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Interview w/ Lefty Driesell
When I found that I had to be in Atlanta for a few days it didnít take me long to remember that Lefty Driesell was now at Georgia State continuing his winning ways in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Lefty is a true coaching legend. He also has one of the longest bios I have ever seen.
Charles G. ďLeftyĒ Driesell is in his 6th year at Georgia State and 41st of NCAA Division I coaching. He is looking to be the first-ever coach in NCAA history to win 100 wins at four different schools. In case you are wondering that is 176 at Davidson, 348 at Maryland and 99 at Georgia State.
Leftyís 782 career wins trail only Dean Smith (879), Adolph Rupp (876) and Bobby Knight (787). In 2001-02, he produced the first-ever back-to-back 20 win seasons in Georgia State history. That team won the regular season in the Atlanta Sun Conference. They lost in the conference championship game by one point. After getting overlooked by the NCAA Selection Committee (begin booing now) they made their first-ever NIT appearance. They also beat two top 25 teams in Georgia and St. Josephís.
Leftyís 20-win season last year was 22nd of his career, moving him into an 8th place tie all-time for the most 20-win seasons. The postseason bid was his 21st(13 NCAA, 8 NIT). The amazing thing is early in his career it was much harder to go to the NCAA because only the conference winner would go, not half the conference like today in the big conferences.
Left also had a 97-15 coaching record in high school before moving to the college ranks. That means he actually has 879 career coaching wins! He has winning records in his first five years at Georgia State and now owns a 99-53 (65%) mark. Another thing that is amazing is that he turns 71 on Christmas 2002 and will celebrate his 51st year of marriage that same month.
Leftyís massive influence on college basketball is evident by the number of assistant coaches who have gone on to be head coaches. More than 15 of those have compiled more than 2300 Division I wins, another NCAA record. That group includes Gale Catlett, Terry Holland, George Raveling, Joe Harrington, Oliver Purnell, Sherman Dillard and even his own son Chuck who is now at Marymount University in Virginia.
To be honest, I could go on and on but I am worn out, so letís get to the interview.
CigarBoy: The first question I want to ask you involves your coaching for over 40 years. How many wins do you have? Do you know how many you have?
Driesell: Not really, Iím not into that. Although I know a lot of people are.
CigarBoy: Itís a lot of wins. I think it is 782 wins. You donít seem like the kind of guy who counts wins.
Driesell: Nah, all I know is that we lost the last game we played. That bothers me!
CigarBoy: What do you have coming in this year? How does the team look this year?
Driesell: Thatís hard to say because, you know, right now we can only go 4 on 4 and do a little conditioning and weight lifting. Iíve been impressed with them. I have a rule that as soon as they come back the first day, which is August 19th, that they run the mile. They have to run the mile in under 6 minutes and the mile and a half in under 10. Everybody made it the first time except for two players but they made it the next time. Except one player he hasnít made it yet but the rest of them have. So I think we came back in pretty good shape. 4 on 4 we look pretty good. The most Iíve seen them play is 2 on 2 but I think we are going to be pretty good. I think weíve got good depth and weíve got bigger players than weíve ever had. Nate Williams is about 6í10Ē and Reo Logan, this kid we signed is about 7í. So weíve got pretty good size and some outstanding guards I think and in the front court, the small forwards are pretty good. I think itíll be pretty good but I hate to brag on things before the season starts because Iíve never seen them play and we have a lot of new players. We have 3 maybe 4 starters coming back from last year. They are guys that started at one time or another. But the rest of them, well youíve go 4 new players who donít know our system at all. Iím optimistic. I think they are good. Weíve got a chance I think. Whether are good or not, weíll have to wait and see.
CigarBoy: Where do you see yourself sitting in terms of the conference?
Driesell: Oh I donít know. My only goal whenever I coach is to win the conference. Weíve got to win the conference and the conference tournament. The conferenceís regular season doesnít count in our league really, except for seeding in the tournament. So youíve got to win the tournament probably to get in the NCAA. Although we are playing Oklahoma, Mississippi State, Auburn, South Alabama, and some other pretty good teams outside the league. We have to hold them off probably and win the regular season to get an at-large bid. But weíre probably going to have to win the tournament.
