This excerpt from Scott Pitoniak's Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story is printed with the permission of Triumph Books / www.triumphbooks.com/colorhimorange.
In retrospect, the promotion of Boeheim to the top spot seemed like a no-brainer. But the move did not come without a little drama. Before landing his dream job -- the one he still holds nearly four decades later -- Boeheim interviewed for the University of Rochester had coaching position that had become vacant when Lyle Brown, the Yellowjackets head man for 19 seasons, retired. "They were Division II back then," he said. "But they were talking about going to Division I." Boeheim walked out that morning meeting believing that the Rochester job was his. But as he drove back to the Salt City for a meeting with the Syracuse University search committee, he knew, deep down, that the position he really wanted was the one open at his alma mater.
The Syracuse search committee of [athletic director Les] Dye, vice-chancellor Cliff Winters, trustee W. Carroll Coyne, and board chairman David Bennett were high on the 31-year-old Boeheim but thought it also might be wise to interview several men with Division I head-coaching experience. Among the candidates they discussed were, who in just this third season at Rutgers had guided the Scarlet Knights to the 1976 Final Four, and Bill Blair, whose Virginia Military Institute team had lost to Rutgers in the East Regional finals. In a 2002 interview with Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard, Bennett recalled the name of Michigan assistant Bill Frieder also being broached.
"At that point, we said if we're talking about assistant coaches we've got Jim about to come in here anyway," Bennett said.
The committee members didn't really know what to expect from Boeheim because he had kept such a low profile as an assistant. "He never took credit for the team's achievements," Bennett said. "But, now, it was his opportunity to tell us what he had done." Boeheim was aware that several outside candidates were being considered. But he also knew that he had the UR job in his hip pocket, and he wasn't afraid to use it for leverage. "They wanted to open the process up," he recalled. "I told them I was going to go to Rochester if I didn't get the job. I didn't want to wait around for the interview process. I strongly believed that if you had an assistant who's capable and been there and done the work, he should be given a chance in that situation."
Boeheim also stressed that there was a sense of urgency because National Letter of Intent Day was just around the corner and that prized recruits wee about to be lost. He mentioned how the Orangemen were locked in a recruiting battle with St. Bonaventure University for the services of Roosevelt Bouie, a highly coveted 6'11" center from Kendall, a small town northwest of Rochester. Boeheim told the committee that he believed he had the inside track on landing him. "But time was of the essence," the coach explained. "If [the committee] was going to wait two more weeks before making a decision, we would have lost out on the guy who really could help the program take off."
Boeheim's interview went well, but the feedback the committee received from current and former players may have been the deciding factor. The player who spoke most passionately about Boeheim was guard Jim "Bug" Williams. "Jim Williams said, 'Coach Boeheim put in the 2-3 [zone defense], Coach Boeheim did this, Coach Boeheim did that," Bennett recalled. "They were not only very affirmative about him, but they wanted to make clear how critical he was to the team's success and how thought it was obvious he should be the guy."
After Boeheim left the meeting, the committee deliberated for about 30 minutes before calling him back in to tell him the job was his. "It was not obvious that Jim would be the choice at the beginning of the two-hour meeting," Bennett said. "It was only when he spoke on his own behalf and the players spoke about him that it became clear that there was no point looking elsewhere."
Details of a three-year, $75,000 deal were worked out quickly, and on April 3, 1976, the walk-on from Lyons was introduced as the seventh men's basketball coach in school history.
"We already felt that Jim was the best assistant coach in the country," Syracuse University chancellor Melvin Eggers said at the news conference introducing Boeheim. "The only question the committee had to decide was whether the pick would be Jim or an established coach. We received overwhelming support for Jim from the present members of the team and from several former players. Because of his keen basketball mind and his knowledge of what had to be done to keep Syracuse basketball at the top, the [search] committee quickly realized the best man for the job was right here." Boeheim told reporters he had always had his eye on the head coaching job and said he asked for a three-year contract because, "I wanted the opportunity to develop my own program." He also joked that, unlike his predecessor, he would avoid politics. Asked whom he was supporting in the upcoming Presidential election, Boeheim quipped, "Roosevelt Bouie."
Several newspaper stories about his hiring included a parenthetical explanation about how to pronounce his name (BAY-hime). Reporters felt compelled to include that information because despite Boeheim's background as a player and six season as an assistant coach, he was somewhat of an anonymous figure even among Syracuse basketball fans, having been greatly overshadowed by his former teammate, Dave Bing, and his former boss, Roy Danforth. Interestingly, his name would continue to be botched by fans and sportscasters alike in the ensuing decades.
Boeheim thanks the athletic administrators at the University of Rochester, saying that his talks with them had been excellent. But he admitted Syracuse was the job he wanted all along, adding, "Everybody wants to coach where he played." With National Letter of Intent Day just a week away, Boeheim said he would immediately hit the recruiting trail in hopes of landing Bouie. "Anytime you have a coaching change at this late date, it will affect the recruiting situation," he said. "But I have seen all the recruits personally, at least once, so it should not make that much of a difference. Roosevelt Bouie is still our No. 1 kid. Out center position has been weak, and we need some support there." Boeheim also told the media, "There's no real difference in coaching philosophy between Roy and myself. I plan to stress defense a little more, but that's about it." Players wouldn't be the only personnel Boeheim would need to recruit. He's also need to find two new assistant coaches, because Tommy Green, who also had worked on Danforth's staff at SU, had announced he was following his boss to Tulane.
News of Boeheim's hiring was cause for celebration in his hometown of Lyons. His parents were understandably thrilled, but the person most proud may have been Jimmy's mentor and former high school coach, Dick Blackwell."He was really shy when I coached him," Blackwell said, reminiscing about Boeheim with Norm Jollow, a sportswriter with the Finger Lakes Times. "He would hardly look at you when you were talking to him. But I watched him being interviewed on TV, and he's really poised. He's matured, and if he comes off with his players and in recruiting as well as he did on TV, he should be great." Not long after watching the news conference on television, Blackwell wrote his protege a letter telling him that there was no doubt in his mind that he would become a successful head coach. "There's never been anybody more dedicated," continued Blackwell, who joked that Boeheim must have been born with a basketball in his hands. "I'm sure all he dreams about is basketball. He didn't know anything else." The news of Boeheim's promotion didn't surprise Blackwell one iota. "I understand a couple of year's ago, when Roy was thinking of going somewhere else, the Hardwood Club of Syracuse was reported to say they wouldn't mind losing Danforth but wanted to keep Jimmy. They knew how well he worked with the kids. I'll tell you this much: nobody will ever be more completely dedicated than he will. It's all he ever wanted to do."