- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Young, old. West Coast, Deep South. Slicked-back, bald. Steve Lavin and Lefty Driesell have little in common but their profession, which is college basketball coach, and even here they're at opposite ends. Lavin's world is high-profile and high-pressure. His work is thoroughly inspected and analyzed and constantly held to a higher standard. Driesell's program probably runs a distant third in a state known for football, and the fans couldn't be happier.
Yet here on the first day of the 2001 NCAA men's basketball tournament, the two are joined by a bond more significant than age or experience or environment. The bond is redemption and renewal, the ability not just to survive but thrive, to seize control from outside forces. Even though their teams likely will lose in the next few days or weeks, don't expect them to leave.
Lavin's UCLA Bruins are seeded fourth in the East Region. Driesell's Georgia State Panthers are seeded 11th in the West, a region that includes Maryland, the school Driesell put on the basketball map. The fact that Lavin and Driesell are in this position might surprise many but not themselves. When their careers were hanging precariously and their professional obituaries were being written Lavin's this season, Driesell's a few years back both found the will and resolve to fight back, proving rumors of their demise greatly exaggerated.
"I can coach," Driesell drawled the other day, quoting the catch-phrase that his many amateur impersonators use in their acts. At 69, Driesell joins Eddie Sutton and Jim Harrick as the only coaches to take four different programs to the NCAA tournament. "I built the program at Davidson, I built the program at Maryland, I built the program at [James Madison], I built the program here," he said, happily volunteering information everybody already knows.
With his bald head and hulking body and twisting facial expressions, and especially that gravelly Virginia twang, Driesell could easily come off as a clownish figure except for the fact that he can, indeed, coach. After making something out of nothing at Davidson in the 1960s, he came to Maryland and did the same thing, winning games, filling seats at Cole Field House, inventing Midnight Madness, until it all came undone in 1986 after Len Bias died from cocaine and Lefty was among those taking the fall.
A two-time ACC coach of the year, Driesell was fired, leaving behind 348 wins, still the most in school history, eight NCAA tournament appearances and a tradition where once there was none. He headed south to James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., which was up briefly under Lou Campanelli but came back down again. Driesell fixed that. Then one day after the 1996-97 season Driesell, then 65, announced he would coach one more year and retire.
This is what the JMU administration told Driesell: Why wait? Pack up now and get out. He was fired again. A written statement said that under Driesell, "the program has deteriorated, and support from the students, alumni and area residents has rapidly declined." In nine seasons, Lefty's teams were 159-111. They went to the NCAA tournament once and the NIT four times. Since his departure, the Dukes have continued winning but have failed to reach postseason play.
Driesell seemed to be finished as a coach then. But nobody told him that, and the folks at Georgia State didn't get the memo either. Lefty was just getting started. Again. "I had a lot of philosophical differences at JMU," he said. "I said I was gonna coach one more year anyway. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Driesell doesn't want to talk about JMU or Davidson or Maryland for that matter. "Hey, look, I don't want to get into that," he said of the JMU firing, the needle moving to red on his irascibility meter. "All I know is I put them in postseason play five out of nine years… . I don't have any feelings [about JMU]. We're 28-4, we have the best record in the country and we're getting ready for the NCAAs. I don't look in the rearview mirror. I'm looking through the windshield. We've got a great bunch of kids. We can talk about that. I'm too busy for that other stuff."
OK, Lefty, you got it. Located in Atlanta, Georgia State is a commuter school with an enrollment of 25,000 and a concrete campus. The gym holds only 5,500 but doesn't get filled. The Panthers play before larger crowds on the road. They compete in the TAAC, and you should win a prize (or watch less hoops) if you know what that stands for. Georgia and Georgia Tech get a lot more ink in a state where college basketball largely passes the time until football season.
This bothers Driesell, whose 761 victories rank No. 5 on the all-time Division I list, not a bit.
"I've had limitations everywhere I've been," he said.
(By the way, TAAC stands for Trans America Athletic Conference.)
Before Driesell arrived in '97, Georgia State had three winning seasons in 35 years. Since then, the Panthers have had four straight winning seasons and a 74-45 record. This year, after winning the conference regular season and tournament, they are in the NCAA tournament for the second time ever.
Like their coach, the Panthers are a scrappy, feisty, confident bunch. Driesell didn't build the program overnight, but he did do it quickly. All five starters are transfers, including three from four-year schools. Point guard Kevin Morris started out at Georgia Tech. Guard Shernard Long, the TAAC MVP, led Georgetown in scoring as a sophomore before deciding to transfer after his mother died (he's from Atlanta). But still, Georgia State?
"I came to Georgia State mainly because Lefty Driesell was here," he said earlier in the season.
In December, Driesell underwent a nine-hour operation to remove two bone spurs from his neck. Two vertebrae were fused. He missed five games (although he helped prepare the team for each one) and wore a neck brace, but that's gone now. He still feels weak in the arms and legs but was able to manage a little dance for his players after they clinched their tournament berth (the Big Dance, get it?).
Driesell might be moving a little slower but not the Panthers. They employ a quick three-guard lineup and an up-tempo offense, and they play nasty defense. "Whoever plays with us has to work to score on us," Driesell said. Before the season, which started with a road victory over Georgia, Driesell was heard telling a newspaper editor over the phone in vintage Leftyese, "This ain't no Mickey Mouse team I've got over here."
