COMMENTARY : LEFTY IS BACK : Driesell Coaching Again, and Talking, Very Carefully

Times Staff Writer

In the movie “King of Comedy,” Robert De Niro plays a star-struck character named Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps a network talk-show host. As ransom, Pupkin demands to be host on the show for one night.

He gets his wish, then is arrested. But when Pupkin is released from prison some time later, he finds he has become a national hero.

It is the American way.

We may be the most forgiving people on Earth. We applaud baseball players when they return from suspensions for using cocaine, buy the Mayflower Madame’s autobiography, watch G. Gordon Liddy on “Miami Vice” and salute Ollie North.


During the U.S. Olympic Festival over the last two weeks in five North Carolina cities, it has been noted by numerous visitors that there are more “Ollie North for President” bumper stickers per capita here than in any other part of the country. The only men more popular here are the coaches of the three area Atlantic Coast Conference basketball teams, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

So perhaps no one should be surprised by the cheers received here by Lefty Driesell, the coach of the East team at the Festival basketball tournament in Chapel Hill and a loose cannon if ever there was one.

You may wonder how Driesell was selected to coach a team of high school seniors and college freshmen. When reports surfaced that he would be a coach here, an official of the American Basketball Assn. of the USA (ABAUSA) was asked for confirmation. His response was a somewhat sheepish “no comment.”

Now the ABAUSA is taking bows. Not only has its decision to have Driesell here not been questioned, he has been greeted as if he were kin. He has received standing ovations, signed hundreds of autographs and had his picture in the newspapers more often than J. R. Reid.

As the coach at Maryland for 17 years, Driesell, 55, was not always so well received in North Carolina.

He didn’t win here often, though his last Maryland team in 1986 became the first, and so far only, team to beat North Carolina in the new Dean Smith Center, but when he did win, he liked to rub it in.


After finally winning an ACC championship in 1985, Driesell was asked how he would celebrate.

“Well, Ah thought Ah’d bolt the trophy to the hood of mah car and drive around North Carolina for the weekend,” he said in his hush puppies-and-grits Southern drawl. “Nah, Ah’m too tired. Ah’m just gonna go home.”

There never has been any question that Driesell can win basketball games. His record at Maryland was 348-159. In 26 years as a college coach, nine at Davidson before he moved to Maryland, he never had a losing season.

But he also will be remembered for things other than his coaching ability.

Such as the graduation rate of his recent Maryland teams.

Such as the time he attempted to talk a woman out of reporting an alleged assault by a Maryland player.

Such as his actions immediately after All-American Len Bias’ cocaine-related death last year.

Driesell appeared before the grand jury investigating Bias’ death. There were claims that he obstructed justice, but he wasn’t indicted. He did, however, resign as Maryland’s basketball coach, although he remains an assistant athletic director at the university.

His defenders say he started at Maryland on the high road, recruiting honor students such as Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, but that he finally gave in to the win-or-else system. They say he is not a dishonorable person, but that he often acts and talks before he thinks. That is the reason, they say, he comes across as such a buffoon.

When he used to coach Maryland in games at Durham, Duke students would hold up signs depicting Driesell’s bald head with a gas gauge drawn on it. It would be pointing to empty.

The irony, lost on them, was that Driesell graduated from Duke, with honors.

Driesell was back this week as the guest speaker for the Durham Sports Club at the Croasdaile Country Club.

It was the day after his East team had lost by one point to the unbeaten South, led by North Carolina’s Reid, at the Smith Center.

He was at his foot-stomping, referee-baiting best during the game, but when it was over, he said it was no big thing.

“I’d rather have been at my beach house,” he said when asked if his experience here made him want to return to coaching. “I’d be out in my boat, fishing, smoking cigars and watching girls.”

By the time he appeared before the Durham Sports Club, the game was all but forgotten. Perhaps because he knew reporters were present, he chose his words carefully, something he didn’t do in Providence, R.I., earlier this summer, when he said that cocaine can enhance athletic performance.

“I’m a firm believer that if you know how to use cocaine and use it properly, it can make you play better,” he had said in Providence.

Given a chance to dig himself out of the hole a day later by USA Today, Driesell instead said: “It’s what I’ve heard from talking around to athletes. I’ve said that for several years. Isn’t that the same thing with steroids? You’ve got to be honest about it.”

At the time, Driesell, who earlier had been mentioned for coaching vacancies at South Alabama and East Carolina, was believed to be the leading candidate to coach the Charlotte team that will enter the NBA in 1988. There has been little talk of that since.

When Driesell was reminded of his quotes after one of the games this week in Chapel Hill, he said: “Only a fool would say something like that.”

No one argued with him.

In Durham, speaking before the Sports Club, he said that his comments had been taken out of context, misinterpreted, blown out of proportion and all of the other things people say when they have embarrassed themselves publicly.

“That was one of the most ludicrous things anyone has ever written or said about me,” he said. “Leonard Bias, who was close to me, just about a son to me, and John Lucas, who came from a good family, both of them had problems with cocaine.

“I’m the last person in the world who would say anything good about cocaine in any way, shape or form. It killed Leonard Bias, and it just about destroyed John Lucas. Cocaine is one of the most habit-forming, toxic drugs today.

“Leonard Bias’ death has taught a lot of people they should never mess with cocaine. If anything good came from his death, I hope that was it.”

To Driesell’s credit, his basketball camp in College Park, Md., regularly has Lucas as one of its speakers. Now a guard with the Milwaukee Bucks, he lectures the campers about his cocaine addiction. Driesell also was the only basketball coach at the Festival who required his players to attend a speech in Chapel Hill by former NFL quarterback Joe Gilliam, who has been treated for drug addiction.

Driesell, of course, didn’t confine his remarks before the Durham Sports Club to cocaine.

On whether he’s missed coaching: “I’ve missed the wins, but I haven’t missed the defeats, and I haven’t missed the recruiting.”

On his work as a television broadcaster: “I looked at the money (John) Madden makes and said, ‘This might be easier than coaching.’ It was like I was coaching both teams, and I never lost.”

On the Dean Smith Center: “There’s Dean with the most plush arena in the country named after him. A recruit comes in, and Dean says, ‘This is my field house.’ I’ve never seen Lee Iacocca’s office, but it can’t be any nicer than Dean’s.”

On the chances of his coaching again: “Somebody would have to really want me. I don’t want to go applying for any jobs. If somebody really wanted me to coach there, and I felt it was a good school that I could recruit for and believe in, then I would go there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t.”

Driesell could have gone on and on, but it was getting close to time for the club members to return to their jobs. Before they left, they heard a short speech from one of their fellow members, Lee (Shorty) Barnes, who owns a feed and supply store in Durham.

“Shorty won’t tell you what business he’s in,” said the club president, Frank Burnette. “But when you walk into his store, you see two bags. One says sheep, and one says cows, and both help you grow good tomatoes.”

Some would say it was appropriate that Driesell was there because he’s been selling the same stuff for years. If North Carolina is any indication, there is still a market for it.