Lefty Driesell's legacy lives on in daughter Pam, son Chuck

Growing up the child of a famous college basketball coach, Pam Driesell lost out on anonymity. Even by a coach’s daughter’s standards.

Take, for example, the class roll.

“I used to think if I was Dean Smith’s daughter and you called the roll and you say, ‘Pam Smith,’ nobody is automatically going to say ‘Any relation to Dean?’” she said. “But ‘Driesell’ was so ...”

Uncommon, just as it was growing up in that setting. Pam and her two sisters, Patti and Carolyn, and brother, Chuck, grew up with everyone, seemingly, on a first-name basis with their father, Lefty, who coached at Davidson, Maryland and, after they were grown, James Madison and Georgia State.

Now as adults and parents themselves, Lefty’s middle two children have followed their father’s footsteps into a couple of fish bowls of their own. Earlier this month Pam Driesell was installed as senior pastor at Atlanta’s Trinity Presbyterian Church. The same weekend, Chuck Driesell began his first stint as a Division I basketball coach at The Citadel.

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Who lives under more watchful eyes than a minister? Where are expectations higher than for the son of a coach making his start in the same conference as his famous father?

But for the two Driesells, the question of “Is your father Lefty?” has become part of the answer. Ah, no wonder. This is what you can become when you grow up with a father like Lefty.

Path to the pulpit

Pam Driesell’s entire childhood was intertwined with basketball. In one of her earliest baby photos, at 4 weeks old, somebody is holding her up next to a sports page, with a “Cats upset Wake Forest” headline lauding her father’s first game as a college coach at Davidson.

Another 785 wins followed before Driesell retired in 2003. He finished ninth all-time in wins among Division I coaches. With the wins, pressures and expectations grew. In a career that could have pulled him further away from his family -- toward his players, recruits and fan obligations -- she and Chuck went with him.

They tagged along on recruiting trips, speaking engagements and practices. They were both a fixture at Maryland practices, Chuck at one end of Cole Field House shooting baskets, Pam sitting in the stands doing her homework.

If Dad brought recruits home, Pam helped serve dinner. They would hang out with recruits on the backyard basketball court at the Driesell’s house in Silver Spring, Md.

They liked just being around “Lefty,” as Pam calls him on occasion.

“Just to be in the room with him,” Pam said. “He’s just fun, full of life and just cares so deeply about what he was doing.”

By loving what he loved, they stayed close to him. And in the process, he rubbed off. Pam speaks to crowds with the same charismatic ease she watched him adopt at basketball banquets. Chuck still runs “Special,” an offensive set his father ran for Len Bias at Maryland. They both inherited his relentless drive.

Stories about Lefty in the early days grew to mythical proportions, even within their family.

They heard about how he quit his $6,200-a-year job at a Ford assembly plant to coach junior varsity basketball at his own Granby High School in Norfolk, Va., for half the salary. How he sold World Book Encyclopedias door-to-door to make ends meet and sold more sets than anybody else in the state of Virginia one summer.

In the early years at Davidson, when he had a recruiting budget of $500 -- before he went back to the president to ask for more again and again -- he slept on a mattress in the back of his station wagon on recruiting trips. He took his father’s pistol for protection.

“I’d pull up in the filling station and sleep,” Lefty said. “And then get up in the morning and use the bathroom and shave and take off where I was going.”

When Pam graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, she was told only six percent of ministers fit the profile of “church planter,” someone who develops a new church. No surprise, she fell into the six percent.

When she started Oconee Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, the congregation was about the size of a basketball team -- 12 members. They worshipped in her living room.

They eventually moved to Malcom Bridge Middle School’s cafeteria, “the holy lunch room.” Eleven years later, the church had 500 members and a new sanctuary.

“Money is only one resource,” Pam said. “There are people, there are your own creative energies, there’s your own commitment and persistence and hard work. If you have a vision for something, you just go after it. There are no obstacles too big to overcome. And those are the things I learned from my dad.”

