Jim Boeheim’s steadfast commitment has Syracuse on the cusp of the Final Four despite trying season
BOSTON – There’s an old story that Rick Pitino likes to tell on Jim Boeheim. It goes back to the mid-1970s, when Pitino was a Boeheim assistant at Syracuse. They were with their wives, on a beach vacation, when a debate began: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Miami? Maui? Madrid?
Rick settled on San Francisco. Joanne Pitino went with New York City. Elaine Boeheim, Jim’s first wife, said Paris. Or maybe it was the Caribbean. No one remembers everyone’s exact answer, except Jim’s.
“Syracuse,” he said.
Boeheim claimed, “Hawaii is just Syracuse in July,” an explanation that entertains Pitino to this day.
“Well, true story for the most part,” Boeheim said from a corner of his team’s locker room here at the NCAA East Regional, where his top-seeded Orangemen will play second-seeded Ohio State on Saturday. “Rick doesn’t get everything all the way right.
“But, yeah, I said Syracuse. They all walked away. Literally. They just walked down the beach saying, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ “
Next fall will mark the 50th anniversary of Boeheim’s arrival in Syracuse, the central New York town known for its blue collars, harsh winters and the hoops powerhouse he oversees. All these years later, his answer hasn’t changed. He arrived as a walk-on from nearby Lyons, N.Y., wound up a team captain, became an assistant, then the head man. That was 36 years, 890 victories, three Final Fours and one national title ago.
Other than a stint playing pro ball in Scranton, Pa., in the old Eastern League, his life has revolved around Syracuse.
Across all those years, he only threatened, if you can even call it that, to leave twice. Once was in 1976, when the Syracuse coaching job came open and the school was taking its time promoting him from top assistant.
He went in for an interview and told them to hire him on the spot or he was leaving for the University of Rochester, perhaps with some star recruits in tow.
Boeheim got the job.
The other time came after the 1986 season, when Ohio State was looking for a coach. Then-Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel used to laugh as other schools would call seeking permission to speak to Boeheim about their job opening.
Sure, Crouthamel would say, knock yourself out. More often than not, a message left with Boeheim wouldn’t even be returned. He certainly never was going to interview. Eventually, word got around and they called less and less.
Ohio State was different. Boeheim was a hot commodity in the Big East, about to field a team that would reach the title game. Plus, Ohio State’s athletic director, Rick Bay, managed to get him on the phone and wouldn’t let go.
“I wasn’t interested,” Boeheim said. “I didn’t want them to come in. [Bay] said, ‘Well, we want to come in.’ “
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Finally, Boeheim relented. Bay flew to Syracuse, met Boeheim in his living room and started selling Ohio State – selling his massive, powerful school, selling the potential of this marriage.
“It lasted 20 minutes,” Boeheim said.
He cut Bay off, said no and refused to hear any more. Bay went back to Columbus and hired Gary Williams.
“This wasn’t something I was interested in,” Boeheim said.
It wasn’t anything against Ohio State. It just wasn’t located in Syracuse, N.Y.
“It really is a great place,” Boeheim said. “The winters are tough, but that’s basketball season. Then on April 1, which is when I start thinking about life, those are when the great months start.
“You can trout fish a mile and a half from my house. I can be playing golf [at Onondaga Country Club] in five minutes. I can be at my office in seven minutes. I can go to any restaurant in town in less than 10 minutes. And I like that. I like that life.”
This is a creature of habit. He finds something he likes and he doesn’t change. It could be the 2-3 zone he has employed forever, even as new, cooler, supposedly more effective defenses have been invented. It could be his philosophy of not having game day shoot-arounds, perhaps the only coach in the country to eschew them. It could be his confidence in cutting back on practice as the season progresses to avoid injury and save energy.
It could be getting his hair cut. Boeheim has had the same barber, Duke, since he was a sophomore in college.
“His place used to be called the Orange Tonsorial; then it moved after 35 years in one place,” Boeheim said. “He still cuts my hair. Same cut.”
Boeheim shot his eyes upward to make fun of his balding, thinning head.
“The same hair or two cut every time for close to 50 years.”
When you’ve got all that, what’s Paris?
“I remember when I worked for him, he wanted to take me to the golf course back in Lyons [Wayne Hills Country Club] that he started out on,” said Tim Welsh, a Syracuse assistant from 1988-1991. “We drove over there it was like we were going to Augusta, he was so proud to take me there.”
Anyone who knows Boeheim knows he’d never leave. He now has the longest tenure in major college sports, which is an industry built on movement. Guys jump all the time. Others flirt with places, or even the NBA, to get raises. Even Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski contemplated coaching the Los Angeles Lakers.
Boeheim never bothered with the coaching carousel game. There was just that one brief meeting with Ohio State.
“That’s why I am one of the lower-paid coaches in USA Today,” he said of the annual salary list that finds his $1.35 million salary three, four and even five times less than what Pitino, Krzyzewski and John Calipari make. “If you don’t play that card, you don’t get paid.”
So why didn’t you play it?
“I just don’t,” he said with one of his trademark shrugs. “That isn’t me.”
It’s probably because no one would buy it. His love of Syracuse is contagious. His entire coaching staff is made up of men he recruited there and now don’t want to leave.
“It’s the place itself, the way the city embraces you,” said Mike Hopkins, who arrived from Laguna Hills, Calif., as a player in 1989. Hopkins now is the coach-in-waiting for when Boeheim finally retires and wouldn’t mind putting in 50 years there himself. “We get 30,000 fans in a city of 250,000 in below-freezing temperatures and no parking. You have to literally walk up hills to get to the game.”
“I’m almost in the same boat as [Boeheim],” said Gerry McNamara, who arrived from Scranton, starred for the Orange and now is a content assistant. “I love Syracuse.”
Boeheim’s program is so ingrained in the community, so strong, it even survived the most tumultuous season of his career. His longtime assistant, Bernie Fine, was fired in November after molestation accusations. Boeheim was hit with a defamation lawsuit after he criticized two of the accusers.
Boeheim tries to brush it off and focus on basketball – which is the only thing he can control. He underplays the tumult. Make no mistake: This was a long, painful, crisis-filled season. For a guy who covets consistency, this was one unexpected bomb after another. He knows winning a national title will not change that.
“Whatever happened happened, and that will be remembered,” he said. “That’s just life. That’s just life.”
Something was lost, no doubt. Something in his charmed, cocooned existence was shaken. He always could lean back on familiarity, of comfort in place, in the confidence in doing what he believed.
Almost 50 years ago Jim Boeheim arrived in Syracuse and never saw a reason to even consider leaving, never saw another place greater than home. That hasn’t changed during tough times.
“I meant that about Syracuse,” he said of his answer back on that beach with the Pitinos. “They laughed, but I meant it. …
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