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How Flip Saunders Almost Became a Terp

(Image from Minnesota media guide.)

How was it that Flip Saunders, a slightly undersized high school point guard from Ohio, almost became a Terp in the early '70s? I'll let Lefty Driesell explain.

"He was a heckuva player," the Terps legend said of Saunders, now the Wizards' head coach and then a would-be Maryland recruit. "If I recruited him, he was pretty good. I didn't go after any dogs. I mean, he was good. We recruited him hard."

Saunders told me that he actually attended the Terps basketball camp in the summer before his senior year, earning MVP honors, which kick-started his interest in the Terps. It didn't hurt that the program was stocked with big names, which helped move Maryland near the top of Saunders's list.

"I pretty much had it down between Maryland and Minnesota," he said. "I mean, they were good. They had Len Elmore, they had [Tom] McMillen, they had Lucas. Lefty had kind of turned it around, and he created the UCLA of the East at the time."

Saunders went on to have a fabulous senior year, averaging 32 points at Cuyahoga Heights High (just outside Cleveland) and earning Ohio Class A player of the year honors. He played point guard and shooting guard while also jumping center, and he showed certain qualities that would one day emerge on the bench.

"You could tell that he was in love with basketball, that was the best thing we liked about him," said Joe Harrington, the Maryland assistant who led the Saunders recruitment in the '70s and is now back in College Park. "He was just a great point guard. I mean, he just played hard, and he had all the skills--he could make the team around him better, he was able to score, he was a good driver, a good shooter from outside, he was a complete basketball player. But above all, he was a real leader. He loved the game."

Harrington thought they were going to land Saunders, but the point guard had some concerns about playing time with Lucas just a year in front of him. And Lucas turned out to be an ok collegiate player, all in all.

"So I made a wise decision," Saunders said with a smile. "Well, that was a good reason," Harrington agreed with a laugh.

And if Saunders had come to College Park instead of going to Minnesota? Well, who knows? He might now list Lefty as a mentor instead of Bill Musselman and Jim Dutcher. He wouldn't have met longtime colleague and current Wizards assistant Don Zierden during summer games on campus. He wouldn't have set Minnesota's all-time mark for free-throw shooting. (His 80.9 percent average now ranks second in school history, though his 85.6 mark in Big 10 play remains atop the Gophers' record book.)

And he wouldn't have been teammates with Kevin McHale, the man who gave Saunders his first NBA job, which led to 10 seasons in Minnesota. Harrington, though, said that Saunders would have been a success regardless of his college choice.

"Like they say, cream rises to the top," he said. "He just had that personality and glow about him, and people followed him....He's just one of those special guys that can lead people, and it just so happens that he loves basketball, but it could have been something else. You could see those qualities when he was just a young player....Ive never forgotten him from the time I met him as a recruit. It doesn't really surprise me that he's doing what he's doing."

By Dan Steinberg  |  July 29, 2009; 2:28 PM ET
Categories:  Terps , Wizards  
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Comments you're saying Saunders is from Cleveland...

Posted by: rgm34 | July 29, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Maryland football will finish with a 2-10 record.

Maryland basketball will finish with a 15-16 record

No NCAA bid

No NIT bid

Carolina Blue - Carolina WHITE - Go Tar Heels - Let's go Tar Heels !

Posted by: hclark1 | July 29, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

hclark1 continues to show that the average Carolina fan A) has the IQ of a toaster and B) didn't even go to the University of Carolina.

Gary Williams-coached teams never finish under .500, and most pre season polls have the Terps ranked in the top 20.

As for football, 2-10? Please lay off the crack pipe pal.

Posted by: Barno1 | July 29, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Why was a Maryland basketball program that already had John Lucas in the fold recruiting a slightly undersized point guard from a small school in Ohio during the early '70s?

By Dan Steinberg | July 29, 2009; 2:28 PM ET

I dunno, maybe perhaps because some schools like having more than one point guard on their roster? C'mon Steinz

Posted by: Barno1 | July 29, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

That's fair enough Barno. I was just trying to come up with a throwaway sentence to introduce the Lefty quote. But you're right, I changed it.

And no credit at all for the item? If anyone would care about this, I figured it was you.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | July 29, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Yeah Barno, how about some common courtesy you ungrateful bastard.

Posted by: fushezzi | July 29, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse


So are you saying everyone has to fail for Carolina to shine? Just because I root for the terps to win does not mean Carolina has to do poorly for that to happen. BTW we beat them last year didn't we? Is that why you are such a hater?

Posted by: ged0386 | July 29, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Dan Steinberg-- Stick to your guns, man. You're the writer - you're entitled to all the throwaway lines you want. And it was a good piece. Who knew Lefty was still kicking? The Barno guy just likes to talk smack. I wouldn't sweat it. Your piece about Steve McNair was really good too, btw. But why'd you get rid of the Erin Andrews pic up top? You could have just put Nick Young in place of the spelling bee and not Erin Andrews. That was at least 30% of why I read you. But that's really cool you responded.

Posted by: Urnesto | July 29, 2009 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Fascinating! I didn't know Flip almost became a Terp. Does he have any plans to visit Lefty? Would have been nice.

Posted by: RedCherokee | July 29, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

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