In her statement of faith to the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Pam wrote about learning passion from her dad. She quoted Austrian poet Rainer Rilke “to dig deep to find a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with it.”

The coaching track

Chuck learned about his father’s “I must” from inside the huddle. The third of Driesell’s four children, and only son, was a fixture on the bench “since he could sit up,” Lefty said. He went from ball boy to player at Maryland to nine-year assistant coach to Driesell at James Madison. The only reason he didn’t follow his dad to Georgia State was because of a nepotism rule.

Chuck was 12 or 13 when he returned to his seat on the Maryland bench after a timeout at an ACC tournament game to find a bent-up metal chair. His father had taken exception to an official’s call, kicked his chair and swapped it out for one he could actually sit in -- Chuck’s.

His dad taught him in order to be successful in coaching and in life, he needed elephant skin, something he learned a thing or two about playing, albeit sparingly, for his father at Maryland.

“He was a better player than I played him,” Lefty said. “[The late Marquette coach] Al McGuire always said ‘If somebody’s going to beat out my son, he’s going to be a whole lot better than him.’ I felt the other way around.”

Thick skin was something Lefty preached and lived. Chuck had just begun his coaching career at the Naval Academy Preparatory School and was home for the summer in 1986, when the early-morning call came that Bias, the Maryland star player, had been rushed to the hospital.

Chuck, swept up in the commotion, went to the hospital, too. Bias was pronounced dead from what was determined later to be a cocaine overdose. It was two days after he had been drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics. In one of the biggest sports firestorms then or since, his father was forced to resign at Maryland four months later, after 17 years at the helm.

“People lost sight of the fact that a young man passed away, and my dad was really close to him,” Chuck said. “It was like losing a son to him.”

Two years later, his father took a job coaching at JMU and took Chuck with him. In the face of the most public hardship, Lefty taught his children to keep going. And through what Pam calls a time of “profound sadness” in their family, Chuck never lost his desire to coach.

Twenty years later, at age 43, Chuck went back to Maryland as an assistant coach, helping to soothe old wounds. There he earned a reputation as a great recruiter like his father. It’s what helped him land the job at The Citadel.

“Now I’ve got to do something with it,” said Chuck, whose dad was on the court in warm-ups for his first three practices and in coat-and-tie in the second row for his first game, a loss at Richmond. “That’s the beauty of this profession. Everybody knows whether you’re doing well or not.”

Chuck said watching his father at JMU from the perspective of an assistant coach helped him learn to recruit.

If a home visit wasn’t going well, Chuck said, his father would ask a kid to show him his room, and they’d wind up sitting on his bed talking. If a mother was cooking, he’d take his jacket off and help.

“He’d be putting his hands in the food, tasting it,” Chuck said. “He had a way about him. He wanted to make everybody feel comfortable. That’s just who he is.”

Chuck lost his first three games, but he signed seven players on the first day of signing period Nov. 10.

Pride in the name

When Pam Driesell, the single mother of two grown sons, divorced, she took back her maiden name. Even if she remarries, she plans to keep it that way.

“It’s a source of identity,” she said.

Her father kids her that people come up to him in the airport now and say, “Aren’t you Pam’s dad?” He and his wife, Joyce, travel often from their home in Norfolk to visit the four kids and 11 grandkids, including three of Patti’s, a nutritionist in Alpharetta, and three of Carolyn’s, a housewife in Philadelphia who recently had a baby.

From the first pew at Trinity on Nov. 14, as his daughter was installed as pastor of a congregation of 2,200, Lefty got to see the fruits of his unusual brand of fatherhood and if he was looking closely, the imprint he’s left on her.

“Trinity is a beautiful place,” he said. “I told her that’s like getting the Duke job.”

The stakes get higher, but Pam is eager for them. And when anyone she meets these days asks if she’s related to Lefty?

“I love it,” she said. “I love talking about my growing up years and the very, very positive influence of my dad on who I am and who I’m still becoming.”

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