Is Lefty Driesell a good coach?

Ask the fan on the street that question and most likely the answer would be no.

Ask one of Driesell's coaching peers and most likely the answer would be yes.

The most accurate reply probably is somewhere in between.

He is not going to be remembered as one of the game's oustanding strategists, but rather as one of the sport's consumate recruiters.

But any man who has won 73 per cent of his college games and who has won two-thirds of his games over the last five years in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the toughest of all basketball leagues over the years, has coaching strengths that extend far beyond his ability to sweet-talk a recruit's mother.

As much as fans and press tend to separate Driesell the recruiter and Driesell the coach, it can't be done.

"Coaching isn't done in segments," said American University's Jim Lynam. "The whole bit - recruiting, bookkeeping, conditioning, Xs and Os - make up the word 'coach.'

"Lefty's a winner. The one, and only, measure of a coach's skill is that bottom line: does he win? Lefty does, others don't, and baby, that's what it is all about."

If Driesell had a different personality, the guess here is that criticism of his coaching would be far less widespread.

Al McGuire, for example, is considered a marvelous coach, yet his teams aren't any better drilled than Driesell's, nor do they execute any more complicated tactics. And Marquette's schedule is hardly any more challenging than Maryland's, which requires six ACC road games.

But McGuire doesn't have to reinforce his ego publically like Driesell does, and he refrains from creating impossible challenges, like saying he will build the UCLA of the Midwest.

Driesell's short-sighted outspokenness forces him to produce perfect teams, and when he fails, he is rightfully taken to task for his careless words.

A less belligerent Driesell probably would be praised widely for producing 11 teams that have won 20 or more games in the last 16 years. Observers would be searching for the secrets behind his teams' usually high shooting percentages and their consistent ability to outrebound foes over a season.

Instead, a blustery Driesell is raked for losing a handful of games every year. The line of criticism is always the same: his easy schedule guarantees a lopsided winning season, but put him in a pressure game that means something and watch him mess it up.

His coaching peers say anyone who thinks winning 20 games against any type of schedule is easy knows little about today's college game.

"Look how many coaches mess up what supposedly is great material," Lynam said. "Other folks have good material today, even if they aren't that well known. You just don't win anymore by throwing a team on the court."

And Driesell hardly just throws a team on the court. The man is so obsessed with success that he actually overworks. He is always watching films, studying scouting reports, searching for the crucial edge. When he says no one outwords him, he is not exaggerating.

What he teaches is relatively simple. He recruits quality players, then shows them how to play a fundamentally sound man-to-man defense and an uncomplicated double-post offense that allows them to take a majority of high-percentage shots. John Wooden readily admitted he too kept things simple.

Driesell's teachings are good enough to beat the overwhelming majority of teams across the nation, year after year.

"He is a strong teacher of fundamentals," said archrival Dean Smith of North Caroline. "His players know how to play the game, and they win."

But put him in a situation where players from both teams have equal ability and are prepared just as well, and he falls short much of the time.

It is at these moments when it is glaringly apparent Driesell is not among that small number of coaches who can be called "great."

"Keep me even (against Maryland) until the last two minutes and I'll win," is how ex-Clemson coach Tates Locke put it. Locke was stating the obvious: once Driesell is placed in a position where pressure decision-making, not hard work, produces a victory, he has problems.

Driesell and his supporters would dispute that, of course. He would open the Maryland basketball brochure, a 64-page salute to Driesell's ego (among other things, it reveals that as a fourth grader he was a manager for high school teams and became the youngest student "ever to receive a varsity letter"), and point to all those winning seasons and those 51 ACC victories entering this year.

"If I'm such a bad coach," he would say, "then how did I win all these games? How did I beat old Dean Smith by 20 points in one ACC tournament? That ain't bad for a dummy, is it?"

But what he would overlook is his inability to win an ACC tournment title despite eight attempts or his failure to get past the NCAA regionals despite five tries.

Good coaches like Driesell have achieved as much, but those few great coaches (Wooden, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, for example) have done better.

Perhaps, as some critics contend, Driesell has not got as much out of the talent he has recruited as another coach could have. And certainly, all of his teams have not been as harmonious and as unselfish as they could have been.

He also is a stubborn man, unwilling to bend at times during games because of some unfounded conviction that, for example, the four corners offense doesn't work.

Yet if he truly was as incompetent as some seem to believe, then his value on the open coaching market would be low. It isn't, because he isn't incompetent. He knows it - and so do most of the nation's top athletic directors, who would hire him quicker than you could say "Moses Malone."

There are even some things Drisell does as well as Wooden or anyone. He is masterful at using time-outs to his advantage. His teams also rarely get into early foul trouble, so he can "give" fouls in key situations without risking one-and-one free throw opportunities.

Still, fans only remember the seemingly endless times that he has had to come up with some strategical masterpiece to save a victory, and failed.

"Who's to say what strategy at any given moment is bad?" Lynam said. "If it works, you look great. If it doesn't, you get criticized.

"But that's the beauty of basketball. It's simple enough for anyone in the stands to think he is an expert. It opens the way for second-guessing and when you play some of the teams Lefty has to, leads to even more second-guessing."

It leads to controversy as well, but just think: Wouldn't area basketball be dull if Lefty made all the right decisions all the time?