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Driesell, Other Coaches Prepare for the Madness


The details of when and where are irrelevant because Lefty Driesell's scorn was aroused dozens of times, always memorably. This time I had asked the coach why he'd done a certain thing in a University of Maryland basketball game. "I'm not talking to you," Driesell said, and the way he said it made it clear it wasn't my question he didn't like, it was me.

The coach didn't like something in that morning's newspaper. Attempting to commit humor in a column about Atlantic Coast Conference coaches, I'd said Driesell's reputation was that "he couldn't coach a fish to swim."

After all, in a league owned by the gods Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski, a mere mortal such as Charles Grice Driesell inevitably paled in comparison, however successful his teams, however endearing his bumbling ways. Hoping to bring peace, my sportswriting friend John Feinstein explained to Driesell the shades of meanings in the offending words: "Lefty, Kindred didn't say you couldn't coach a fish to swim, he said your reputation is you couldn't coach a fish to swim."

So Driesell sought me out and said, "Feinstein says I owe you an apology."

And walked away.

It was 15 years before we talked again, not because of any enmity but because life's events separated us until an April day in 1997 when I found his windowless/no-pictures/no-secretary /concrete-block-walls office inside a faceless downtown Atlanta building that could have passed for a warehouse.

At age 65, fired by James Madison University, hired three weeks later by Georgia State University, Driesell sat in that blank little broom closet of an office and said, "This is gonna be fun."

You gotta love the ol' lefthander, a big man, all loosey-goosey and shambling, talking in that river-bottom Virginia drawl, those ears waggling, that smile coming on crooked as he admits that taking a nothing job at a senior citizen's age put folks to wondering.

"My wife thinks I'm nuts," he said four years ago. "She said, 'Georgia State?' I said, 'Well, it's something to do.' " And he had an idea of what he wanted to do: "Put this place on the map."

Now look. Now it's March. It's March Madness 2001.

Bob Knight is selling orange juice.

Denny Crum is going fishing.

Rick Pitino is rolling dice.

And Lefty Driesell, at 69, is taking Georgia State to the NCAA Tournament. For those folks who have seen Bob Knight's refusal to laugh at himself as evidence of a character flaw beyond repair, this week's TV commercial for Minute Maid may be instructive. The idea is, a glass of the magic o.j. can cause the lion to lie down with the lamb. So we see the kindly coach stoop to tie a player's shoelaces, lest the child trip. We also see the kindly coach embrace a referee.

Just a TV spot, yes. Bought and paid for, yes. Seldom has anyone seen Knight do such stuff in real life, yes.

But wouldn't it be wonderful -- wouldn't it be the stuff that makes March Madness the glorious madness it is? -- if Knight could make his life imitate his art? There's so much good and talent in Robert Montgomery Knight the man and the coach that both he and basketball are diminished by his absence from the game. Sometime soon, some university president will be brave enough to say to Knight, "Leave the baggage behind, bring the future here."

Odd, the way things work. Knight started at Indiana the same winter Denny Crum arrived in Louisville. In their first 15 seasons, they won five national championships (Knight leads, 3-2). They built Hall of Fame careers that in 30 years enriched their universities. Now they're both gone, Knight fired before this season, Crum forced to resign last week, both dumped because they'd stopped winning in the fashion to which their bosses had become accustomed.

The graceless endings to such glittering careers is only more evidence, not the first nor the last such evidence, that winning is all that matters in big-time college athletics. Knight and Crum profited from that reality, granted; their accomplishments earned them millions of dollars more than, say, a professor of Russian history earned. Yet it's dispiriting to see such naked displays of professionalism by universities that get tax-exempt status and cheap "student-athlete" labor by conning the public into believing their basketball programs are amateur athletics.

While Knight looks for a job, Crum is done. Louisville created a 15-year consultant's deal worth $7 million as inducement for Crum to retire. At 64, he says he's ready to do anything for the school "as long as it doesn't interfere with my fishing."

Then there's Rick Pitino. He wasn't fired, save in the sense that as the Celtics organization's president he may have convened a meeting with the team's coach at which he said, "Ricky, the natives are about to take to the streets. It's time to leave," and heard back, "Mr. Pitino, you are a very wise man. I'm on my way to UNLV."

Which brings us back to my favorite March Madness 2001 story, Lefty Driesell. Forty-five years ago, he told his wife he had quit his $6,500 job at the Ford Motor Company to make $3,200 coaching high school basketball. "She said, 'You're crazy,' " Driesell said.

Still crazy after all these years, he now has taken four schools to the NCAA Tournament: Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State. Only one coach beat him to that trick, Eddie Sutton.

And what must be said now, by all who have been amused and astonished by Lefty Driesell's work, is that the man not only can coach a fish to swim, he can coach the thing to shoot threes.

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