CigarBoy: This is your fourth Division I school. Whatís different about Georgia State from everywhere youíve coached?
Driesell: I donít know. Davidson, when I took over there, they were probably the loosingest program in America but we only had 900 boys that went to school there. Then when I went to Maryland, they were way down at the bottom of the ACC but it was in a big city, it was a big university, about 30,000 students. Then I went to JMU where the program was really down but I think we had only about 12,000 students there. And then thereís Georgia State. After being in Harrisonburg,WV, a little town up in the mountains, the thing about Georgia State that makes it interesting is that itís right in downtown Atlanta, which is a great city. Weíve had the Olympics here, the Superbowl, and the NBA All-Star game is coming here this year. All the major tournaments that were held in American have been held right here in Atlanta - World Series, Baseball All-Star Game. So I think itís a great city to recruit for and at Georgia State, we have about 30,000 students go through here. A lot of people donít know that. We are right in the middle of downtown Atlanta so we have a great location. Itís a very good academic school. They are all different. You know, every university is different.
CigarBoy: Some coaches come in and take over for successful programs, Thad Matta takes over Butler and has a good year, then goes to Xavier has an incredible year. Todd Lickliter takes over at Butler and then is ranked in the top twenty. Youíve taken over 4 programs that were not in that great of shape and youíve turned them around. After 2 turn-arounds did you gain a reputation as a guy that could start with nothing and build? Howíd that happen?
Driesell: My first job I think I was 31, no 29 years old. Whatever it was, I just wanted to get a college coaching job. That happened to be Davidson. I think I could turn around any program or keep a program going and take the next step. I mean if you are a good coach, you can take programs that are down and build them or you can take programs that are successful and make them a little better. I think I could win wherever I coach. I won when I coached high school for 5 years, starting when I was 26 years old. So, I can coach anywhere.
CigarBoy: Can you kind of outline for me a coaching philosophy? What is your coaching philosophy?
Driesell: I donít really have a philosophy. I want to win I guess (chuckle). I want to do whatever it takes to win as long as itís within the rules. I wouldnít get the most satisfaction out of cheating to win. My team plays pretty good defense. Weíre very aggressive. Weíre tough and physical. Our offense really likes to run fastbreak. I believe you win by getting the ball inside to the big men and I believe now youíve got to win by shooting some 3ís, with all the 3-point shooting teams the last couple of year. So I donít have any great philosophy that you want to expand on. JUST WIN, my philosophy is if you donít win, youíre not going to coach too long. Luckily, Iím still doing it.
CigarBoy: Do you have a recruiting philosophy that you can describe as what I look for and how I do it?
Driesell: My philosophy on recruiting is . . . when I coached high school I sold World Book Encyclopedias. They had a philosophy that the more people you see, the more books youíre going to sell. I know a lot of coaches like that or some of these guys that have taken over programs that have won national championships and they just pick out 8 or 10 guys that they want to recruit. Iíve never recruited like that because Iíve never been in a situation like that. So I always recruit in mass, I mean, I hope. Bill Jackson said the first letter he got was from me. I still write a lot of people. I think if you write enough people, and you are contacting those people, somebodyís going to say, ĎĒhey, Iíve got an uncle that lives in Atlanta.Ē A lot of my players I recruited at Maryland had relatives that lived in DC. So I think my philosophy is contact a lot of people because I donít want to pick 10 guys and just badger them and say please come play for Georgia State or me. Iíd rather just find people that say, ďhey, Georgia State is what Iím looking for.Ē Or maybe ďMaryland is just what Iím looking for,Ē or ďDavidson is just what Iím looking for.Ē When I sold I didnít have 8 or 10 customers that I kept going back to. If they told me they werenít interested, then fine, they werenít interested. So thatís the way Iíve recruited. If you recruit a lot of people, somebodyís going to play. We had two kids in here last weekend. One of them lives close to here which is one reason he likes us. The other one is from a long ways away from here, but heís got relatives here. Weíve written, oh, thousands of people probably. Not thousands -- if could, I would. With all these lists that come out, thereís Garfinkle and tons of other camps. I would like to write to just about all of them and see who I hear back from. If theyíre not interested, then fine.
