if necessary, pill to swallow. 

But no one will have a stranger Sunday than the two coaches who together gave Maryland its basketball identity and its ACC teeth.

Driesell was there when the ACC played its first tournament and when the Terrapins-Blue Devils rivalry first took hold. That would, of course, be in 1980, when Maryland's Buck Williams went for a rebound in the tourney title game, only to be undercut by Duke's Kenny Denard. No foul, no harm, Duke win.

In all, Driesell would spend 17 years prowling the ACC sidelines, leading the Terps through the ACC's glory days, before resigning not long after the death of Len Bias.

Three years later -- the gap years also known as the Bob Wade era -- Williams was hired.

Williams, like Driesell, is an ACC man through and through. He played his college ball in the league at Maryland and coached in it, too. He was there for moments big and small -- a teammate of Billy Jones, the league's first African-American player, and a coach when the Terps won not only a national title, but three ACC regular-season crowns.

"I think every person, anyone that's a fan, can point to one game, one year, one memory that was great,'' Williams said. "That will never go away. That's always a part of your makeup. If you have to force yourself to embrace the future, I understand that. But it's something you have to do.''

This isn't the preference for either of them.

It's really nobody's first choice.

For plenty of people, Sunday's game might, in fact, feel more funereal than celebratory. A sellout crowd is expected and the university plans to honor its ACC past, with nods to both Driesell and Williams, the national championship team and other greats from what will now be its former era. It will be an awkward tap dance, without question.

But if conference realignment has done nothing else, it has numbed us all into acceptance, if not excitement.

"What are you going to do?'' Driesell said. "Things change.''

And if an 82-year-old man can accept that, everyone else might as well, too.