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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | DIANE PUCIN

It Took Some Time, but Lefty's Reputation Is Less Biased Now

March 16, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

BOISE, Idaho — Lefty Driesell is Richard Nixon. He is basketball's sweet and folksy elder statesman back from the depths, risen from the ooze of scandal.

He has changed from the shady, slimy, sleazy Maryland coach who acted cagily clueless about the details of how his star player, Len Bias, could possibly have died of a cocaine overdose on campus, to the miracle worker who raised Georgia State from nothing to something.

In sports, like politics, if you live long enough, are rather shameless and are willing to keep on trying, no reputation is forever.

It was 1986 when Driesell was forced to resign as Maryland's basketball coach. Bias, who a day earlier had been the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, died in his apartment of a cocaine overdose.

What followed was an intense investigation. Uncovered were some ugly facts--for example, that five of Bias' Maryland teammates had been academically dismissed from Maryland after the spring semester and that Bias had been 21 credits short of graduation; and that, hours after Bias' death, Driesell had gathered the Maryland team at his house, expressed his sadness at the death and told the players to be careful what they told friends, family and reporters about the program.

Driesell didn't retire gracefully. He fought the university. He expressed dismay when the athletic department academic advisor quit and said Driesell didn't seem concerned about players and graduation.

"I don't understand why she would think that," Driesell said.

After 17 years as Maryland's coach, Driesell finally quit. He acted dazed and confused. "I'm no different now," he had said, "than I was a year ago when the university gave me a 10-year contract."

After two years as a television analyst, Driesell couldn't stand not coaching. He was hired by James Madison, going from the Atlantic Coast Conference to a "mid-major" program in which you can win 25 games and not get invited to the NCAA tournament.

After eight years at James Madison, where Lefty took the team to the NCAAs, his services were no longer required. Not enough progress, according to highfalutin administrators. So Lefty stepped backward again. He went to Georgia State, which was even lower in the mid-majors.

The Panthers had three winning seasons in 35 years before Lefty. Since Lefty, it has been four consecutive winning seasons.

And if you think he was nothing but evil for his handling of student-athletes at Maryland, you must also give him credit for his love of the college game and his willingness to teach the game anywhere they'll have him.

Kevin Morris was Lefty's first Georgia State recruit. He had played a year at Georgia Tech and was unhappy. He transferred to Georgia State, he said, "because Lefty is a good man. They say he did bad things at Maryland, but I did my research. He was the first coach to start five black players at Maryland. He was willing to come here and build something. I admire that."

Shernard Long, who transferred to Georgia State from Georgetown, says that, from what he can tell, Lefty did no worse than any other coach at a big-time program.

"They tried to blame Coach Driesell for players not graduating, but isn't that up to the player?" Long said.

Driesell is 69 now. He had a nine-hour operation on his neck to remove bone spurs and missed only five games this year. Lefty's wife told him that she thinks this 29-4 Georgia State team is his best ever. Lefty told his wife that she better be careful, as he put it, "about lyin' cuz we were driving home from church and you can't lie on the way home from church."

Turn right, there's Lefty telling stories. Turn left and, of course, there's Lefty telling stories. The way Lefty has put Georgia State into the early lead as feel-good story of the 2001 NCAA tournament is kind of sweet.

No one asks about Len Bias. Most everyone wanted to see Georgia State upset Wisconsin on Thursday so the Panthers and Lefty would play Maryland on Saturday.

There is no formula for how long we hold the bad against a man. It shouldn't be forever and Driesell has proved he is not too proud to take the jobs others wouldn't have and make them into something better.

One suspects that a decade from now we'll be at another NCAA first-round regional game and Bob Knight will be coaching some Cal State Fullerton-type program. He won't have "taken Texas Tech in the right direction," after five or six years and he will have stubbornly believed in his worth as a coach and teacher.

And he'll be fighting to break Dean Smith's all-time record for career victories. He'll be telling funny stories and we'll all be laughing and hoping that this Fullertonesque program, wherever it is, wins in an upset to play Indiana in the second round.

Oh, and in this new decade, Bill Clinton will be writing books and offering a new class of leaders his political wisdom.

It could happen.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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