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DRIESELL ENJOYING VIEW AT JMU

DRIESELL ENJOYING VIEW AT JMU

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``And it has a real nice view,' Lefty Driesell said when a visitor paid a compliment to the sparkling, modern building that now houses his office, his classroom and his stage.

Lefty pushed a button behind the desk console in his plush, spacious office and the drapes opened on a panorama of James Madison University's campus on the other side of Interstate 81.JMU's nine-year-old, 7,612-seat Convocation Center is part of a comfortable exile for Driesell, who is now four years removed from his former position as a basketball coach in the high-profile Atlantic Coast Conference.

The exile began when Maryland's longtime coach was caught in the academic fallout that followed the cocaine-related death of Terrapin star Len Bias in 1986. After a year in which he collected hefty paychecks as a payoff from Maryland and for a stint as a TV analyst, Driesell accepted what was a less-prestigious coaching job and a smaller paycheck at JMU.

``Coaching is what I know and what I do,' he said at the time.

Though he will turn 60 next Christmas Day and is in the autumn of his career, Lefty intends to return to the coaching limelight. And he has reason to hope that his comeback will be more successful than, say, Napoleon's return from Elba.

Meanwhile, true to his nature, he works. And, less true to his nature, he waits.

Waits for the breakthrough recruit or the monumental upset victory that will move James Madison onto the big-time basketball map.

``I want to get a team back in the Top 10,' he said the other day. ``If I didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't stay (in coaching).'

And you know what? It wouldn't be wise to count him out just yet.

Still, Lefty's self-assigned task is considerably harder than it would be if he were still in the ACC and even harder than he thought it would be when he took the job three years ago.

He has put together a team that almost surely will finish first in the Colonial Athletic Association for the second straight season. Since losing six of their first 11 games, the Dukes have won 11 of their last 12 on the way to a 16-7 overall record and an 11-1 conference mark.

``But we're still going to have to win the conference tournament to get in the NCAA field,' Driesell said. ``We finished first last year, won 20 games and still wound up in the NIT after we lost in the conference tournament.'

His current JMU team is a solid, veteran group that might have a chance to make a splash in the NCAA tourney. Its mainstays are small forward Steve Hood, a 20-point scorer who transferred from Maryland to rejoin his old coach, and Fess Irvin, a transfer from Louisiana State who as a high school senior, had been one of the nation's top point guard prospects.

``We've been winning but we haven't always played very well,' Lefty groused. ``Our chemistry isn't quite right. We don't have that killer instinct. We let an opponent get back into the game too often. We've gotta play better.'

Translation: Lefty still hasn't quite lifted his program at JMU over the hump that he once surmounted at both Davidson and Maryland and is determined to clear one more time.

Times have changed. Even a recruiter of Driesell's proven caliber has his work cut out for him in persuading the top prospects to turn their backs on the prestige and television exposure that conferences such as the ACC and the Big East can offer. And remnants of the academic cloud under which he departed Maryland surely don't help.

Driesell, however, doesn't consider recruiting an insurmountable obstacle. ``We'll recruit against anybody as long as the player has some kind of interest in us,' he said.

``We used a lot of scholarships the first year and we only had one to offer last year. But we have nine this year and we've got commitments from a couple of transfers who are good players and a couple of others who are awaiting their college board scores.

``We haven't found the outstanding big man, but that's true of a lot of schools.'

According to Lefty, scheduling has proven to be the major thorn in his side.

``I've tried to twist the arms of the ACC coaches to play us but they won't do it,' he said. ``I've written letters to all the Big East and Big Ten coaches with the same result.

``They might be willing to play us at their place but they don't want to play us here or on a neutral court. Heck, this place is nicer than the ones at Virginia and Duke and it's just as big. But they don't want to come here.

``Sometimes they'll offer a game here for two at their place. I don't like to do that but I may have to accept it.

``I can't fault them too much, though, because I was the same way when I was at Maryland.

``We only played one home game in 45 days earlier this season. I miss not playing all those home games that they play in the ACC.'

The scheduling difficulties have made it more difficult to come up with the kind of eye-catching breakthrough victory that would command the attention of the national media and the network TV programmers.

Lefty's Dukes have had a couple of near-misses. In a nationally televised 1989-90 opener in Hawaii, they blew a big lead and lost 80-79 when King Rice's desperate shot wrote still another chapter in Driesell's long-standing, frustrating rivalry with North Carolina's Dean Smith. Earlier this season, there was a three-point loss to Oklahoma at Landover, Md.

Driesell admits to missing something else about the ACC - the level of competition.

``For me, there's more satisfaction to be gained from beating a Top 10 team like North Carolina or Duke than beating East Carolina or UNC Wilmington. I mean, when I was at Maryland, we beat those teams by 30 points. That makes it hard to get excited about beating them by four.'

So the old left-hander is still plugging away. Only seven active college coaches, including Bighouse Gaines and Smith, have pocketed more than Driesell's 577 career wins. And, having dropped 39 pounds with a Weight Watchers diet, Lefty appears in fighting trim to coach until he's 65 ... or beyond. He admittedly is enjoying the chance to work with one of his assistants, son Chuck Driesell.

``When I was 30, I never thought I'd still be coaching at 40,' he said. ``And when I was 40, I didn't figure there was any way I'd be doing it at 50.

``One morning I may wake up and decide 'this is it; I don't want to pull on those practice sneakers any more.'

``I know I wouldn't want to coach in a losing situation again. I can't stand to lose. I still take it too hard.'

But until then, his quest to end his exile figures to continue.

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