- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Retirement is one of the trickiest businesses in sports. When should an athlete or coach walk away? How much is enough?There are no "Idiot's Guides" to help a person answer those questions. He's strictly on your own.

Lately, sports figures have been doing a better job of retiring. That is, they've been leaving the stage before somebody opened a trap door on them. Michael Jordan retired after winning three straight NBA titles. John Elway retired after winning two straight Super Bowls. Wayne Gretzky retired while still a top player. Dean Smith retired after going to the Final Four. You can't beat exits like those.

Over the weekend, though, we had Denny Crum being forced out as Louisville's basketball coach and Evander Holyfield vowing to rededicate himself after losing the WBA heavyweight title to a nonentity named John Ruiz. This is the other side of retirement, the ugly side. At least Crum is getting out before he does any more damage to his reputation; Holyfield seems intent on hanging around until somebody punches him insensate. Sad.

Back in the '80s, when Louisville was going to four Final Fours in seven years (and capturing two championships), it would have been hard to imagine things ending this way for Crum. But the last few seasons haven't been kind. The Cardinals have been penalized twice for NCAA violations and have played little more than .500 ball. Has the fire gone out of Denny? You could certainly make that argument.

Reading about Crum's retirement, I couldn't help thinking about John Thompson and how he stepped down two years ago. The announcement might have been abrupt coming as it did in the middle of Georgetown's basketball season but at least John knew it was time to go. He didn't let the program slip too far, as Crum has.

The worst it got for the Hoyas was the season Thompson left, when they went 15-16 and lost in the first round of the NIT. That's hardly crashing and burning. This year they're back in the top 20 and prepared to do some damage in the NCAA tournament. Let's see how long it takes Louisville to right itself under Crum's successor. I'll bet it's more than two years.

Give Thompson credit. He realized he was ready for something different in life, and he didn't waste a lot of time agonizing over it. When a friend in the coaching profession asked why he didn't just take a sabbatical, John replied, "Because lending somebody your team to coach is like lending somebody your toothbrush. It's either your toothbrush or his toothbrush."

And so the Hoyas became Craig Esherick's toothbrush, and Thompson became quite contentedly, from all indications a TV analyst and local radio personality. Too bad Crum's retirement couldn't have gone like that. Too bad there had to be sniping back and forth between him and athletic director Tom Jurich. When you win 675 games at a school, take it to heights it has never before reached, you should be carried out on a throne, not pushed out the door.

But some sports figures, for all their vanity, have a hard time looking at themselves in the mirror. That's definitely the case with Holyfield. He's 38 and, at this point, incapable of beating a former ticket-taker for a Boston Harbor cruise line (Ruiz). And yet after Saturday night's bout, Evander was telling people, "It's not over with me… . I will go out on top, and I will go out as a champion." Maybe the WBO has a vacant title he could latch onto.

Having said all this, though, what are we to make of Lefty Driesell? Lefty is one of the feel-good stories of the college basketball season. His Georgia State Bulldogs are 28-4 and just won the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament to cinch an NCAA bid. This, four years after he was cast aside by James Madison, four years after a lot of folks, myself included, thought the game had passed him by.

Lefty's time at JMU, after all, wasn't particularly glorious. He had one NCAA tournament team in nine seasons (1994) and, at 65, his best days seemed far behind him. But he hitched up his trousers and moved on to Georgia State, and good things have happened. If this isn't the ol' Lefthander's finest hour, it's definitely in the top five.

So maybe sports figures shouldn't go too gently into that good night. But they shouldn't stick around as long as Denny Crum or Evander Holyfield, either. They deserve better and so do we.

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