Comeback for Lefty Driesell: New Coach at James Madison

United Press International

Charles (Lefty) Driesell has ended his involuntary exile from coaching college basketball by taking the head coaching job at James Madison University--and taking a few swipes at his detractors.

Since his forced resignation as the University of Maryland head coach following the June 1986 cocaine death of Len Bias, Driesell has been an outsider in college basketball while holding down a desk job in Maryland’s athletic department as a fund-raiser.

James Madison presented salvation for the feisty, bald coach with the southern drawl.


James Madison, a liberal arts school of 10,000 students tucked in the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg, Va., is not the kind of high profile job a coach of Driesell’s calibre might expect after 26 years as one of the premier college coaches around. But, unlike at Maryland, ole Lefty felt wanted at James Madison.

“I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. I’m a basketball coach. I’ve won games,” Driesell said. “I want to come in and give James Madison a good program.”

Indeed, he has won games. Driesell has posted a 524-224 record in 17 seasons at Maryland and nine seasons at Davidson. His only losing season as a collegiate coach came in his first season at Davidson.

But, chipper at age 56 (“I’m still a young man,” he says), Driesell was not satisfied with his job at Maryland and as a television color analyst for Atlantic Coast Conference games. Instead, he feels he can coach for another 10 or 15 years.

“A lot of people told me, ‘Why in the world would you want to get involved with recruiting and all the headaches of coaching when you’ve got the greatest job in the world already--color analyst?’ ” Driesell sald. “But two years off whetted my appetite for coaching. I didn’t know if I would get back into coaching, but I knew when I resigned that I wasn’t ready to retire.

“I’m eager. I’m ready to go. I would only come back if I could do it where I could sell academics and where I could compete for a national championship. I think I’ve found that place.”

James Madison has had its share of basketball success in the 1980s. Under Coach Lou Campanelli, the Dukes earned spots in the NCAA Tournament in 1981, 1982 and 1983 and advanced to the second round each time. James Madison competes in the Colonial Athletic Assn., which boasted NCAA Tournament giant-killer Richmond this year and national player of the year David Robinson of Navy the season before.

Driesell was in the third year of a 10-year contract at Maryland that paid him a reported $150,000 per year, including salary and benefits. Driesell agreed to a five-year pact at James Madison with a reported base salary of $65,000 per season and an additional $10,000 per year for an annuity.

After weeks of negotiations with Maryland and James Madison officials, Maryland agreed to continue paying Driesell the difference between what he will make at James Madison and what he would have made at Maryland.

Driesell gives James Madison instant credibility and instant marketability.

University President Ronald Carrier said the school had received numerous offers of financial support since Drisell surfaced as a possible new coach.

“I think he will bring a new excitement, a new spirit, to men’s basketball at JMU,” Carrier said at a news conference announcing Drisell as the new coach.

A funny thing happened to Driesell during his exile from coaching. As a coach roaming the sidelines hollering, stomping, and taunting referees, he was a man everyone loved to hate. As a television commentator, he routinely was given warm welcomes in arenas where he was once hooted and jeered.

But his new-found popularity has not minimized the scandal that resulted in his ouster as Maryland coach.

Bias was a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, Maryland’s all-time leading scorer and the second player chosen in the NBA draft in 1986. But Bias died of cocaine intoxication after collapsing during a late night party in his dormitory room with some of his teammates.

Bias’s death spurred revelations of widespread academic shortcomings among Driesell’s players. And Driesell was severely criticized by the county prosecutor handling the Bias investigation.

Four months after Bias’s death, Driesell submitted his resignation under considerable pressure from University Chancellor John Slaughter.

Driesell felt he was made into a scapegoat amid the fallout that followed Bias’s death and was treated unfairly in the press and by the university.

James Madison Athletic Director Dean Ehlers said he did not believe Driesell was tainted by the Bias scandal.

“A coach can only provide guidance,” Ehlers said. “You can’t be with players 24 hours a day.”

Driesell has already begun assembling a coaching staff as he assumes control of a Dukes program that was 10-18 under resigned coach John Thurston this past season. His son Chuck, who played for him at Maryland and is currently the head coach at the Naval Academy Prep in Rhode Island, will be one assistant. Former Duke star Tommy Amaker may be another.

In the meantime, Driesell is trying to play catch-up in the recruiting wars. And catch-up in his life.