Jim Boeheim and Syracuse ... there's never been a relationship in college athletics like it
For decades, Rick Pitino would enjoy a laugh while telling an old story about his old boss, and later coaching rival, Jim Boeheim.
Back in the mid-1970s, when a young Pitino was an assistant at Syracuse to a still young Boeheim, they went on a beach vacation with their wives. Somehow a debate began. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
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 answers, except Jim’s.
“Syracuse,” Boeheim said.
The group roared. Wait, are you serious?
“Hawaii is just Syracuse in July,” Boeheim argued, somewhat shocked that anyone would question his thinking.
“Well, true story for the most part,” Boeheim said years later when asked about the legendary tale. “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?’”
In the history of college athletics, there might be no relationship between a school, let alone a city, and a single individual as the one between Jim Boeheim and Syracuse, the private college that sits in the often snow-covered, no-frills, central New York city of the same name.
Boeheim arrived in 1962 as a freshman walk-on from Lyons, about an hour's drive to the west. He was eventually a star on the varsity team and later worked as an assistant coach before becoming head coach in 1976, some 47 seasons ago.
On Wednesday, the now 78-year-old coached his 1,557th and final game, all of them at Syracuse. It was an ACC tournament opening-round loss to Wake Forest in a somewhat disappointing season (17-15) that won’t include an NCAA tournament bid.
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The university announced a couple of hours later that former player Adrian Autry would take over, a slightly clumsy retirement/firing that shouldn’t overshadow a truly legendary career.
That’s a 60-year-relationship with a school, a period interrupted only by a six-year stint in which Boeheim played for the Scranton Miners in the old Eastern Professional Basketball League. He still spent the offseason in Syracuse.
Why wouldn’t he?
“It really is a great place,” he said. “The winters are tough, but that’s basketball season. Then, on April 1, which is when I start thinking about life, [that’s] when the great months start.”
What is unquestioned is Boeheim’s brilliance in building Syracuse into a powerhouse. He led the Orange to 35 NCAA tournaments, five Final Fours and the 2003 national championship behind star freshman Carmelo Anthony.
Boeheim's legacy goes beyond numbers
Boeheim is an irascible figure, often visibly pained by whatever he perceives to be incompetence around him — usually from referees or reporters. He never shied away from a fight, a feud, a controversy or a chance to deliver some acerbic quote. He never tried to be liked. He never changed. He was Syracuse.
He won 1,116 games, at least if you ignore that the NCAA vacated 101 of those triumphs as punishment for various rules dust-ups … and with Boeheim, there was seemingly always a dust-up. That was also part of the fun.
The program was iconic, with Syracuse gear worn up and down the East Coast and Boeheim hauling in stars from all over the country: Louis Orr. Pearl Washington. Sherm Douglas. Billy Owens. Rony Seikaly. Derrick Coleman. Lawrence Moten. Hakim Warrick. Carmelo Anthony.
Boeheim was an unlikely player’s coach, as awkward looking as his guys were smooth. He famously kept his rotation small because, he said, after playing backups heavily in a series of blowout games, star Billy Owens pulled him aside.
“Coach,” Owens said. “I didn’t come here to play 30 minutes.”
“Learned a long time ago about good players,” Boeheim said. “They want to be in the game.”
Through the years it worked, as more and more talent rolled through the place. It allowed Syracuse to take on all comers, from the rugged days of the legendary Big East to the modern championship-or-bust ethos of the ACC. He had rivalries of various animosity with everyone from John Thompson at Georgetown and Lou Carnesecca at St. John's to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams.
All along, he stayed at Syracuse, year after year, content to try to win in a place where winning was in no way assured or simple.
A Syracuse life
Bigger state schools with bigger budgets located in bigger recruiting areas often tried to hire him, only to find Boeheim unwilling to even take their calls. Even feigning interest would've resulted in richer contracts from Syracuse, but Boeheim refused to play along.
“That’s why I am one of the lower paid coaches in USA Today,” Boeheim once said of the annual salary list. “If you don’t play that card, you don’t get paid.”
Well, he still made millions, but he also raised nearly as many for various charities, most notably Coaches vs. Cancer.
In 1986, then-Ohio State athletic director Rick Bay flew to Syracuse and all but forced a meeting with Boeheim about coaching the Buckeyes. Bay arrived with what he thought was a winning sales pitch and a huge raise.
“It lasted 20 minutes,” Boeheim said. “It wasn’t anything against Ohio State. It just wasn’t located in Syracuse, New York.”
And really, that’s all this has ever been about. A kid shows up at a school and never wants to leave, never wants to let down the place he loves.
Whenever he needed motivation to keep working, keep recruiting, he thought of the 30,000 fans who would brave a cold, snowy night to walk, literally, uphill to the Carrier Dome, where the stands and court occupied half a football field.
“The city has embraced our team,” Boeheim said Wednesday. “I’ve been amazed we’ve been able to draw the fans we’ve been able to draw.”
Home was home. They knew it. He knew it. And they knew he knew it and appreciated that. The more fans around the country hated him, or couldn’t understand him, they loved him even more.
“You can trout-fish a mile and a half from my house,” Boeheim said. “I can be playing golf [at his 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.”
A Syracuse life.
“I’ve just been so lucky to coach at Syracuse,” Boeheim said Wednesday. “A place I love. A place I love to live. People keep wondering about that. Maybe that’s a flaw I have, but I’ve lived in Syracuse my whole life, and [I’ll] be there, hopefully, a long time.”
The coaching is over. The games and victories and rhythm of the season will go with it. He’ll remain an icon there, as it’s almost impossible to separate the man from the school and the place. It’s a relationship as lengthy and unique as college athletics has ever known.
Just how Jim Boeheim always wanted it.
“I meant that about Syracuse,” he said years ago when discussing that mid-'70s vacation with the Pitinos. “They laughed, but I meant it … Still do.”