These are darks days for Lefty Driesell. Less than half a year before his 50th birthday, he finds himself confronting a crisis many think will ultimately bring about his departure from the University of Maryland.

After 12 years as basketball coach, he faces a season with what may be less talent than at any time since his first year at College Park. Friends fear, and enemies hope, that he will be going into the Atlantic Coast Conference shooting gallery this winter with an unloaded gun.

"This is the year," said one ACC assistant coach, "that Lefty gets his butt kicked."

Driesell doesn't shout when that possibility is placed before him. In fact, his voice is low, but deep enough that the listener is brought to attention.

"They been sayin' it 21 years now, ever since I been a college coach, 'Lefty's gonna get his butt kicked.' That's what they said when I went to Davidson, that's what they said when I came here.

"Well, there ain't nobody kicked it yet.

"They wnat to get rid of me, that's the way to do it: kick my butt. 'Cause when they do it, when they find a way to kick it, I'll get out, I'll quit, I'll go sell insurance or something."

Driesell's job does not appear to be in any jeopardy. But a mediocre year, following a disappointing 21-10 season in 1980-81, may make the jeers in Cole Field House so loud that he decides it is time to get out. He admits the frustrations of last season made him think about getting out of coaching more than at any other time in 26 years in the business.

"Sometimes," he said, "I wonder why I put up with all the aggravation."

But whatever happens this season, Driesell does not intend to go quietly. His nature has always been to draw in his belt, put a snarl on his face and come out scratching and clawing when he appears cornered. s

It is July now and the cat fights of the winter are months away, but Driesell is readying himself. He knows his obituary is being written -- again -- by his detractors. He is spoiling for a fight.

"Two years ago everybody picked us sixth in the league and nowhere in the nation," he said. "So we won the league and finished eighth in the country. This team won't have the kind of personnel that one did, but I guarantee you it'll play hard. And I guarantee you we won't roll over for anybody."

It seems almost a personality quirk that Driesell and his teams appear at their best when they are written off. In 1975, when Moses Malone opted at the last minute for the pros, the Terrapins were picked for the middle of the ACC. They won the league going away, winning all four games on Tobacco Road.

In 1980, after two seasons of turmoil, including a 15-13 record in the 1978 season, the Terps were picked sixth and Driesell's demise was predicted. That team was 24-7 and won the ACC regular-season title.

But the 1975 team, even without Malone, had such players as John Lucas, Steve Sheppard, Mo Howard and Brad Davis. The 1980 team had Albert King, Buck Williams, Greg Manning and Ernest Graham.

This year the names will be Charles Pittman, Reggie Jackson, Taylor Baldwin, Dutch Morley and Steve Rivers. None has average in double figures as a college player. Two freshmen, Adrian Branch and Jeff Adkins, will be asked to contribute heavily and quickly.

Everyone will watch. But watching Driesell the last six months has been almost as interesting -- and instructive -- as climbing into his huddle during the last 10 seconds of a close game.

The 1981 season was as frustrating as any Driesell has experienced. His team, picked as high as No. 1 in the country in some polls, never jelled, finishing fourth in the ACC. The team was booed in Cole Field House and criticized in the press, and Driesell's coaching methods were questioned.

Driesell, often hypersensitive, reacted angrily. When several letters to the editor critical of his coaching appeared in local papers, Driesell telephoned the letter-writers to argue about their critiques. "It made me mad," he says now.

The season ended embarrassingly with a 99-64 humiliation by Indiana in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The week after the game, Newsweek columnist Pete Axthelm twisted that knife a bit more by labeling the game "a classic example of what happens when the best coach around meets the worst coach around."

Driesell's only response: "Who is this Axthelm guy? Was he even at the game?"

With King, Graham and Manning graduating, the future was questionable. Then on April 25, Williams opted for the NBA over his final year at Maryland. Suddenly the future looked horrid.

