WASHINGTON – One last time the Baron of the Big East stalked the Verizon Center hallways on the day before a big conference game. Strange, that of all the men who could be the face of the first basketball league made for television, it would be the one with the balding head, tiny glasses and upturned nose who became its visage.
Come Saturday afternoon, the dying conference will take its final, unexpected gasp on the floor of a league arena, no less, and Jim Boeheim will stand guard before one bench, just as he did in the Big East's first season back in 1979. Through all those years, John Thompson and Louie Carnesecca and Jim Calhoun then departed, Boeheim never left. Mainly because he had nowhere else to go.
In a transient world of college basketball where a coach's commitment to a school lasts until the private jet of another university's booster lands at the local airport, Boeheim never left the shores of Onondaga Lake. No place else ever seemed right. His people were there. Why change all of that for a bigger bag of money?
The two men Boeheim relies upon most for counsel – former players turned assistants Mike Hopkins and Adrian Autry – think he would make a fantastic NBA coach. They rave about his consistency, his lack of wild emotions, the fact that he doesn't fall to the temptation of most college coaches to over-manage their teams. They say he handles egos as well as Pat Riley or Phil Jackson or any of those NBA men so blessed with an even keel. Then they smile when asked why he never took the chance, because the thought of Boeheim in Showtime is ridiculous.
"I think he knows what he wants," Hopkins said as he sat in the Orange's locker room on Friday afternoon. "He's an upstate New York guy."
For all the waving of the arms and the high-pitched pleas and the tie askew, he is a simple man. And that is a genius for which he does not get enough credit.
College coaches today make one of two great mistakes. They either over-coach, pushing and pushing their teams into March until the players collapse from the pressure, or they are too hands-off, forgetting that 19-year-old men must be taught as much as coached. What Boeheim mastered long ago was the ability to do both. It's a hard balance to achieve.
"I think he lets guys enjoy college a little bit," Autry says. "But it's not out of control. He's not loosey-goosey."
Where Boeheim thrives is in not being complex. He doesn't throw volumes of information at his players. He doesn't oversell. He doesn't change the plays during the season. Syracuse doesn't even have the traditional game-day shootaround.
Strangely, some of the best coaches work this way. Talk to New England Patriots players about their coach, Bill Belichick, and the massive changes he makes to the game plan each week, and they will tell about a man who makes those switches seem easy. Perhaps Belichick's greatest gift is the way he can distill complicated concepts into easy-to-grasp PowerPoint slides and short videos.
In many ways, this is Boeheim's strength, too.
"Steve Jobs' genius was that he would make something complicated seem very simple," Hopkins said. "He can simplify anything. For instance, he can watch 10 minutes of game film and say, 'That's what they are going to do.' It's almost like Rain Man."
This isn't to say that Syracuse's coaches don't work. Like their counterparts, they stay up all night breaking down opponent's video, dissecting tendencies, looking for edges. Boeheim himself watches endless hours of college basketball. He has the cable package at his home and will stay up until 2 a.m. to catch the West Coast games. The difference is that he doesn't bury his players with his knowledge, dispensing just enough so they can get by.
"Just keep everything simple," Autry said.
As he sat on an interview dais beneath the Verizon Center court on Friday, Boeheim chuckled.
"We probably watch less tape than anybody in the country," he said.
Then he added:
"I always laugh at football coaches. They know every play, every position, every move that these other guys are going to make because they watch 36,000 hours of tape," he said. "Their players have no clue what they're talking about. …I always say, 'If the football player can do 1/10th of what those coaches know, they would be geniuses, because they can't.' It's not what the coaches know or what you know, it's what the players know and how they execute."
Sometimes simple works. Last week, Boeheim won his 900th game. He has the third-most wins in Division I history. He's coached for 37 years, and little about him has changed. When Autry and Hopkins are pressed for ways that he is not the same, the only thing they can come up with is that he seems, as Autry says, "more patient." That is hardly a great evolution.
Syracuse's last few seasons have been a swirl of controversy. Yahoo! Sports reported in 2012 that the team ignored players' positive drug tests. The NCAA is supposedly looking into the eligibility of last year's center Fab Melo. And Boeheim's longtime assistant Bernie Fine left after two former ball boys made allegations that he sexually abused them. Fine was not charged following a yearlong federal investigation.
"Hurricane-ish," is how Hopkins described the swirl of problems around the basketball program in recent years. Yet with each blow, each story that chips away at the 37 years, Syracuse continues to play well. Thrive, actually.
"These last four years have been some of our best," Hopkins said.
Come Saturday evening, the Big East will probably have played its final game. The last Big East arena will be empty. Maybe Boeheim will be cutting the nets on the way to his fourth Final Four. Maybe he will be walking these halls one last time. Either way, he will have been the Baron of the Big East. The face of a league built for TV.
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