Hall Of Famer Lefty Driesell's Legacy Lives On In Today's CAA

On his way to inductions in both the College Basketball Hall of Fame and Basketball Hall of Fame, to his nearly 800 career wins -- putting him ahead of such luminaries as Lute Olson, Lou Henson and Jerry Tarkanian -- and through five different decades as a college head coach, Lefty Driesell made an impact on the Colonial Athletic Association still seen in 2020. 

Driesell led James Madison for nine seasons from 1988 through 1997, winning five regular-season CAA titles and a hard-earned NCAA Tournament bid in 1994. In the process, JMU became one of a historic four programs at which Driesell won more than 100 games. 

At regular season’s end, almost a quarter-century after Driesell coached his last game in Harrisonburg, James Madison says goodbye to the old Convocation Center. 

The Dukes won each of their CAA championships under Driesell in that venue, including a pair with current Dukes head coach Louis Rowe -- “somebody who played here and coached here.” 

“I have a lot of good memories. Some of the memories are just of practices I had with coach Driesell,” Rowe said. “One of my favorite was a practice after a loss...my redshirt year. We had a really, really brutal practice the morning after that.

“All the guys on that team remember that practice,” Rowe said. 

At the heart of those practices, Rowe notes, forged the relationships that made James Madison so successful in the 1990s. 

Driesell’s career went as it did, from 1960 at Davidson until the turn of the 21st Century at Georgia State, because he set high expectations. That never stopped in retirement, as UNC Wilmington interim coach Rob Burke shared. 

Burke spent five seasons as an assistant coach at The Citadel, on Chuck Driesell’s staff. Chuck, Lefty’s son, previously worked as a James Madison assistant during his dad’s tenure in Harrisonburg. 

“My first day on the job, my office was the last office,” Burke said of the coaching staff’s setup at The Citadel. “Lefty called Chuck’s office, I heard his phone ring. There were two offices in between mine: I heard that phone ring, I heard the third office ring, and then my office rang. No one was in, I got in early. 

“I answer my phone,” Burke continued, recounting the exchange like it was yesterday: “‘Citadel men’s basketball?’” 

Then, in a Lefty-like growl, Burke recounts Driesell saying: “‘Rob! Who are you signing today, son? Who are you signing?’” 

In that anecdote lies the heart of a takeaway Burke gained from his time in that role: Strategy can only accomplish so much without talent in college basketball. 

A tireless recruiter no matter the destination, Driesell built Maryland through the ‘70s and ‘80s from an also-ran into an ACC power by working the talent-rich pipelines in nearby Baltimore and Washington D.C. 

Such Terps stars as Adrian Branch and Len Bias came from the local high schools. 

At James Madison, no shortage of Dukes came from the outstanding Tidewater and other in-commonwealth scenes. Driesell essentially built Georgia State from scratch with the wealth of hidden gems in Atlanta. 

But at The Citadel, where natural recruiting pipelines don’t exist, Burke said he learned from Driesell the value of thinking “outside the box.” The Hall of Famer suggested using a possible handicap of recruiting at a military school as an asset, selling the “knob year” to blue-chip prospects as a means of showing NBA scouts their mental toughness and self-discipline. 

Indeed, one does not coach four programs over five different decades to NCAA Tournaments without some innovative ideas. But even the best coaches and teams run into adversity. 

James Madison almost didn’t join the club with Davidson, Maryland and later, Georgia State, despite dominating the CAA in the early ‘90s. 

Although not an extension of Lefty’s legacy in the same way coaches Rowe and Burke do so for the current Colonial, the 2020 version certainly feels like a throwback to that era, with seemingly any team capable of catching fire to land the NCAA Tournament bid. 

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