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Inside College Basketball | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Driesell Shouldn't Be Left Behind

January 09, 2003|Robyn Norwood

Only three major college coaches have won 800 games: Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, and Jim Phelan, who is still coaching at Mount St. Mary's in Maryland.

Bob Knight is three victories away, and in all probability only a few more seasons from passing Smith's record of 879 to assure a place atop the list of legends many would begrudge him.

Lefty Driesell will never get to 800 after hanging up his whistle at Georgia State last week only 14 shy of the mark, worn out at 71 after nearly 41 seasons.

The recognition Driesell deserves might never come.

Knight has been in the Hall of Fame for more than a decade, and justly so after winning three NCAA titles at Indiana.

Driesell was a finalist on the Hall of Fame ballot last year. But despite all his victories he never advanced past the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, and perhaps more damaging, he remains associated with the aftermath of the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias at Maryland in 1986.

Whether he'll ever been enshrined in Springfield, Mass., is hard to say.

"Lefty's one of the top coaches ever in the college game," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who considers him a close friend. "I think sometimes because a coach hasn't gone to the Final Four or won a national championship, people tend to diminish what they've accomplished. Lefty's a survivor. He put every ounce of effort into building programs that were very successful wherever he went."

Not once did Driesell take over a program that already was thriving. From Davidson to Maryland to James Madison to Georgia State, he built every one, taking tiny Davidson as well as giant Maryland to the brink of making the Final Four and reaching the NCAA tournament with James Madison and Georgia State.

Knight still electrifies an arena merely by walking into it, as he did when No. 23 Texas Tech played at San Diego State on Monday night. Students held up mass-produced signs urging him to "Lose it, Coach!" and another headlined, "Bob Knight's New Year's Resolutions: No Yelling, No Chair-Throwing, No Choking."

Driesell was never so volatile or quite so controversial, but there was an aura about him during his 17 years at Maryland, when he built a national power with a country-boy's pitchman skills that belied the fact he was an honors graduate of Duke.

Long before Krzyzewski arrived to challenge Smith in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the great rivalry was between Lefty and Dean.

One of Driesell's great recruiting triumphs came in the early 1970s, when Tom McMillen -- later a U.S. Congressman -- chose Maryland over North Carolina.

McMillen recalls how he challenged Driesell during recruiting about the Maryland library having fewer volumes than the libraries at Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

"Right away, Lefty told me that after I'd read all the books [in Maryland's library], he'd buy me any more I needed," McMillen told the Washington Post.

Another near-coup could have changed the history of college basketball: Moses Malone had agreed to play for Maryland in 1974 before he became the first player to turn pro out of high school, joining the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Assn.

And one more near-miss with history. In 1974, when only the conference tournament winner made the NCAA field, a No. 4 Maryland team with McMillen, John Lucas and Len Elmore lost to a No. 1 North Carolina State team led by David Thompson and Tom Burleson in overtime of the ACC final, 103-100.

The Wolfpack went on to win the NCAA title, interrupting UCLA's run. Maryland and Driesell were left with "what ifs," and Maryland's first NCAA title didn't come until last year, under Gary Williams, who paid him tribute last week.

"If you say the name, 'Lefty,' people know who you're talking about," Williams said.

"He was a great promoter, which needed to be done at Maryland. He was the reason the seats got moved to the floor of Cole Field House. He was the reason Midnight Madness got started, nationally. It was his idea. I don't think anybody out-worked Lefty. If he had to stay on the job 18 hours a day, he would. He's been a great competitor, no matter where he's been."

In the end, he was too weary to keep slogging toward 800. At 4-6, it didn't look like it was coming this season.

So Driesell steps aside, and Knight, at 62, rolls on with a 10-1 team that might be able to avoid last season's fate, another first-round NCAA loss by a Knight team.

Instead of tiring, Knight seems more energized.

"I'm not sure I've ever been satisfied," he said. "In fact, the year we were 32-0 [with Indiana in 1976], I think I was [complaining] about something or other after the last game."

Unless something drastic happens -- never out of the question with Knight -- before too long he figures to have won more games than any coach in college basketball history.

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