CigarBoy: Do you have a base, maybe Georgia and you go out from there?
Driesell: No, actually, a lot of kids in Atlanta want to get out of Atlanta. There are a lot of kids that want to stay here. If they want to stay, weíre interested. If they arenít, let them go somewhere else. Thatís my philosophy, if thatís a philosophy.
CigarBoy: You started college coaching in what 1960?
Driesell: Is that what is was?
CigarBoy: I think I got my year right.
Driesell: Itís probably right, about 1960.
CigarBoy: It was an important year because I was just about ready to be born at that point. You coached in the 60ís, the 70ís, the 80ís, and the 90ís. Can you tell me how college basketball has changed over the decades? Are there any important trends?
Driesell: Are you talking about the game, on the court?
Driesell: I donít think it has changed that much. I mean the court is still the same size, the baskets are the same height and well the lane might be different. Did we have a smallerÖI donít know (chuckle) I know when I played we had a 6í lane and I donít know when I started coaching if it was big or not but the lane may have changed a little bit. Iíve always coached man-to-man defense and Iíve always like to run and fastbreak because thatís the way I like to play when I played at Duke. I donít think itís really changed that much. Right now, the 30 second clock or the 24 second clock or the 35 second changes, whether they all it in college or the NBA, it may have changed the game some. But Iím not sure itís better. We use to score more points when there was no clock. You look at the score back before when there was no clocks and people score more points than they do now with the clock. I think now, basketball is over coached. I think coaches set all these double picks. I do the same thing. We run a lot of set plays. I think coaches that do that so say ďthatís my play. We would have never scored if we hadnít have run this play.Ē But I think you need to cut guys loose. My kids play better in the summertime when they arenít running anything than they do when they are kind of structured. But it really hasnít changed that much youíve still got to rebound and handle the ball, break defense, shoot well, and have good footing to shoot well.
CigarBoy: How has it changed off the court? How have the kids changed over 40 years?
Driesell: I donít think theyíve changed that much. I think probably whatís changed the kids more is professional basketball, the money they make now. When I got out of Duke you had to be like a first team All-American even to get a look. Now they are paying guys millions and millions of dollars to come play right out of high school. That changed people I think. Players, when I first started coaching, I think wanted to play pro, at Davidson, but they werenít going to make that much money so I think they were more interested in the team and playing on a winning team. Sometime youíve got to watch kids nowadays. They are playing for themselves. They want to make an impression on the pros. I think thatís changed it a little bit. Youíve got to try and overcome that and handle that. But other than that, I donít think the kids have changed that much. I think there are better athletes now because they are better conditioned. Theyíve got better nutrition now and better training programs. When I first started coaching we didnít lift that many weights. In fact when I was in college, weightlifting was kind of frowned on. In that case, people are more physical now and better disciplined.
CigarBoy: I know if I asked you for just one of your coaching highlights youíd go nuts trying to find one. Give me two or three of what you think are highlights of your coaching career.
Driesell: I would probably say winning the state championship when I was a high school coach. Then when I was at Davidson, I guess the first big game we won that kind of put us in the top ten, was when we beat Duke in the Charlotte Coliseum. And probably at Maryland, the first big game that we won was Rhode Island. Back when they were ranked about second in the country. That was my first year there so we werenít very good. Then I donít know, I think itís building programs where Iíve been and winning. ) The thing that Iím probably proudest of is Iíve coach 10, 11, 12, I forget what it is, teams that were ranked in the final about ten, not many coaches can say that. Iíve had other teams that were ranked in the top ten during the off-season but that doesnít count because itís the finals that win. Another one is when we beat North Carolina the first defeat they had in the Dean Dome. That was a big win of course. Here weíve beaten Georgia the last two years in a row. When I was at JMU, we beat Purdue the year they won the Big Ten Championship. I donít know, when youíve coached as many games as I have, thereís probably a lot Iíve forgot. You know we beat South Carolina in a slow down game. We were ahead 4 to 2 at the half, at Maryland. They were like, ďdid I play that?Ē There was no clock so we held the ball and beat them 33 to 31 at the end and we were down 5 points with 12 seconds left and came back and beat them. We had a big fight the first game so they had to call the game off because of the fight. That was a really exciting year for us. I donít know, thatís some of them.
