ATLANTA (AP) -- The end might have come 15 years ago, when Lefty Driesell made a disgraceful exit from Maryland. He certainly could have packed it in four years ago after James Madison gave him an unceremonious kick out the door.
But the ol' lefthander is still kicking at age 69, taking yet another school to the NCAA tournament.
"I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't coaching," said Driesell, who guided Georgia State into the field for only the second time in school history. "I don't play golf. I don't fish. I don't hunt. I don't read a lot, unless it's a basketball book."
The Panthers, the losingest program in Division I basketball when Driesell arrived in 1997, are now one of the winningest (28-4). They cruised to the Trans America Athletic Conference championship and enter the NCAAs with more victories than any other schools except Duke (29-4) and Stanford (28-2), a pair of No. 1 seeds.
Georgia State is only an 11th seed in the West Regional but hopes to shake things up Thursday in a first-round matchup against Wisconsin, which reached the Final Four a year ago.
"We want to win a game or two," Driesell said Tuesday. "Heck, I was reading the other day that LSU was an 11th seed and got to the Final Four. If they can do it, we can do it. At least that's what I want our players to believe."
The Virginia-born Driesell has always come across as something of a rube, an image he did little to dispel as he conducted an interview sprawled on a sofa just outside the Panthers' locker room, seemingly on the verge of dozing off at any second.
"I've got to get my rest before practice," he said.
But Driesell could be excused for wanting off his feet. He underwent nine hours of neck surgery in December, which caused him to miss several games and still makes it uncomfortable to get around.
"When the season's over with, I've got to find out what's wrong," said Driesell, who ditched a neck brace he was supposed to wear the rest of the season. "My legs are still weak, which I don't like."
For a team that has never won a tournament game, the Panthers exude confidence. Much of it comes from their balding coach, who is making his 13th trip to the NCAAs and has gotten as far as the regional finals four times.
"You never take what he says for granted," said Shernard Long, a transfer from Georgetown and the team's top scorer. "He knows what he's talking about. If he was some first-year coach, it would be harder to listen. We would be like, 'How do you know how to prepare? You've never been there.' But he's been there."
This has been a season of redemption for Driesell, who is suddenly back in vogue after less-than-graceful departures from his last two jobs and a seven-year hiatus from the NCAA tournament.
He was forced out at Maryland in 1986 after Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose shortly after he was drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics. An investigation found academic deficiencies in the basketball program and drug use among athletes. There also were charges that Driesell hindered the police probe into Bias' death, though a grand jury took no action.
After sitting on the sidelines for two years, Driesell returned to coaching at James Madison. He led the Dukes to five regular-season championships in the Colonial Athletic Association and an NCAA appearance in 1994.
But there was a 20-loss season in 1995-96, and Driesell was fired a year later after catching the school off-guard by announcing he wanted to come back for one more season to pursue his 700th career victory.
Driesell was hired at Georgia State three weeks later and there is no talk of retirement now. His contract was extended another three years, which would take him past his 72nd birthday and perhaps within a couple of seasons of challenging Dean Smith's record 879 victories.
Already, this is the winningest year of Driesell's 39-year coaching career, pushing his overall record to 761-376.
"It's good," Long said, "to see coach feeling good again about what he does."
Driesell believes Georgia State, a downtown campus that caters mainly to commuter students, is a budding basketball power. He would like to take the school into a more prominent conference and put the Panthers on par with the well-known programs at Georgia and nearby Georgia Tech.
There are signs of progress. About a small group of students -- "Lefties Loonies," they call themselves -- piled into a van Tuesday for the 37-hour drive to the Boise, Idaho regional. Driesell was there to see them off at an impromptu pep rally.
"We don't have the Cameron Crazies like Duke, but at least we've got the Loonies," Driesell said with a chuckle. "There's only 10 or 12 of them. I'd like to have 5,000 like Duke, but maybe that will come in the future."
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