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Lefty Driesell Is Back Doing What He Does Best

February 05, 1989|KEN DENLINGER | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In about every way possible, Lefty Driesell is back. He's back coaching, two years after being forced out at Maryland; he's back building a home, and rebuilding a team at an obscure basketball school; he's back in the area for two games this week, beginning Wednesday night at Navy.

As he eventually did at Davidson, as he quickly did at Maryland, the Lefthander has James Madison aflutter with anticipation. Three terrific teams did the school proud several years ago but few beyond the campus gave much notice; the new coach, with his fresh start, brings national attention simply by being himself.

To some, Driesell is seen as a sad figure forced to salvage a reputation at a fairly advanced age (57) in a second-level conference. History would have been very kind to him, with that 70-plus winning percentage in 748 games, had he stayed inactive. Also, each time Maryland retreats under Bob Wade, Driesell's tarnished image gets cleaner.

To many (me included), Driesell's step was just short of noble, assuming he still cares deeply about athletics and athletes and brings to this job the intensity and integrity he did at Davidson and most of his years at Maryland.

Driesell is "having fun," he said over the phone the other day, "with a great bunch of kids who have exceeded expectations." Reality could be sweet, that 3-4 record in the Colonial Athletic Association something special had fate been more helpful and the foul shooting not so crooked. Two of those CAA losses were in overtime, the others by a total of seven points.

Because he delivered so grandly at Davidson and so soon at Maryland, Driesell is supposed to boost James Madison into a conference champion and top-25 contender nationally in another couple of years.

JMU's immediate future has names. Two of them are William Davis, a freshman guard averaging about 15 points per game, and Jeff Chambers, a 6-foot-8 recruit from Maryland's Eastern Shore about whom Driesell gushes: "He'll be a super player."

Unfortunately for Driesell, times are not the same these days in college basketball as they were when he was lifting Davidson, in the early '60s, and Maryland, in the early '70s. New rules, many of them very good, conspire against underdog programs such as JMU's.

"When I was at Davidson," he said, "I could see a kid any time I wanted. Take him out to eat. Get to know him. It was a pain (because of so much travel), but a way to get to know a kid personally and for him and his parents to get to know me.

"I'd get a Fred Hetzel (from the Washington area) by shooting around with him. By taking his parents to dinner. By being around enough to get him to say: 'Why don't I sign with this guy?' ;;

Those were the days when a workaholic such as Driesell could rise to the top almost on sheer energy. A former assistant at Boston College, for instance, saw a prospect two dozen times -- and never offered him a scholarship; Moses Malone and some other high school sensations visited so many colleges they became known as "America's Guests."

Then came reform. Too much change, naturally enough, to suit Driesell in his present position. Too many restrictions, on the recruiters and on those being recruited.

"I can only watch a player at certain times," Driesell said. "Some of those times I can't even speak to him, or to his parents sitting in the stands. I can visit only so many times in the home.

"I can only have 15 kids (per season) visit campus. My first year at Maryland there were something like 40 visits. People were curious. I only have seven visits left; I have three or four scholarships left. Which means I've got to sign one kid for every two that visits."

Another quirk in recruiting is this: If JMU signee Chambers wants to watch JMU play at Navy Wednesday night, he must buy a ticket. Or Navy must be the team to leave him a freebie.

"I told (Navy Coach) Pete Herrmann if he left one (for Chambers), I'd do the same when he signed somebody (close to JMU)," Driesell said.

To become nationally prominent, James Madison must attract at least a few of the players who might otherwise gravitate to one of the traditional powers. Or do a superior job of coaching overlooked prospects with potential.

Intense basketball watchers know that Driesell at JMU actually has a fairly tough act to emulate, if not immediately follow. Before leaving for California after the 1985 season, Lou Campanelli had a string of NCAA tournament teams. One beat Georgetown (in 1981); another lost to eventual-champion North Carolina (in 1982).

That plays on Driesell's mind. Knowing at least three terrific players will come flying ontothe scene next season is a comfort. Still, he recalls JMU's strong, though mostly ignored, performance in the early '80s and says, quietly: "So we have to get back there."

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