CigarBoy: What would you say is your biggest success in life?
Driesell: My life? Thatís hard man. I married a great lady: my wife. Selling her, recruiting her is probably my greatest success because sheís a wonderful lady and I love her. My children have all gone to college, graduated, and done well. My son is a coach and one of my daughters is a Presbyterian minister. My other two daughters are wonderful ladies and are having success with their families. You know, coaching some outstanding players: Tommy McMillian was a Rhodes Scholar and Led Elmore graduated from Harvard Law School. Iíve had my players to go on to be successful coaches, lucrative coaches in the NBA now. Successful doctors, lawyers and I guess watching your players be successful in life and their professions. Iíve got people that are players, coaches, preachers, doctors, lawyers, everything. I think Iíve coached a little bit of everything. Itís the thing I think makes coaching so rewarding and thatís why I keep on doing it.
CigarBoy: Then letís go to one of your former coaches. Tell me a little bit about Oliver Purnell.
Driesell: Well, Oliver has done a good job at Dayton. I think heís an excellent coach. I mean, again, look at his record. Thatís the way I judge coaches. Thatís the way I want, I mean I think the way people judge me or any coach, is how many games you win as long as you donít cheat. Iíve never cheated. I couldnít get any satisfaction out of cheating. I think that there are some coaches that have cheated to win and I donít think they are a success. Iím not going to name who they are but there are some coaches who have cheated to win where today, I wouldnít get any satisfaction out of that. But Oliver has run clean programs and won wherever he has coached.
CigarBoy: Letís talk about the NCAA selection process. Itís been highlighted a lot that they put a lot of emphasis on RPI rank and scheduling. Obviously the Mid-majors schools, like the Butlers of the world that get hurt by that are saying, thatís not right. Have you seen it shift a little bit more towards strength of schedule and RPI and how is that hurting or helping basketball in your opinion, the way they are selecting teams now.
Driesell: Well, most of my career you had to win your tournament to get in the NCAA. Iíve had a lot of teams ranked in the top 5 or 10 in the country that never got in the NCAA because they didnít win the tournament. Then they started letting the second place teams in the tournaments in, and then the third and now they are letting the seventh and the eighth places in. I think thatís ludicrous. It use to be called the Tournament of Champions. Itís all money now. For example, last year we won our regular season, okay. We lost in the tournament by one point on a last second shot. During the regular season we beat Georgia, we beat St. Joeís, we won the regular season. I figured weíd beat the other teams that got in. We should have been in because we won the regular season. I think if you win the regular season, regardless of what league you are in, and you donít win the tournament, then you deserve to be in more than the sixth or the seventh or the fifth place team in some of these other conferences because they arenít going to win it anyway. Maybe NC State made it but we beat them twice that year. But Iím saying, they donít have much of a chance of winning it these teams coming in fifth and sixth in their league are getting in the tournament. And let me tell you another thing that is wrong -- they wonít play. Georgia, we beat them the last two years, they wonít play us any more. Georgia Tech wonít play us. Duke wonít play us. North Carolina wonít play us. UCLA wonít play us home at home. They wonít play at home . And all of those buy games, I call them guarantee games, should not count if they are lost there. Like, this year, the only reason I could get my AD to have the tournament here is that weíve got to play two guarantee games. So Iím going to play Oklahoma at Oklahoma for $40,000 and then Iím going to play Auburn for the same thing. All right, well, those games shouldnít count in somebodyís schedule as wins because they should beat us. Because they wonít come back and play me at my place. Thatís the first time Iíve done that since Iíve been coach. But I just did it this year because he said we canít afford that tournament unless you do it. I think thatís wrong. When I first started coaching there was no such thing as a guarantee game. I say want to play us on your court, then come play us on my court. They should be outlawed. If they arenít outlawed they shouldnít count. Then the football teams do the same thing you know. That shouldnít count in win/lose