SYRACUSE, N.Y. – It didn't take long for the first sign that Jim Boeheim still doesn't get it.
"This is the first time I've been in the press room where there's more people here than at the game," he quipped. "Is there something special going on tonight?"
That was classic Boeheim – a wisenheimer of the highest order. Much of the time, that act is entertaining. This time, it was completely the wrong tone to take in the current context.
As a matter of fact, Jim, there is something special going on at Syracuse University right now. Something especially disturbing. Something that demands a more serious manner from a guy that a good portion of the nation would love to see fired right now.
Your right-hand assistant, Bernie Fine, was fired two days ago amid allegations of child molestation. This was your first chance to stand behind a microphone and defend/explain yourself with live words after a jarring turn of events Sunday.
A third accuser came forward and a surreal audio tape was released indicating that Fine's wife, Laurie, knew or at least suspected her husband was abusing former Syracuse ball boy Bobby Davis. Those revelations and the termination of Fine suddenly put your vigorous attack of Fine's accusers – calling them liars in search of a payday – in a new light.
You apologized in a statement Sunday, saying, "I deeply regret any statements I made that might have … been insensitive to victims of abuse." But Tuesday night, here and now, you needed to turn that stated regret into a living, breathing, believable emotion at the podium.
It didn't happen.
Boeheim was not combative, but neither was he contrite. The words "I'm sorry" were not uttered once in a long and interesting news conference. He said a lot more than many anticipated he would say, but he never said those two words.
On this night, he sounded like another icon coach caught in a moment he can't quite decipher, facing criticism he can't quite fathom, failing to understand that a lifetime of having all the answers in a sporting context doesn't mean you have all the answers in the greater realm. He sounded like a guy who doesn't get it.
This issue is far bigger than sports. And as Joe Paterno found out earlier this month, there is a big, unforgiving world outside the cocoon of college sports that doesn't care how many games you won or how long you've worked at a university if you have an accused pedophile on your staff or in your building. Even a hero coach can be abruptly and unceremoniously cut off at the knees in the court of public opinion.
Paterno lost his job, as swift and precipitous a fall from grace as we've ever seen in college sports. As of Tuesday afternoon, Boeheim had the support of his chancellor, Nancy Cantor, and that seems appropriate. The only thing we know he's done wrong is to make some very inappropriate statements; he has not, to anyone's knowledge, covered up or failed to report any allegations of criminal behavior by Fine.
But Boeheim's mouth hasn't done him many favors as the Fine saga plays out.
The crowd that watches CNN and Fox News and MSNBC? A lot of them are interested in this story, but a lot of them don't know the flippant Boeheim persona. When they see the video clips of an occasionally smirking, joking coach in the midst of a pedophilia investigation involving his trusted assistant, I don't anticipate it playing well in mainstream America.
Repeatedly Tuesday night, he said "we have to wait" until the investigation plays out. Problem is, Boeheim refused to wait before firing shots at Bobby Davis and his stepbrother, Mark Lang.
I asked him if he wished now that he would have waited before speaking out then. Without saying no, he said no.
"I supported a friend," he said. "That's what I did. I'm proud I did. You know them 48 years, you went to school with them, I think you owe an allegiance and debt to him …"
That drew applause in the interview room from Boeheim's family members and others. It probably won't draw a lot of applause from outside the 315 area code because it's only half an explanation. Boeheim did far more than support a friend; he went on the offensive – to the outrage of some advocates of sex-abuse victims.
Among those is Fr. Robert Hoatson, a Catholic priest who runs a non-profit organization called Road to Recovery based in New Jersey. The New York Daily News reported that Hoatson was in Syracuse on Tuesday to meet with a potential fourth victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Bernie Fine.
While Boeheim was giving the media an indication that he believes Fine and Syracuse will be exonerated – "I do my job; what happened on my watch, we will see," he said – more allegations could be forthcoming.
Give Boeheim credit for this: He stood in there and answered a lot of questions, probably more than the Syracuse media relations department wished he would have and more than his wife, Juli, wished he would have. (At one point, off to the side of the room, she was signaling for Syracuse officials to cut off the questioning.)
He clearly believes there has been a lot of unfair criticism aimed his way, and he's right to a degree. In the world of hanging judges on Twitter, plenty of people seem inconvenienced by waiting for the legal proceedings to play out; they just know they want Jim Boeheim fired and Bernie Fine imprisoned and Laurie Fine sent to jail or therapy or both. (If Twitter were around during the Duke lacrosse fiasco, the entire university might have been shut down before the involved players were cleared of charges.)
But Boeheim's repeated assertion that after 36 years at Syracuse he's little more than a glorified blue-collar employee rings false.
"I have zero say in who's hired, fired, assigned," he said. "Period. I have a say in who starts and what plays we run."
He does not wield the power of Joe Paterno at Penn State – nobody does – but neither does he have zero say around here. Just ask his point guard, Scoop Jardine.
"Why wouldn't he [have a say in major decisions at Syracuse]?" Jardine said. "He's been here, what, 36 years?"
The 36 years of service and 863 victories are helping him now with the home base. In the Carrier Dome on Tuesday night, there was a lot of support for the coach.
He got a standing ovation from the crowd when he stepped on the court that bears his name, and another one when the public-address announcer introduced him. Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy, a former Boeheim assistant, had an emotional embrace with him before the game.
"I look at Coach Boeheim as a mentor," Murphy said. "A father figure."
[Recap: Syracuse 84, Eastern Michigan 48]
Murphy's director of basketball operations, Victoria Sun, was a Syracuse student manager from 1993-95. She never saw anything amiss with Fine, and she maintains a good relationship with Boeheim. She sent him a "happy birthday" text Nov. 17 – which turned out to be the day the Fine allegations first surfaced.
"I grew up watching Syracuse, loving Jim Boeheim and Syracuse basketball," Sun said. "When something happens to what I consider my family, it kind of hurts."
In a troubling and unsure situation, one thing seems certain: It's no time for the embattled basketball coach to be cracking jokes. It only deepens the belief that Jim Boeheim doesn't get it.
- Jim Boeheim
- Syracuse University