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The master builder heads south Coach: Lefty Driesell, who raised programs at Davidson, Maryland and James Madison, takes on lowly Georgia State.

HERNDON, VA. — HERNDON, Va. -- Lefty Driesell breezes into the lobby, his suit coat flapping. He has been on the go since 5 a.m., and it's nearly 9 p.m. now. He has driven from his home in Harrisonburg, Va., to Arlington, Va., and back to this restaurant near Dulles International Airport.

He has seen four prospective recruits, including one who kept him waiting for more than 90 minutes. He got lost at least once, and now he's behind schedule. There is still more to do before his 7 a.m. flight to Memphis, Tenn., for more recruiting.

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Most people Driesell's age, with money in the bank and a beach house sitting empty most of the time, would be looking for ways to take it easy. But at 65, Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell is beginning again at Georgia State University.

He is beginning again with a program that has been the least successful in NCAA Division I basketball history. The Georgia State Panthers have had three winning seasons in the past 34.

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"I still want to coach," Driesell says now, sitting down to dinner. "People think, well, you're 65 years old. My wife says, 'Let's go to the beach and relax.' But, well, that's not me. My father worked from the time he dropped out of fourth grade at age 12 until he was 76 in his jewelry store. After he stopped working, he laid around and complained about this hurting and that hurting, and, about two years after he quit, he died.

"I'm afraid if I quit, I'd start worrying about my health. I just enjoy working. I love coaching, and I know I can still coach. And I was upset with the way things happened at JMU and didn't want to go out that way."

On March 4, Driesell had announced he would retire after the 1997-98 season. The next day, he and his wife, Joyce, got in the car and headed for Bethany Beach, Del. That's when his car phone rang. It was the James Madison athletic director calling, telling him his contract was not being renewed for next season.

He had been told he could coach at JMU until he got 700 wins. "I should have got it in writing, I guess," says Driesell, who has 683 victories over 35 seasons. "They didn't even give me the chance to resign. They told the media before they called me. It upset me."

Less than eight hours later, Georgia State's assistant AD, Martin Harmon, was on the phone, asking Driesell if he was interested in taking on the Atlanta school's basketball program. On March 26, three weeks after parting with JMU, Driesell became Georgia State's coach.

"I hope I can get this program started," Driesell says. "I really think that Georgia State is going to be a great job. It's in Atlanta, one of the greatest cities in America. You can recruit for there."

Driesell's enthusiasm is apparent, and it's catching. Just ask his wife.

When she first heard that her husband wasn't going to be going back to JMU, Joyce Driesell says, she was at once delighted.

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"I guess I was being selfish," she says. "Basketball has been part of our life for so long, and I thought, 'Wow! I've got him to myself at last. I won't have to share.' But he's not ready to quit, and I don't want him around, under my feet, if he's not ready to stop coaching.

"Lefty just loves life. He likes being out there, recruiting, coaching. I don't know how he could do it if he didn't love it. One minute a fellow's coming to play for him and the next he's not. I couldn't do it, but he just says it goes with the territory."

Driesell loves the territory. He ranks 10th all-time among NCAA Division I coaches in victories. But Driesell brushes aside the prospect of 700 victories.

"You coach long enough, you're going to get 700," he says.

What he's proudest of, Driesell says, is that, through his first 600 victories, he averaged 20 victories a season, something only Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Jerry Tarkanian, Hank Iba and John Wooden had done at the time. He has had 32 winning seasons in 35 years, and despite a 10-20 mark two years ago, he is still averaging 19 1/2 wins.

"So now, we're going to Atlanta, we'll be near our oldest daughter, Patricia, and our three grandchildren," says Joyce Driesell. "For a long time, they've been the only part of our family that hasn't been near. Now, it's their turn, and they just cheered when they heard."

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"I've come to terms with his continuing to coach," Joyce says of her husband's inability to take it easy. "If God wants him to die of a heart attack while coaching, so be it. If that's what he wants -- God, that is -- it's fine with me."

And then, when asked what she'll be doing while her husband coaches, Joyce Driesell does a funny thing. She starts to sing.

"I'm going to stan-an-d by my man-an-an," she sings. "That's what I've been doing for 45 years."

Georgia State's last winning season was 1991-92, when it went 16-14 and finished runner-up in the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament.

"It's truly a challenge," says Georgia State athletic director Orby Moss Jr. "There is no positive tradition to build on."

But that apparently doesn't bother Driesell, who says he believes his legacy to college basketball is as a builder.

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"I've taken programs that were down, like Davidson and Maryland, and built them up to Top 10 programs," he says. "JMU was down, and we went to postseason play five of the nine years I was there and we won five straight conference titles. I've enjoyed just taking programs and making winners out of them."

It's that building record that drew Moss to Driesell.

"Everywhere he's gone, he's brought programs from one level to the next," Moss says. "He's done everything first-class. That's what we expect here."

JMU athletic director Donald Lemish says he is pleased that Driesell has found a new challenge.

"It will give him the opportunity to approach and exceed that magic number [700]," Lemish says, "and I have no doubt in my mind that he'll build that program to a different level.

"But here, it was just time for a change."

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Lemish voices several concerns, saying Driesell's basketball program had not achieved the level administrators had hoped for and that the number of students graduating from his program was not up to the overall school rate of 84 percent.

According to JMU sports information director Gary Michael, Driesell's first five recruiting classes, the only ones to this point that have had the opportunity to graduate, brought in 20 students. Of those, 10 graduated and one transferred and potentially could have graduated.

Moss said he checked the academic records of Driesell's teams and has no reservations.

The contract is for three years, plus a rollover year.

As far as how long Driesell will coach at Georgia State, Moss has this to say: "He will be here as long as he wants to be and for as long as we want him to be."

Pub Date: 4/08/97


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