Some coaches acquire smoking habits, some acquire ulcers, some acquire blankets to spread over their knees on the sanitarium lawn. Charles G. Driesell acquires mannerisms. He hitches his pants, he changes his name, he waves his hands, he kicks his chair. He stomps the floor, he creases an excessive forehead, he rolls a mouth full of Virginia pine cones as he says, "Well, you know, I can coach."

Driesell nears the end of his 17th season as coach of Merlin -- that's Maryland -- having disowned the nickname he held since grade school in Norfolk, having told a heckler he would kick his teeth in, and having suspended three players the day before one of the most important games of the year. Going into tonight's game against No. 1-ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill, his Turpins -- that's Terrapins -- are 14-11 overall and 3-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is either better than they have a right to be or much worse than they ought to be, depending on your perspective.

So, Lefty lovers, unite. Make his victories varied, his records revered, liberate him from this torture of disrespect. Hander haters, take heart. There are new losses to celebrate, more accomplishments to denigrate, whole vistas of criticism to investigate. But call him what you will and wonder at his tantrums, there is no simple response to this funny old boy who sometimes, although rarely, would rather go fishing.

"You love him or you hate him -- there's no gray area," said former player Jeff Adkins. "He's like the Yankees. You either die for him or kill him."

Driesell is 54 and he has heard talk that he is slowing down, and he is rearing up to tell you that is not so. He has curbed his passion for hotcakes and lost weight on a diet of mostly chicken and fish. He has made it known that a coach of his age should be called by his full name. But those are not to be taken as signs that Driesell is settling resignedly into middle age. Rather, they mark the effort of a career-long rogue to become a three-piece, double-breasted coach of stature.

"I have not mellowed," he said. "I may have gotten a little smarter, and I may handle bad publicity a little better, but I have not mellowed."

Yet, in what is shaping up as one of his most troubled seasons, with the Terrapins in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, Driesell shows signs of tiring in at least one respect. He is unspeakably weary of the endless question: Can he coach? He is enduring perhaps more than the usual amount of criticism, which he had hoped to put behind him last season when he passed the 500-career victory mark, an accomplishment only 16 other Division I coaches have achieved.

"You don't judge a guy on one year," said Driesell, who is 343-156 at Maryland. "I can't do a whole lot of things. I can't run a computer, and I can't do bookkeeping. I don't even know how much money I have. But I can coach.

"A lot of coaches go their whole life and never get in the top 10. People write that I get great talent and make them mediocre teams. That irks me. It irks me when they say that. Sure, I've lost 10 games this season. A lot of teams have been playing bunnies. I could do that, too, but I had the nerve to play my schedule. It's amazing I've done as well as I have with all the negative publicity. I've been here 17 years and I've averaged 20 wins a season. So how is someone going to come in here and tell me I can't coach?"

Any question of Driesell's mellowing probably was settled by his charge into the stands following a victory over Wake Forest at Cole Field House to tell a heckler, "I'll kick your teeth in." Any question that he accepts defeat more easily was settled when, after a particularly frustrating loss, he called his players hot dogs and said this was "not the caliber of team I am used to being associated with." And any question that he does not mean what he says was settled by his suspension of Len Bias, Jeff Baxter and John Johnson for breaking curfew after an upset of North Carolina State last week.

Driesell's coaching quirks have become more pronounced as the Terrapins have struggled. He worried that a poor pregame meal had cost him a loss to Virginia. He changed Maryland's plane reservations to South Bend, Ind., 10 times, then decided not to ride the team bus to the Notre Dame game. When he finally showed up, he had exchanged his usual blazer for a sweater, a tactic that had briefly brought him luck last season.

"Coach hasn't mellowed a bit," Adkins said. "You have to understand that mellow for him is not mellow for other human beings."

Yet there are others who find evidence of a new calmness, for better or worse. With the exception of the "hot dog" remark, Driesell generally has been far less critical of his team than in the past, an improbable state of affairs since it could well turn out to be his worst season since 1977-78, when he went 15-13. As Keith Gatlin puts it, "At this time last year he would have kicked a chair.

"I think he's been more calm than in the past. He still wants to win more than anyone I've ever seen, and he's still intense, but he realizes he's got to kind of pace himself. It's been a year-by-year thing, and I think it's a permanent change."

Driesell seems to have been stricken with a sudden case of realism. This team probably possesses less experienced talent than his recent squads have had, and the departure of guard Adrian Branch has hurt the scoring. The team has been handicapped all season by the lack of a true center, and only major upsets could have been expected for the Terrapins to have defeated many of their ACC opponents, including North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Duke.

"It's not fun losing, but I don't apologize for it," Driesell said. "You have to be realistic. We haven't lost a game we were favored in. I'd be disappointed if we had lost some we should have won, but that's not the case and that makes a difference to me."

If that sounds shockingly easygoing coming from Driesell, prepare for another shock. Despite his general outrageousness and occasional ornery moments, he can be an easily satisfied, considerate, even sensitive coach who has a long list of loyal former players. The confidence of this year's team, for instance, has been fragile at best, and Driesell has seemed to understand that they needed his support rather than rage.

"I understand Coach," Bias said. "You get your points and your rebounds, and he's happy."

Although he has been criticized recently for his failure to attract blue-chip players to Maryland, he long has been considered one of the best recruiters around. He has immense personal charm and his expressive face is usually one of extraordinary good humor. Ask him for a story and soon he is laughing about the time he had to recruit the snake.

