What hops to mind just now about Lefty Driesell, one of the strokes that makes him such a caricature of sport, is his line of 10 years or so ago: "I may be dumb, but I ain't stupid."

Last Saturday, Left-hander, you were stupid.

Perhaps only Charles Grice Driesell could belly-flop into a sad and ugly situation that was close to ended and make it much worse. Suddenly, the issue no longer is Herman Veal; that apparently has come to a conclusion. Now Driesell has deflected attention toward himself, even gotten some nonathletic-minded thinkers in the area to suggesting Maryland could do better for its basketball coach.

Lots of us reached that conclusion long ago.

Some of us also decided that Driesell's crimes against basketball were not serious enough to get him fired.

That combined with his alleged off-the-court conduct this week just might do the trick. Probably, Driesell has no idea how he is being perceived of late, that more and more he is looking like the Woody Hayes of basketball. Somebody had better either show him his place, or show him the door. Quickly.

By itself, Driesell's actions in the alleged Veal incident may not be a hanging offense. All the evidence hasn't been gathered. Probably, he made the phone calls to the girl Veal allegedly made sexual advances toward in early October. His constant no comments scream that he did.

"I'm an honorable man," he said after Maryland's overtime upset loss to Georgia Tech tonight in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. "I have discretion. Anybody who knows me knows I'm honorable. I've never threatened anybody except sportswriters." More on that shortly.

Whether there were threats only he and she know.

That Driesell made another call, to preeminent defense attorney Edward Bennett Williams, could mean he's troubled.

So to buffoonery and some other charges against Driesell now can be added insensitivity. At the very least. But you must know this about Driesell: he can be intimidating and threatening; he is not mean.

I can imagine Driesell saying, as the woman insists he did, that her "name would be dragged through the mud" if she pursued the charges against Veal.

I find it hard to imagine him doing it.

Let's get personal to illustrate this. Driesell and I have been fussing at each other for years. Once, after a particularly critical column, Driesell charged me in the Terrapin dressing room, poked a finger in my chest and challenged me to a fight outside Cole Field House.

It never came off.

Two weeks later, for a column on Moses Malone, I put in the perfunctory call to Driesell, expecting him either to hang up or not accept it; so gracious and expansive was he that I could scarcely get him to stop talking. He even volunteered a marvelous anecdote.

That's Driesell.

One moment he's volcanic; next moment he's sugary.

Mostly, he's impulsive.

I know Driesell; I want to know a whole lot more about the situation before I convict him. Until then, I'm inclined toward assuming Athletic Director Dick Dull and other Maryland officials will be thorough and fair in their investigation.

I'm disturbed that Chancellor John B. Slaughter seemed as hasty in defending Driesell as some editorialists were in condeming him.

"The coach had every reason to try to protect his athlete," Slaughter said today. "I really haven't concerned myself with Lefty on this matter."

He'd better.

There's a limit to how far a coach can go for that protection. That's why the matter needs attention. Life also has its fouls.

I'm encouraged by Dull's comments tonight: "I'll look into this further before commenting. A man's job cannot be put in jeopardy because of editorials and hearsay."

I'm assuming Dull, if not Slaughter, has kept a dispassionate eye on Driesell, for this has been a remarkable season. On the court, Driesell has been quite productive. With a very young team, the Terrapins beat UCLA and North Carolina, won 19 games in all and probably clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament by finishing third in the ACC.

Off the court, Driesell called the man in charge of ACC officials "a liar." Shortly, he retracted that. Then his ego was so piqued that he challenged CBS commentator Billy Packer to a shooting match from three-point range.

Imagine that. At the very moment every fiber in his being should be devoted to preparing his team for postseason tournaments, a man in his early 50s is dabbling in silliness. His bosses might reasonably ask: "Did we hire this man to shoot 19-foot hook shots for national television a few days before the ACC tournament?"

The university seemed to give Veal every courtesy. Appeals were heard, but denied. He suffered embarrassment, but the case would have been closed had Driesell not blundered in. He had nearly four months to help Veal in every way possible. Why would he choose the day before the first game Veal would not play for Maryland to defend his best defensive player?

It also was unwise for Driesell two days ago to say: "Right now, it (whether Veal was eligible for the ACC tournament) is out of my hands. But I've got a little bit of pull around here, and we'll see how much."

It wasn't nearly as much as he thought; Veal did not even make the trip here.

Over the years, lots of what Driesell has done could be tolerated as the rather harmless downside of a man who resurrected basketball not only at Maryland but also the entire Washington area.

This won't go away without some powerful explaining.