record when it comes time to take the polls, in my opinion. Because, you know, itís just not fair. Thatís why I think the regular season champion in this league or the worst league in America should get in over somebody that plays guarantee games. Any of these teams that play guarantee games shouldnít count or they shouldnít get in the tournament. If North Carolina plays 6 games, they are guaranteed 6 wins before the season starts. When it comes to the end of the season, theyíve won 20 games and weíre dealing with 14 games. There shouldnít be anything like that. Iíll play anybody in the country. Iíll play you home and home. If anybody calls me back. Iíve has some people, like Tarkanian is my buddy, he played me here, John Thompson played me here. But if they werenít my friends they wouldnít do it. Thatís why I think the selection committee is baloney. If you win your regular season and you have teams that wonít play you, then you ought to get in. Weíve got guys in our league that their AD says theyíve got to play guarantee games. Just like my AD. I didnít fight him because I wanted to get the tournament here. Then we got guys in our league that the AD says youíve got to play 6 guarantee games. That poor guyís gonnaí get 6 losses before he starts and I donít think thatís fair. Then theyíll want to fire him in a couple of years. I think even if coaches would be, ACC schools, and Big East schools and thatís not fair to the coaches they are playing against. Play home at home. Let Kentucky come here and play us home and home or Georgia or North Carolina, whoever. It would be good for our program. It would help basketball overall, rather than someone in our league having to go there and pay them $40,000. I had one school call me, Iíd already my schedule and he was going to pay me $70,000 to play at his place
CigarBoy: Did he want you to buy him out?
Driesell: Probably. I personally think there are too many teams in the NCAA. Go back the way it use to be, the conference champion wins. That was it. If they want to let other people in, let leagues like ours, that nobody will play a home at home, the conference champion should get it. Whether he wins tournament or not.
CigarBoy: This year they are playing something called the Bracket Buster. Teams like the Ball State the Detroitís of the world are playing in the Bracket Buster and now you can get two mid-major teams together to play and give them some exposure. Is that good or does that help anyone you think?
Driesell: Nah, I think itís baloney. The worst part is taking 6 or 7 teams from one league. I did a lot of research. There were a lot of teams that got in last year that should not have gotten in before us. Because we played a good schedule, played the toughest schedule but we couldnít get anyone to play us over there.
CigarBoy: Every single coach I talk to says the same thing, at least I hear it from the mid-majors, about what you are talking about. Several coaches resent the mid-major thing tooÖ.
Driesell: Weíre no mid-major. Iíve got the same number of scholarships that Dukeís got, all right? My players supposedly, and I think they do, get a free scholarship, room and board free, books free, just like they do. I got 13 scholarships. What makes a mid-major a mid-major? I wear just as good of shoes as they do. Iíve got just as good uniforms as Duke. So weíre not a mid-major. Ask Georgia if we are a mid-major. You know they said that when we beat Wisconsin, in the NCAA that year, no mid-major. No such thing as mid-major, in my opinion. We recruit the same guys they do. We donít GET them probably as often as they do, but we arenít mid-major, weíre major just like everybody else.
CigarBoy: So thereís not a good term, just basketball teams?
Driesell: Yeah, I mean is Ball State, mid-major? They arenít mid-major. They beat some big teams last year. If somebody would play Ball State, theyíd beat them. That term is ate up. Thereís no such thing as mid-major, just Division I, Division II. Thatís what those guys in the ACC and Big East like to say to help them in recruiting. Thereís no such thing as mid-major. Like I was saying, weíve got just as good a uniforms and scholarship as they do. Weíre called mid-major because weíre not in the ACC. Then why wonít they play us? You know (chuckling), they wonít play us home at home. Thatís fallacy, that mid-majorís stuff.
CigarBoy: Coach, when you arenít coaching basketball or in the office, what are you doing in your spare time?
Driesell: I think Iím a family guy. My wife, my grandchildren and I go to the beach a lot. I have a beach home. I go to the beach with my wife and I have 5 grandchildren that live right here. In fact Iíve got a pictureÖ.
