On brink of No. 700, it's same old Driesell Reviving Georgia State is real goal, coach says

November 18, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He doesn't sound, or act, much different than he did 15 years ago at Maryland or 30 years ago at Davidson. Maybe there are fewer hairs on his mostly bald head. Maybe the stage is smaller, the spotlight not as bright.

The act, like Lefty Driesell himself, doesn't seem to get old.

"I'm just as fiery as I used to be," Driesell said in that familiar raspy twang over the telephone from Atlanta, where he is in his second season at Georgia State. "I like to win."

Driesell, 66, will be going after the 700th victory of his never-boring, sometimes-controversial 37-year coaching career tonight. If Georgia State wins its season opener against Georgetown at the Georgia Dome, he would become the 11th Division I coach in NCAA history to reach that level.

That milestone, Driesell would like you to believe, is not as important as beating the Hoyas.

"It's just the first game of the year, that's all," Driesell said. "Playing in the Georgia Dome, beating Georgetown, that would get the program jacked up. Winning 700 doesn't mean that much to me."

Beating former archrival John Thompson, Driesell would like you to believe, is not that important, either.

"It was like a competitive thing, not personal," Driesell said. "Georgetown and Maryland had a rivalry and then we didn't play for a while.

"He's one of the few coaches who would play us here [Atlanta]. He didn't have to. Nobody in the ACC would."

Coaching at Georgia State, Driesell would like you to believe, is not as big a comedown as some might think.

"Every place is different," Driesell said. "Georgia State has the losingest record in NCAA history. But I enjoy the challenge of rebuilding. We've made a lot of improvements. I'm excited at Georgia State. We have a chance to make this a Top 10 program."

Same old Lefty.

Truth is, Driesell has pumped quite a bit of life into a program that had two winning seasons since 1963. The Bulldogs finished a surprising 16-12 last season, a respectable 11-5 in the Trans America Athletic Conference, and Driesell was named the TAAC's Coach of the Year.

Now, with the College of Charleston having moved on to the Southern Conference, Georgia State is considered the TAAC favorite. And, with Georgia Tech having lost Dion Glover for the season, the Bulldogs could give the Yellow Jackets some competition for fan interest in town.

"We can be like a Georgetown or a GW is in Washington," Driesell said of Georgia State. The 25,000-student commuter school hired him in spring 1997 after he had been forced out at James Madison, where he coached nine years.

Who else but Driesell could sweet-talk his way into the Georgia Dome against a former perennial power that apparently has seen better days? Driesell was excited to learn that all 2,700 student tickets have been picked up and realistic enough to know that the place is going to seem pretty empty.

"I went to the Falcons game Sunday, and they announced that anybody with a ticket stub from that game can get $5 off the price of the ticket," Driesell said. "They got 72,000 for Michael Jordan and the Bulls last year. I'll be elated if we get 10,000."

Driesell nearly won his 700th last season, but Georgia State blew a four-point lead in the final 30 seconds of its TAAC tournament semifinal game against Florida International and lost, 82-80.

(Talk about history repeating itself. Maryland fans who recall Driesell's seeming penchant for losing close games could relate to that one.)

"It was tougher on the players than on me," Driesell said.

If Georgia State doesn't win tonight, Driesell will get his next shot at his 700th back in the 5,500-seat campus field house against North Florida on Saturday. Then comes a homecoming of sorts for Driesell, going back to the Tidewater area for a game at Norfolk State.

Maryland fans will also remember that it took Driesell four tries to win No. 500. It finally came in a 91-38 blowout against Towson State in the 1984-85 season. "I just know the fans got on me for that," said Driesell, who would coach one more season in College Park.

Will he get to 800 or think about retiring?

"Is Bobby Bowden too old? Is Joe Paterno too old? Is Chuck Daly too old?" said Driesell, whose contract pays him a base salary of $125,000 a year. "Just because you're 66 doesn't mean you're ready for the grave."

Yup, same old Lefty.

$

Driesell's record

School .. .. .. Years .. .. .. .. Record

Davidson .. ... 1961-69 .. .. ... 176-65

Maryland .. ... 1969-86 .. .. .. 348-159

James Madison . 1988-97 .. .. .. 159-111

Georgia State . 1997- .. .. .. ... 16-12

Totals .. .. .. 36 .. .. .. .. . 699-347

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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