It isn't goofy to envision Georgia State upsetting sixth-seeded Wisconsin in today's first-round game in Boise, Idaho. The winner likely would play Maryland, and, if it's Georgia State, won't everyone have fun with that? But let's not look too far through that windshield. Several Wisconsin players went to the Final Four last year, and the Badgers play a deliberate style that drastically contrasts with the Panthers' hurry-up pace. Yet once again, Lefty says, no problem. His team can play any way you want.
"We can shoot the ball, we can defend you and we can play hard," he said.
After Driesell was fired at James Madison, a columnist wrote, "In a perfect world, Lefty would get one final crack at making the NCAA tournament and a farewell tour through college basketball. Sadly, that won't happen as Driesell's coaching career comes to an end a year early."
Well, lookee here. The world is far from perfect, but here's the ol' Lefthander, back in the tournament. The farewell tour, however, will have to wait. Driesell signed a three-year contract earlier this year.
"Age hasn't got anything to do with it," he said, noting that Ronald Reagan held office into his 70s. "If he can run the most powerful country in the world, I can coach 13 guys. I enjoy doing it. I enjoy beating people on the court, and I enjoy beating people in recruiting."
About 3,000 miles and a generation removed from Driesell, 36-year-old Steve Lavin is preparing for something as commonplace at UCLA as it is rare at Georgia State. Formerly a Bruins assistant, Lavin has been coach for five years since he replaced Harrick, who was fired in the wake of an expense account mess. UCLA has made the NCAA tournament all five years.
Which doesn't really matter, of course, to many fans, boosters and alumni, who have believed winning it all is a UCLA birthright since John Wooden strung up those 10 national championship banners in Pauley Pavilion before retiring in 1975. Despite a 112-46 record, two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight spot, Lavin has yet to win it all. He has been criticized for that and all sorts of other things, including his slicked-back hair. But Lavin said he learned to cope by working with Harrick, who coached UCLA to its 11th title in 1995 and whose Georgia team is in the same bracket.
"I was able to watch, firsthand, how Coach Harrick dealt with the highs and lows of being in the hot seat," said Lavin, who is intense and energetic (he was put on probation by the Pacific 10 for berating an official) yet often chooses his words cautiously.
"We won the national championship and three Pac-10 championships, but we also lost to Princeton and Tulsa and Penn State in the first round. How he was able to deal with the highs and lows and roller-coaster rides and the scrutiny. He always used to say, 'You're analyzed, scrutinized, criticized and dissected like a frog biology class.' Now I have a better appreciation of that."
No doubt about that. While the Bruins were off to a 4-4 start, rumors surfaced that UCLA contacted that master of motivation and resume writing, Rick Pitino, who had quit as grand poobah of the Boston Celtics. Rumor became fact when UCLA athletic director Pete Dalis admitted in early January he called Pitino not once but twice. And he never told Lavin, who has a rollover six-year contract.
"That's a no-no under any circumstances," said Lavin mentor Pete Newell, who coached Lavin's father, Cap, at California.
The story exploded, the attention magnified. Lavin wasn't like a frog; he was the frog poked, prodded and slowly pulled apart. Newell, a Hall of Fame coach, wrote a letter suggesting Lavin "keep his options open," and Lavin said the thought of resigning briefly crossed his mind.
"There were stretches where I was disheartened, discouraged, disillusioned," he said. "But as soon as you hit the practice floor at 3 p.m. with your team, your coaching instincts kick in and your passion for teaching and working with young people takes over.
"And I felt that as difficult as this season has been at times, it was a great opportunity to teach and learn from this experience, both on a personal level and for the players. You have to set a good example for people following you. You lead by example."
The brouhaha seemed to galvanize the team. The players not only verbally defended Lavin (senior guard Earl Watson told a reporter, "Loyalty is lost in college basketball. Loyalty is not being taught by our upper people here, and it needs to be."), they backed it up with their play. Lavin also tinkered with the defense, installing a press to make the Bruins more aggressive, and altered the lineup. They won 14 of 16, including victories over then-unbeaten Stanford on the road and Arizona. During the Stanford game, a fan heckled Lavin for swearing. Replied Lavin: "I'm fighting for my life here."
On Monday, Lavin was named Pac-10 coach of the year.
UCLA (21-8) opens the tournament today in Greensboro, N.C., against Hofstra, a No. 13 seed. Dalis has said Lavin will return next season but offered no guarantees beyond that. Lavin said he and Dalis have maintained their professional relationship and pretty much leaves it at that but goes out of his way to cite UCLA president Al Carnesale for his support.
Lavin also got an emotional boost from fellow and former coaches, such as Newell and Wooden, and from his parents. Lavin's is an extraordinarily close-knit, well-read family. His dad is a former coach and teacher. His mother is a writer. He was brought up in a household full of books and laughter. Both a student and product of pop culture, Lavin often gets a kick out of life's absurdities, such as his surroundings, which he calls "silver screen Hollywood." But what he always refers to as the "Pitino Episode" wasn't all that funny.
"Initially, it caught me off-guard on a personal and professional level," Lavin said, "and that's what made it so difficult. And as a result, it created an environment of uncertainty and instability, which is not good for your team or recruiting or coaching staff. But I think we all learned a lot from this experience. We're all glad it's behind us."


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