It was just before Christmas, which would also be his 71st
birthday, right before Georgia State's longest road trip, when
Lefty Driesell first made up his mind to quit. As Lefty is wont
to say, "That's about it." He was so tired of nights on the road.
Well, he was just so tired. He missed his wife. As he got on the
plane to Jackson, Miss., he said, "If this plane crashes, so's I
don't get a chance to get back home and retire, I'll be real
Vocationally Lefty was piqued too. After the Mississippi State
game, his Panthers had to go on to Norman to serve as a
sacrifice for Oklahoma in what is euphemistically called a
"guarantee game" for poor, second-tier schools.
"They make you come in, pay you and then they clean your clock,"
Lefty moaned. Forty-one years of coaching college ball, almost
1,200 games, and he'd never been a guarantee patsy before this
season. Things weren't going well on the team, either. "I never
had anything like this," he said last month. "This might be my
toughest job of coaching ever." One of his players was killed in
an automobile accident just before last season, right outside
the gym. Another player was kicked off the team this summer,
another quit last week and now another's GPA had come in at
1.86, when he needed 1.90 to stay eligible. "Can't we round it
off?" Lefty groaned.
Of course, even under the happiest of circumstances Driesell has
always exhibited a mournful countenance. He is a tall, large man
with what used to be called a "corporation" for a midsection, so
with his big ears and sloping bald head Lefty looks rather like a
big bull elephant who has lost his trunk. Probably, he opines, he
should've quit two years ago, after Georgia State went 29--5 and
won its first-round NCAA game. That was the fourth college he'd
taken from ignominy to the tournament. Driesell is the only man
ever to have won 100 games at four schools, 786 altogether. Only
Dean, Adolph and Bobby have won more in Division I. What
additional glory could he find? But, as everyone knows, Lefty
just adored coaching. That's about it.
What he likes, he sticks with. Driesell met his wife, Joyce, when
she was in the eighth grade and he was in the ninth. She's the
only girl he's ever had. They eloped when he was an undergrad at
Duke and had four children together, but here it was, Dec. 14,
his 51st anniversary, and he was on the road with the Panthers in
Mobile, getting ready to play South Alabama. He told Joyce he
would rush home to take her out to a fancy dinner. She said
thanks, but no thanks.
"Why not, Joyce?" asked Lefty.
"Because if you lose, I don't wanna eat with you."
After 51 years Joyce has him pegged. So, for his anniversary
dinner, he had a sandwich at Wendy's, alone.
But as old as he is, as bad as things had gotten, Lefty was just
plumb scared of quitting. He has never forgotten about his
father, Frank, an immigrant jeweler from Germany. "He didn't
retire till he was 75," Lefty explains, "and then, right away,
his health ran down. He was dead in two years. I think: Maybe if
I quit coachin', I die." He'd been telling a number of people
that. "I don't play golf, I don't have any hobbies," he says.
"Well, I do fish in the summer. But nobody'll go out with me in
my boat 'cause I run it into buoys and sandbars and stuff."
All Lefty ever wanted was to coach. He left an office job, where
he was taking home a handsome $6,200 a year, to coach a high
school jayvee team for $3,200. But his wife knew her man, so
Joyce gritted her teeth and let Lefty chase destiny at 50 cents
on the dollar. And, soon, yes, he was up from the jayvees. High
school. Davidson College in 1960. What? Where? A little
Presbyterian school someplace in North Carolina. He had a $500
recruiting budget, slept in his old station wagon, ate
peanut-butter sandwiches. In just four years Davidson was Top 10,
selling out the Charlotte Coliseum.
He moved up the ladder to Maryland in 1969 before going back down
it to James Madison, then to Georgia State. In 41 years his
players changed from white to black, the three-point shot came
in, fundamentals went out, shorts got long and all that, but ...
"I really don't think the players have changed that much," Lefty
says. "I've got a lot of nice young Christian kids on my team."
But last month things went from bad to worse. The personnel
problems, the indignity of the guarantee games, the sandwich on
his anniversary. He took on a bad cough after Christmas too, and
so, when he woke up on New Year's Day he decided to quit right
then. The first thing Lefty said to Joyce was, "It's
twenty-oh-three now, and I don't have to do this anymore."
So, there goes the last of the Lefties. There used to be a bunch
of them, most prominently in baseball, but now Lefty is out of
fashion everywhere you look. Do you know a Lefty? It's probably
become physically incorrect. Fatso, Red and Pee Wee have also
disappeared. But Charles G. Driesell is always Lefty. Even Joyce
calls him Lefty. In 1975 she got a nice $100 flower arrangement
when Lefty Frizzell, the country singer, died and someone got
their Lefties mixed up.
Only once did Lefty try to get rid of the moniker, in 1986, when
he suddenly decided that Lefty wasn't dignified enough. But
nobody paid any attention. That was only the second-dumbest thing
he has ever done. The first was when he arrived at Maryland and
declared that the Terps were going to become "the UCLA of the
East." He may as well have pasted a KICK ME sign on his bottom.
Maryland would invariably come up second-best in the ACC, and in
those halcyon days of purity only the league champs made the
NCAAs. It always seemed to be one late basket, one fluke upset
that did in the Terps. Four times in his career Driesell's teams
got to the regional finals, but he could never make the Final
Four. So the critics said Lefty could recruit but he couldn't
coach. The fact is, though, he never had a single player who went
on to star in the NBA.
Of course, one of them might have. But Len Bias died of a drug
overdose in 1986. That was in June, months after his senior
season at Maryland had ended, and there had never been any
evidence that Bias had used drugs. Driesell got caught up in the
fallout, and the university took his coaching portfolio away.
Lefty, who felt he had been made a scapegoat, had nine years left
on his contract. "They gave me an office, everything, kept payin'
me. It was like I was head of the chemistry department or
something. I never should've left."
But Lefty is forever a coach, and after two years James Madison
lured him to take over its moribund program. Then, last spring,
after Maryland had finally won its first NCAA championship, Gary
Williams, the coach, opened a letter and read these words: "Now
you have made Maryland the UCLA of the East." It was signed
Driesell was raised a Presbyterian, and one of his daughters is a
Presbyterian minister, but he has often worshiped with other
denominations. "I go to a Methodist church now," he says. "I just
go wherever there's a good preacher, where you really get fed."
And that, after a fashion, is how Lefty was himself. He was an
itinerant preacher-coach, and if he never won a championship,
still, his players and fans were never left hungry. That's about
COLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTER GLORY DAYS Bias's death in '86 started Driesell's decline on the coaching ladder.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL SO CLOSE AND YET ... Driesell took 13 teams to the NCAA tournament, but he never made it to the Final Four.
Driesell retires with the fourth-most wins in Division I history,
behind Dean Smith (879-254), Adolph Rupp (876-190) and Bob
Knight (796-299 through Sunday).
SCHOOL YEARS W-L PCT.
Davidson 1960-69 176-65 .730
Maryland 1969-86 348-159 .686
James Madison 1988-97 159-111 .589
Georgia State 1997-2003 103-59 .636
TOTALS 41 seasons 786-394 .666