Georgia State learns to live life after Lefty

Driesell's gone, but team trying to keep high profile

December 14, 2003|By ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION

ATLANTA - Charles "Lefty" Driesell was the perfect fit.

Georgia State had no national distinction. Driesell was a household name. Georgia State stood pat as the guaranteed victory on many schedules. Driesell arrived in 1997 and changed that in a hurry, inking wins against heavyweights like Georgia and St. Joseph's. By the 2000-2001 season he marched his team into the NCAA tournament and set a school record with 29 victories.

During halftime of Friday's 88-56 win over South Alabama, Georgia State dedicated its home court at the GSU Sports Arena to Driesell, whose signature is engraved on the hardwood.

"Lefty brought tremendous recognition and notoriety," Georgia State athletics director Greg Manning said. "When he came here, it made a statement that Georgia State is taking its athletics seriously."

The challenge, especially now, is to get everyone else to do the same now that Driesell's legend and name recognition are gone.

Without Lefty's name, Georgia State is faced with the obstacle of sustaining its short-lived national identity on its success alone. That's the charge of new coach Michael Perry, who took over for Driesell 10 games into last season when Driesell unexpectedly retired. Driesell, who lives in Virginia Beach and will turn 75 on Christmas Day, handpicked Perry, his longtime assistant, as his successor.

He did it because of his belief in Perry as a coach. But Driesell also believed in Perry's ability to continue what he'd begun.

"He knows what we did to get to the Final 32 a couple of years ago," Driesell said. "So, I think he's terrific. Mike is well-respected in the coaching fraternity. He's an excellent speaker. On the radio shows, I thought he did a better job than I did. He'll help Georgia State in fund-raising and he's an excellent recruiter. I think we're headed in the right direction. The key is you've just got to keep winning."

Those within the Panthers' program can only hope that will be enough.

Even during Driesell's tenure, Georgia State struggled to have respectable crowds. When Georgia State defeated Tulsa, 72-67, in Duluth, Ga., Dec. 1, fewer than 1,000 were in attendance.

Perry has gone out of his way - literally - to drum up support. Before the home opener Nov. 22 against Anderson, Perry went to one of the GSU classes and spoke to the students about his team. He even showed them game highlights.

"One of the things I saw that was really important was that several of them didn't know there was a game that day," he said. "That showed me something really important. Our first objective is to let people know there is a game. The second objective is to try to somehow capture this captive audience."

Players have distributed flyers about their upcoming games while standing on the corner near the CNN Center. Workers around campus wear free T-shirts about the games. There is $12,000 in the sports department marketing budget, a far cry from the totals of bigger programs. Therefore, the emphasis has to be different.

And Perry has to do his part. He has detailed to his players how far the program has come, from the days of scheduling the Panthers for guaranteed money games to the current problem of struggling to find upper-tier opponents willing to chance a game against them. The next biggest step is recruiting.

"We could get in quickly with kids because of Lefty's name recognition," Perry said. "The name Georgia State doesn't ring a bell with them, but the name Lefty Driesell does. We've got a ways to go in terms of that, but the players and the coaches are involved. What we're selling now is our program."

Georgia State is 4-2 overall and 1-1 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Perry has his eyes trained on another league title and an automatic berth into the tournament. The winning isn't easy - but it may not be the hardest part.

"Mike Perry has broad shoulders," Manning said. "He can handle it. We're trying to create history and tradition on the fly. That is a tremendous challenge."

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