CigarBoy: Is that their picture, right there? (I pick up a photo on the desk and hand it to him)
Driesell: I donít know, wait a minute. Yeah, yeah, yeah, they are the ones that are right here. That was taken a couple of years ago. Then my son has three children and he coaches at Merimac University in Raliegh. Then my other daughter doesnít have children. She just got married. But those 5 are right here. So being with my wife, and playing with them, just hanging with them. Thatís about it.
CigarBoy: Youíve coached from coast to coast, north to south, east to west. Give me your 5 favorite restaurants and where they are located.
Driesell: Huh..(laughing). I mean Iím a big time eater. When Iím on the roadÖhmm. One of my all time favorites is Nickís Seafood Pavillion in Yorktown, VA, because Iíve been eating there since I was a kid. Iíve always said if I was going to the electric chair and they gave me one meal, Iíd say take me to Nickís. Here I like Bones and Chops.
CigarBoy: Those are two different restaurants?
Driesell: Yeah, Bones is one and Chops is the other. I donít know. When I travel with the team I usually eat with the team and we eat in a cafeteria a lot of times. Some times we eat out. Is that 5? I like BBQ. Down in North Carolina, I like Rodmans BBQ, thatís in Greenville.
CigarBoy: Really? I use to live there. Where is that?
Driesell: Itís right there in town. When you stay at the Hilton, go down the street and take a right. I think it itís called Rodmans. Rodmans might be the one in Rocky Mount. Do you know another one in Greenville?
CigarBoy: I donít know that one but I lived there 15 years ago.
Driesell: Thatís great BBQ. They serve iced tea in jars and itís all you can eat BBQ, corn bread sticks, coleslaw, fried chicken. It might not be Rodmans, it might be, shhhh. Now wait a minute, Rodmans is north. Probably if you talked with anyone in Greenville and asked for the BBQ place theyíd be able to tell you the name of it just like that. I canít think of it right here, but I havenít been in a couple of years.
CigarBoy: I think you are, what 70 years old now, right?
Driesell: 70, yeah
CigarBoy: 71 in December?
Driesell: Yeah, in December.
CigarBoy: Where do you stop? At what point do you say Iíve done it all? Iím going to the beach.
Driesell: I have this year and next year on my contract. If I stay that long, I donít know I can stay that long. I think I will. But I donít know. I think weíve got a pretty good team this year and weíll have a better team next year so I might get fired up and stay another couple more years. I donít really know.
CigarBoy: Did you ever think your run would last this long in coaching?
Driesell: No (laughing). When I was at Davidson, I said when Iím 40 Iíll never coach again. Iíll work at a bank or, I can do a lot of things. Then when I got to my 40ís or whatever, I said Iíll never do this when Iím 50. And when I got here at 50 I said I KNOW Iím not going to be here when Iím 60. When I got there I said DEFINITELY Iím not going to be here when Iím 70, and Iím 70 now. I enjoy it. My father, who owned a jewelry store in Norfolk, VA, went to work when he 12 years old. Quit school and worked for his dad until he died. No worked for his dad until he was about 75. He worked until he was 76, or 75, Iíll have to look it up. As soon as he retired it started Ö he couldnít sleep, he had asthma and the first thing I know heís dead. So I donít want to quit and die like he did. So I donít know how long Iíll coach. As long as Iím having fun and weíre winning. If we werenít winning Iíd quit. So, I donít know how long Iíll stay. My wife keeps telling me I should quit and go to the beach and my daughter tells me that, but not my son. My younger daughterís like, why are you doing this, take it easy? I said well, Iím afraid if I quit that I might die like my dad did. So I donít know how long. As long as Iím having fun, winning, doing a good time.
CigarBoy: Did anyone ever tell you that you resemble Phil Martelli or he resembles you? Because you look like his brother. You could be Phil Martelliís older brother.
CigarBoy: Boy I wish I had a photo of you guys side by side.
Driesell: We played him last year. I guess we do wear he same hairstyle
CigarBoy: Thatís right. Coach, I appreciate your time. This has been a lot of fun and I look forward to doing an update with you sometime.
Driesell: Youíre welcome. All right.
Also check out www.cbsportsbeat.com CB's own web page where you can find all of his articles, pictures, games and a whole lot more.
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