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COMMENTARY : LEFTY IS BACK : Driesell Coaching Again, and Talking, Very Carefully

July 23, 1987|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — In the movie "King of Comedy," Robert De Niro plays a star-struck character named Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps a network talk-show host. As ransom, Pupkin demands to be host on the show for one night.

He gets his wish, then is arrested. But when Pupkin is released from prison some time later, he finds he has become a national hero.

It is the American way.

We may be the most forgiving people on Earth. We applaud baseball players when they return from suspensions for using cocaine, buy the Mayflower Madame's autobiography, watch G. Gordon Liddy on "Miami Vice" and salute Ollie North.

During the U.S. Olympic Festival over the last two weeks in five North Carolina cities, it has been noted by numerous visitors that there are more "Ollie North for President" bumper stickers per capita here than in any other part of the country. The only men more popular here are the coaches of the three area Atlantic Coast Conference basketball teams, North Carolina's Dean Smith, North Carolina State's Jim Valvano and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

So perhaps no one should be surprised by the cheers received here by Lefty Driesell, the coach of the East team at the Festival basketball tournament in Chapel Hill and a loose cannon if ever there was one.

You may wonder how Driesell was selected to coach a team of high school seniors and college freshmen. When reports surfaced that he would be a coach here, an official of the American Basketball Assn. of the USA (ABAUSA) was asked for confirmation. His response was a somewhat sheepish "no comment."

Now the ABAUSA is taking bows. Not only has its decision to have Driesell here not been questioned, he has been greeted as if he were kin. He has received standing ovations, signed hundreds of autographs and had his picture in the newspapers more often than J. R. Reid.

As the coach at Maryland for 17 years, Driesell, 55, was not always so well received in North Carolina.

He didn't win here often, though his last Maryland team in 1986 became the first, and so far only, team to beat North Carolina in the new Dean Smith Center, but when he did win, he liked to rub it in.

After finally winning an ACC championship in 1985, Driesell was asked how he would celebrate.

"Well, Ah thought Ah'd bolt the trophy to the hood of mah car and drive around North Carolina for the weekend," he said in his hush puppies-and-grits Southern drawl. "Nah, Ah'm too tired. Ah'm just gonna go home."

There never has been any question that Driesell can win basketball games. His record at Maryland was 348-159. In 26 years as a college coach, nine at Davidson before he moved to Maryland, he never had a losing season.

But he also will be remembered for things other than his coaching ability.

Such as the graduation rate of his recent Maryland teams.

Such as the time he attempted to talk a woman out of reporting an alleged assault by a Maryland player.

Such as his actions immediately after All-American Len Bias' cocaine-related death last year.

Driesell appeared before the grand jury investigating Bias' death. There were claims that he obstructed justice, but he wasn't indicted. He did, however, resign as Maryland's basketball coach, although he remains an assistant athletic director at the university.

His defenders say he started at Maryland on the high road, recruiting honor students such as Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, but that he finally gave in to the win-or-else system. They say he is not a dishonorable person, but that he often acts and talks before he thinks. That is the reason, they say, he comes across as such a buffoon.

When he used to coach Maryland in games at Durham, Duke students would hold up signs depicting Driesell's bald head with a gas gauge drawn on it. It would be pointing to empty.

The irony, lost on them, was that Driesell graduated from Duke, with honors.

Driesell was back this week as the guest speaker for the Durham Sports Club at the Croasdaile Country Club.

It was the day after his East team had lost by one point to the unbeaten South, led by North Carolina's Reid, at the Smith Center.

He was at his foot-stomping, referee-baiting best during the game, but when it was over, he said it was no big thing.

"I'd rather have been at my beach house," he said when asked if his experience here made him want to return to coaching. "I'd be out in my boat, fishing, smoking cigars and watching girls."

By the time he appeared before the Durham Sports Club, the game was all but forgotten. Perhaps because he knew reporters were present, he chose his words carefully, something he didn't do in Providence, R.I., earlier this summer, when he said that cocaine can enhance athletic performance.

"I'm a firm believer that if you know how to use cocaine and use it properly, it can make you play better," he had said in Providence.

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