I went to see aging Coach Lefty Driesell, then 70, as he brought what turned out to be his last basketball team to play the University of South Alabama in Mobile's Mitchell Center. No one knew this would be his last team and his final season before hanging it up, but that appeared possible and was on the minds of the college basketball world in 2002.

The crowd seemed to know about the visiting coach. One loud Jaguar fan stayed on Driesell's back the whole game. "Hang it up, Lefty. It's over, Lefty." The rest of the crowd applauded vigorously when Driesell was introduced. Welcome to Alabama.

That trip to the state of Alabama convinced Driesell that his stellar college basketball coaching career was finally over.

Driesell and his last team, the Georgia State Panthers…

Lost at Alabama State University in Montgomery on December 5, 2002.  82-77.

Lost at the University of South Alabama in Mobile on December 14, 2002.  81-68.

Lost at Auburn on December 26, 2002. 100-71.

Welcome to Alabama.

That 2002 trip to Alabama was the last straw and led Driesell to his decision in January 2003 to retire from a long and stellar career. He finished coaching a team he was trying to rebuild, as he had done before.

His retirement on January 3, 2003, was just a week after his third loss at an Alabama school, all within December 2002.

Retired coach Charles Grice "Lefty" Driesell died February 17, 2024 at age 92 in his home in Virginia Beach. Announcement of arrangements is pending. His death was 21 years after his losing trip to Alabama and his decision to retire.

Driesell had left college basketball in 2003 as its fourth-leading game-winner, behind only Coaches Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Bobby Knight. Now, that's a mighty small fraternity.

He finished with 786 victories over parts of five decades.

He won more than 100 games at each of four different NCAA Division I schools -- Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State. That remains an NCAA record.

He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.

He had 21 seasons of winning 20 or more games.

His teams won 21 conference season or tournament championships.

He led four teams to the Elite Eight but never reached the Final Four.

He invented the zany college basketball tradition named "Midnight Madness." On October 15, 1971, at three minutes after midnight on his first legal day of practice, Driesell instructed his players to take a mile run on the track inside the Maryland football stadium. Other colleges gradually followed with their own Midnight Madness.

"I've done a lot of crazy things to get attention, but that wasn't one of them," Driesell said years later in his retirement. "I was just trying to get an early jump on practice. I had no idea what it was going to lead to."

The big step up was in 1969 when the University of Maryland hired Driesell.

A famous quote, a "Leftyism," was at his introductory news conference. He said: "Maryland has the potential to become the UCLA of the East Coast, or I wouldn't be here." At that time, UCLA was the predominant team in college basketball.

While Driesell was successful at Maryland, they did not become the UCLA of the East. He led the Terrapins to eight NCAA Tournament appearances, a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) championship, two ACC regular season championships, and one ACC tournament championship.

Driesell showed leadership outside of basketball. He saved the lives of at least ten children from several burning buildings. He and two other men were surf fishing at night on the Atlantic in Delaware. They saw flames coming from a seaside resort. Driesell broke down a door and rescued the children from the fire that eventually destroyed four townhouses.

An eyewitness, Virginia Judge Samuel Meloy, said, "Let's face it, Driesell was a hero. There were no injuries. and it was a miracle because firemen didn't come for at least 30 minutes."  

For those actions, Driesell was awarded the NCAA Award of Valor.

"I'm just tired and I've got this bad cold and I'm just going to retire. I'm looking forward to not having a job. I can get up when I want to and do what I want to." - Lefty Driesell after leaving the losing road trip to three Alabama teams in January 2003.

Jim Zeigler is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comments at ZeiglerElderCare@yahoo.com.