It happened when Driesell was coaching at Davidson and going after one of the highly regarded high school stars he tended to steal away from his ACC competition. He visited the young man's home to speak with his mother, whom he found sitting in a chair with a basket at her feet. Inside the basket was a fairly long snake, not one of Driesell's favorite animals.

"Do you like snakes, Coach?" she said, handing it to him.

"Sure I do," he said, taking it.

"That's good," she said. "The last coach who came here said he didn't play with snakes, he just stomped them to death."

Driesell spent most of the visit sitting with a snake coiled around various parts of him. "I had to sit there the whole time and let that thing wriggle all over me," he said. "It was crawling up my arm, my back. I got the kid."

The question of why Driesell suffers criticism is a complex one. It may be his style; he never has indulged in the practice of downplaying his teams as many other coaches do. When his talent does not live up to expectations he has set, he is frequently the one to take the blame. Although he has been to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament twice and won an ACC tournament in the last three years, he still is accused of mediocrity, particularly in light of the rise of Duke and Georgia Tech the last couple of seasons.

"It bothers me when people ask me if he's any good," said George Mason Coach Joe Harrington, Driesell's former assistant and player. "Of course he's good. He wouldn't have won that many games otherwise. People forget that. He's got an aggressive personality, he speaks his mind, he's not a con. Sometimes you might not want to hear it, but he plays it straight. That irritates some people so they criticize him, want to cut him down."

Driesell's critics frequently argue that he never has reached the Final Four. Yet Villanova's Rollie Massimino and St. John's Lou Carnesecca reached it for just the first time last year, and Driesell has had some inarguable bad luck. He is 12-11 in the tournament, but seven of his losses came to teams that made it to the Final Four, including last year's loss to eventual national champion Villanova.

There is another argument frequently invoked against Driesell: his regular-season career record of 7-26 against North Carolina. He unquestionably has suffered under the specter of North Carolina and his nemesis, Dean Smith -- and their reputations now seem inextricably linked. Driesell is in his 26th year of collegiate coaching, Smith in his 25th, and the frequent comparisons between the two rarely favor Driesell, whose winning percentage is 71 to Smith's 77. It also has been Driesell's fate to play some of the most important, and close, games of his career against the Tar Heels, and again the comparison does not favor him. In games decided by five points or less against North Carolina, Driesell is 2-11.

Those kinds of statistics, and the closeness of their games, has led to acrimony between the two coaches; there have been verbal battles, recruiting wars, and even a couple of near-scuffles. But in the last two years much of the bitterness seems to have abated. In this season's first meeting, a 71-67 North Carolina victory, they actually met at half court before the game and had an amicable, back-slapping chat. Somewhat surprisingly, Smith immediately leaps to Driesell's defense when negative comparisons are made.

"Anyone who can stay in the game that long doesn't deserve it," Smith said. "I always complain there is too much comparison. It's a shame when you face so many different situations. Comparisons are guesswork. Is one guy a better lawyer, is one guy a better doctor? I think it's futile, really, at this level."

That Smith speaks as something of an ally even with tonight's game coming up is perhaps a result of a couple of shared traits. In addition to their coaching longevity, they share a common struggle to hold off the younger set in the conference -- Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Virginia's Terry Holland.

"I guess we're the two old ones in the group," Smith said. "I think we've both learned that life goes on. We do well during the offseason in not letting it get to us and take our entire attention. That can be a danger."

Maryland's mediocrity this year raises the question of its future, when the loss of Bias, the 14th-leading scorer in the nation, apparently dims prospects considerably. But Driesell already has signed three players, including his first legitimate center in some time, a 6-11 South Carolinian named Andre Reyes. And he still is pursuing Virginia Beach all-America forward J.R. Reid, who is considering North Carolina and Virginia as well.

Driesell admits that recruiting has gotten harder, particularly in seasons such as this when he also must fight off adverse publicity.

"Sure, it's harder, and what makes it harder is the negative publicity," Driesell said. "That, and the NCAA rules. I like talking to people. It used to be that you could take a kid out to dinner and talk to him, talk to his family. As far as getting into a person's house and talking, I can outrecruit any of those other coaches."

As recruiting gets harder, the question arises of how long Driesell intends to remain at Maryland. He is in just the second year of a 10-year contract and he briefly, although not seriously, entertained inquiries from Old Dominion last year. He now says his jumping-off point might be five more years, at which point his contract would allow him to move into athletic administration. But that would depend, he adds, on making sure he left Maryland with a legacy.

"I'll definitely coach five more years in the ACC," he said. "I'll be 59 years old then. But I didn't leave Davidson in bad shape, and I would want to leave Maryland that way.

"It's not like I'm in it for the money. I know I could live to be 100 and never go hungry. And I've been able to handle it. I don't have ulcers. I'm not a nervous wreck. That's because I'm a religious man. If I lost the rest of my games maybe it would be the good lord saying I should get out of coaching. But then again, maybe I'd coach 17 more years."

While he's deciding, Driesell can retreat to one of his two beach houses he likes so well and engage in his second favorite pastime: sitting in a rowboat pretending to fish.

"Aw, I'll go out there and fish if some old fisherman tells me they're biting," he said. "Otherwise, I just sit there and look at the water and listen to country music."