Publicly, Driesell kept a poker face, saying the Terps would be just fine, that, "Heck, Buck might have been hurt the first game of the season, anyway." t

Privately, he was devastated. He was angry at Donald Del and David Falk, Williams' lawyers, because he thought they had talked Williams into making the move, and he was upset with the NBA in general.

Lefty still needs players. His last-second recruiting efforts failed and he is left with two incoming players in a year when his four best players from the previous year will be elsewhere.

"If Buck had stayed, I think we could have had a better team this year than we did last year," Driesell said. "I think we would have been a contender for the ACC title and we would have stayed in the top 20 because we would have been a better rebounding team, and we would have gotten more out of Buck because I would have designed the offense around him.

"I'm still a little bit down about him leaving. I can't help it because it was something that was out of my control. It happened so late that it was hard for us to get anybody else, so now we're going to get anybody else, so now we're going into next season with kind of an inexperienced team."

Driesell's concern about the upcoming season manifested itself recently when he admitted he would be willing to talk with Davidson officials about the possibility of becoming athletic director there. The thinking is that he probably would not even consider the job unless he were concerned about the situation at Maryland.

This past season, Driesell's major complaints were not with reporters but the letter-writers. He admits after 12 years in the area that he is extremely sensitive to barbs from anyone.

He is so sensitive, in fact, that when Sports Illustrated made reference to Maryland's "helter-skelter offense," Driesell dashed off a letter to the magazine citing statistical proof that the Terps run a solid, unselfish offense. In short, getting underneath Driesell's collar is not very difficult.

"Yeah, I do let that kind of stuff bother me," he said. "I think my record speaks for itself. I'm second in the ACC in about every category (behind Dean Smith) in the 12 years I've been here.

"I'd like to win a national championship; everybody would. But how many coaches in the ACC have won national championships? None.

"John Wooden's won most of them and he's not coaching any more. Look what happened to Jud Heathcote. He won the national championship (at Michigan State) in 1979 and he hasn't been heard from since.

"We've won consistently at Maryland, 19 or 20 games every year, except three years ago when we won 15. We've made money on basketball at Maryland. I think we're probably the only team at the school that makes money. We've increased attendance from about 2,000 a game before I got here to 13,000 a game.

"What more do they wnat?"

There certainly appears to be truth in the theory that Driesell catches flak as much for his style as his record. His flamboyance and bluntness often have made him a target for criticism while others might slide by unnoticed.

"I've thought about that -- why I get criticized," he said. "Maybe it's because I don't talk enough Xs and Os. Some coaches you know, they'll call you on the phone and they'll say something like, 'Well, Buck was having trouble with his foul shots and I took his left foot and moved it back six inches and now he's doing much better,' or, 'Albert was missin' a lot in practice and I told him to move his elbow over four inches and he just started hitting everything.'

"I mean, they'll go on and on about how they changed defenses or did this or did that. It'll kill you. I don't do that. I just do my thing, coach my philosophy, work my back off and do the best I can. So far, I've done okay."

And what if this were the year where he didn't do okay?

"It would depend. If I thought I had let the team down, hadn't gotten the most I could out of them, well, I'd probably get out. I've always said that, though.

"I don't know how long I'll coach. When I first started, I said there was no way I'd still be doing it when I was 40. The when I was 40, I said there was no way I'd do it when I was 50. Well, I'm gonna be 50 in December and I'm still doing it, I may just go ahead and do it forever. They may have to run me out to get rid of me."

Driesell has a self-renewing five-year contract with Maryland, which, in essence, means he would receive four years of severance pay if the school fires him. He says he has no plans to coach elsewhere -- at least at the moment.

That, Driesell says, could change if he felt he couldn't produce.

"Like I said, all they gotta do is kick my butt," he said. "But if you look at my record, you gotta say one thing: I may not be perfect, I ain't no Adolph Rupp, but I've done all right. Ain't nobody kicked me good yet."