Giving Driesell his due

January 14, 2003|By Crispin Sartwell

IN SOME ways, basketball coaches are a lot like politicians. The job seems to reward people who get behind a microphone and blandly mutter cliches but who have a secret streak of ruthlessness.

That's precisely the opposite of Lefty Driesell, who said the damnedest things but had a secret streak of kindness.

He quit the other day as coach at Georgia State the same way he'd always coached: bluntly, with a little twinkle of humor. He woke up New Year's Day, he said, and told his wife: "I'm just tired and I've got this bad cold and I'm just going to retire."

Whereas Lefty's nemesis, North Carolina's Dean Smith, was buttoned-down, restrained, and smooth to the point of nonexistence, Lefty was volatile as heck, with a good-ol'-boy persona and a mouth from which anything might emerge at any time.

But unlike, say, Bob Knight, who (one believes) underneath it all really cares about nothing except winning, Lefty had a twinkle of humor in his eye and a warmth and sweetness that were palpable.

I was a student at Maryland from 1976 to 1980, and quite the arrogant little pup.

One day as I was walking across campus in my Stetson and pointy-toed boots (don't ask), I espied Mr. Driesell pulling up in the Cole Field House parking lot, unloading some balls from his trunk. I yelled "Hey Lefty!" and he yelled back "Hey what?" And I yelled "Let's win!" and he yelled back "Good idea!" And he gave me that big old grin.

His teams reflected his personality. They'd pull amazing upsets, then lose games they shouldn't.

Lefty never made a Final Four, and though he had atrocious luck, he also, I think, didn't really have the steadiness of coaches who can win enough games in a row to get there. But that, too, was part of the whole huge beautiful Lefty thing.

In my era, he had great teams, and though Albert King was one of the most highly recruited high-schoolers in the history of basketball, the best player was Buck Williams, an unheralded kid from North Carolina. Buck, at 6-foot-8, consistently embarrassed Virginia's 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, playing for Lefty's steadier protM-igM-i, Terry Holland. And the supporting cast was cool and colorful: Ernie Graham with his one-handed jump shots, slashing two-guard Greg Manning.

That could have been a championship team in 1981, but they ran into Mr. Knight's Indiana squad early in the tournament and got blown out. It was a typical combination of bad luck and inconsistency. Indiana won the championship that year, but the Terps had as much talent and no business losing as badly as they did.

Lefty was always in a little bit of trouble. It usually came from disciplinary problems among his players. Lefty always hesitated to do anything but defend his kids, whom he seemed to regard as his family. He was too close, and his essential decency, loyalty and affection sometimes made him make questionable calls in their defense.

Of course, Lefty's Maryland program fell apart after Len Bias died. And of course, there was nothing Lefty could have done to keep Mr. Bias from celebrating being selected with the first pick of the draft by smoking a huge rock of cocaine. As anyone knows who's dealt very closely with drugs, that was Len Bias' decision, not Lefty's.

And if we were to blame Lefty for Len Bias' death, maybe we should blame him, too, for John Lucas' recovery from addiction and the help he has given dozens of addicted athletes.

Maybe we should blame him for Tom McMillen's stint in Congress, or Buck's Hall-of-Fame-quality NBA career.

Lefty slipped down the ladder of prestige after he lost the Maryland job, coaching at James Madison and Georgia State. But I have the funny feeling and the hope that he never regarded himself as a failure and that he mostly just loved working with kids and grinning that big old grin at everyone.

Hey Lefty! That's success.

Crispin Sartwell is a syndicated columnist who teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He can be reached at www.crispinsartwell.com.

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