At 69, Driesell is still fit to be in Big Dance

Coach: Old ex-Terp has lost some mobility, but not his touch, making another left-hand turn into tourney with a 28-4 Georgia State team.

College Basketball

March 13, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - He is one of college basketball's last remaining dinosaurs, part of a colorful and almost extinct breed that roamed the game's landscape before three-point shots and seven-figure coaching contracts. Even before Dick Vitale.

Still as feisty and nearly as indefatigable as he was during the 17 seasons he spent at the University of Maryland, Lefty Driesell is doing much the same thing that he has done throughout a 39-year career on the college level.

Winning.

Just as he rebuilt programs at Davidson, Maryland and James Madison, Driesell has turned heretofore hapless Georgia State into an NCAA tournament team. The Panthers (28-4) will play Wisconsin in the first round of the West Regional on Thursday in Boise, Idaho. The winner will likely meet Maryland.

And, at age 69, Driesell shows no signs of slowing down.

"Ronald Reagan ran the most powerful country in the world in his 70s," Driesell said after practice one day last week. "I could do this 'til I'm 90."

He just might. Earlier this season, Driesell signed a three-year contract that goes into effect July 1. Despite undergoing nine hours of surgery to remove bone spurs from his neck and fuse two vertebrae, Driesell missed only five games and then coached wearing a restrictive brace.

Though he said he is not motivated by his place in the record books, Driesell's 761 victories rank first among active coaches who have spent their entire careers in Division I and second all time to another dinosaur, Mount St. Mary's Jim Phelan, among those still coaching.

"I don't keep a count of them, that's y'all's job," he said to a couple of reporters. "I just try to keep winning."

This is perhaps the best rebuilding job Driesell has ever done, given that Georgia State had two winning seasons in the program's first 34 years and had gone to the NCAA tournament once - in 1991 - before the left-hander arrived at the 28,000-student commuter school in 1997.

"The president of the school said we could win all our games for the next 20 years and we still wouldn't be over .500," said Driesell, who has had four straight winning seasons.

Driesell didn't make any of the same bodacious proclamations that he did in College Park - the most infamous, that of turning Maryland into the "UCLA of the East," would haunt him for years - but went about his job with the energy of a man half his age.

"He hasn't changed at all," said Greg Manning, the former Maryland guard who is now in his second year as Georgia State's athletic director. "He still looks the same. He still enjoys what he does as much as he did when I first knew him as a freshman. A lot of guys his age don't like to recruit. He loves it. He's unbelievable."

Just as he did at James Madison, where he spent nine years after ending the two-year coaching hiatus that followed his forced resignation at Maryland in 1986, Driesell has rebuilt Georgia State mostly with Division I transfers and junior college players.

The first to come was point guard Kevin Morris, who spent one unhappy season at Georgia Tech before making the 10-minute drive to Georgia State in 1997. Morris was later joined by shooting guard Shernard Long, who as a sophomore led Georgetown in scoring but wanted to come home after his mother died. Sophomore guard Darryl Cooper also came home after a year at Louisiana State.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Morris, who scored a game-high 18 points and had seven assists in Georgia State's 79-55 victory over Troy State in the Trans America Athletic Conference championship game. "He [Driesell] knows what he's doing, and I take heed in what he says."

Long, who started his college career playing for John Thompson, kiddingly calls Driesell "the old guy" and says there is something of a generation - or two - gap. But Long is equally aware of what Driesell has done, particularly at Maryland.

"He brings a lot of wisdom," said Long, the team's leading scorer the past two seasons. "We're new school; he's old school. But Coach Driesell gives you more freedom offensively than Coach Thompson did."

Some of his players have seen a younger, but no less bald, Driesell stomping along the sidelines at Maryland, courtesy of the ESPN Classic network.

Just last week, there were replays of Maryland's 1984 Atlantic Coast Conference championship win over Duke (after which Driesell said he would drive around the state of North Carolina with the trophy attached to the hood of his car) and the famous overtime loss to North Carolina State in the 1974 ACC tournament final.

"I don't watch old-time games," Driesell said. "In fact, I don't think I have that [ESPN Classic] on my TV. That's not going to help me win. I don't look at the rearview mirror. I look forward."

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