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News - Lefty's legacy

Georgia State Gives its coach his 750th win

With 14:09 to go, the Mercer Bears close the gap to 55-51, but still, Lefty Driesell does not fly off the bench. He barely moves, and not because his neck is immobilized by a thick white plastic brace after surgery to fuse vertebrae. Instead, he crosses his right leg over his left, drapes one arm across the back of the empty folding chair next to him, and watches the action. A minute later, Lefty’s Georgia State Panthers are back to a 10-point lead and the only threat of the day has all but evaporated.
Saturday's 86-77 win brings Georgia State's record to 17-3, tying the school record for wins in a season. But that's not the reason little kids and elderly men in golf sweaters rush the floor for autographs. The Panthers victory is the 750th of Driesell's coaching career.
He's tied for sixth place on the all-time list of Division I coaches behind Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Hank Iba, Bob Knight and Ed Diddle. Tied with Fresno State's Jerry Tarkanian, who notched his 750th a couple of days earlier.
Pressed to make a sweeping statement about the magnitude of it all, Driesell says, without emotion, "I don't think back."
It's a good thing. If he did, he might see the ghost of Len Bias, whose drug death just as he was drafted by the Boston Celtics trained a microscope on Driesell's program at Maryland.
Athletes screwing up in public view is a daily occurrence now, but in 1986, before every city had its all-sportsblab station and ESPN had only one division, a kid who OD'd just as he was about to strike it rich in the NBA was big news. Maybe a more polished coach, one more at ease with the media — fellow Atlantic Coast Conference coaches Dean Smith or Mike Krzyzewski, for example — could have survived that. But Lefty took the fall.
Let's just say that he didn't exactly have the NCAA rulebook memorized. And Maryland, squirming under the bad publicity, felt compelled to can the winningest coach in their history after 17 seasons and 348 victories.
Two years later, he landed at James Madison, where he stayed for nine seasons and 159 wins. Add in 176 wins from his first stop, Davidson, and there you have it.
Now Driesell finds himself in the Trans America Athletic Conference, hardly a blip on the college basketball radar screen. Ten bucks says you can't name another school in the conference. But whichever team wins its championship in early March earns an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Depending on the seed the Panthers get, they could go a few rounds. Maybe be this season's Cinderella.
But while Lefty is thinking forward, he isn't looking forward yet. He is, in fact, looking most closely at the final box score from Saturday's game. Get this: The Bears shot almost 78 percent from the field in the first half, 66 percent overall. The Panthers' defense, the key to their stellar season so far, was nowhere in evidence in this contest. "We're lucky they had 17 turnovers," Driesell muses in his soft Virginia accent. Georgia State had only 8.
His team of transfers, players who didn't live up to expectations somewhere else, has a lot to prove.
Driesell has nothing to prove. Since he arrived at Georgia's second-largest university in 1997, his winning percentage is .575. During the same period, Georgia Tech is batting .500 and Georgia is bringing up the rear with .474.
No one ever suggested Lefty Driesell couldn't coach, only that he shaved edges off already-cut corners to do it. If he notices where that has gotten him — to a 5,000-seat third-floor gym that's barely half full — he doesn't show it. He is close to 70; he's been coaching collegiate basketball since 1960. That's all he does and all he wants to do.
Coming out of the video room with his coaches and his game tapes, he is surprised to see reporters in the hallway. He isn't visibly annoyed by the interruption of his post-game routine, but he wasn't expecting it, either. Clearly, his mind is elsewhere, but he stands there, not quite patiently, tall and trim.
Thoughts on 750? "Not really, no. I'm just thinking about Troy State," he says, already preparing for the next game, not thinking back.
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