The NCAA swung and it connected, a body blow, but it didn't knockout Jim Boeheim. Right now, the Hall of Fame coach is metaphorically pulling himself up off the canvas. It's something of a standing nine-game count, where the suspended coach is forced to watch his team in the prison of his basement, isolated, probably woozy. His time to get to his feet will come. He'll be back coaching his Syracuse Orange that Saturday next month against North Carolina.
We also know there are a lot more matches, more rounds, ahead for the aged, spindly "heavyweight" coach. Actually, according to the announcement last spring, Boeheim will be the main attraction for all Orange title bouts for the next three years.
Lord. Remember that awkward mess? The NCAA levies all sorts of penalties, sanctions and claims against Syracuse basketball, labeling Boeheim as the "fall guy." And in response, Syracuse University did what outsiders didn't expect and what those around here knew was coming: It stood by Boeheim. With the weird caveat that Boeheim would retire in a few seasons.
At the time, last spring, that seemed kind of like SU was a kid rebelling against a parent, pushing the boundaries but only to a point. Like my five-year-old son telling me he's not going to take a bath -- he pushes back against as much as possible, but before long he's in the tub. Syracuse seemed to be saying "Jim's our guy, NCAA. But, not for nothing, we will be making a change in a few years." The whole thing was so strange to me.
Especially so because I never expected Boeheim to stick around for another three years in the first place. He's 71 right now! Plus, he's been grooming Mike Hopkins for the last
four-hundred years decade-plus to take his place. Add in all of the success Syracuse had between 2010 and 2014, and well, I just didn't see Boeheim hanging on just to hang on.
But then the NCAA went public with its fight against the program. It was nothing new to anyone, what with investigators snooping around central New York for eight years. I really think Boeheim and his staff let it fall off their radar -- for so many valid reasons. And had the NCAA decided not to pursue a case, Boeheim may have been more prepared to walk away sooner than later. But there was no chance in hell that the stubborn SOB was going to let the NCAA, with its seemingly misguided ways, tell him what to do.
"They want me gone? They expect me to be fired or step down? F$%^ Them!"
The last of the coaching characters from days gone by. Someone willing to play the bad guy, so long as it was for the right reasons. The longer he coaches, the more wins he "gets back," the more he sticks it to them. All of them. And if it meant Boeheim coaching for another decade, just to continue proving his point, I'd bet he'd do it.
Of course, that won't happen. There's a cap on it, be it three years or less. Hopkins is ready and Boeheim would never put himself above the greater good when it comes to his program. He still has his fastball, so it's not like anyone is ready to push him out -- (see Bowden, Bobby). Yet we all know we're closer to his leaving than ever before.
What we don't know about Boeheim is how it will play out after his last coached play.
Adding to the mystery of it all, for me, was hearing Bo Ryan, one hell of a good coach himself, stepped down at Wisconsin, effective immediately. (Kind of interesting Boeheim's last game before the NCAA-forced hiatus came against Ryan's Badgers.) Last summer, Ryan actually let it slip that he was potentially retiring after this season. Making his leaving so quickly odd, but certainly not jaw-droppingly unexpected. Odd because it's always abnormal for any coach or athlete to leave before the season is over. They're supposed to be there, that's their thing. Steve Spurrier did it with South Carolina in football this fall and I had the same mixed emotions.
On one hand: Ryan and Spurrier and plenty of others over the years have so much built up equity that it's understandable when they just didn't have enough left and didn't want to diminish their accomplishments. Why stay on just to look like you're there for the limelight, the cash? But, on the other hand, it does seem to be little like quitting. Like giving up. That the "struggle" is a little too real.
I'm sure the truth is more in the middle. Maybe they've earned it and are still bailing at the same time. Either way, goodbyes in sports, even when scripted like those of Karem Abdul Jabbar or Derek Jeter, are typically tricky to pull off.
What will happen with Boeheim? The superstar coach who isn't into any of the superstar spotlight trappings. He won't be getting rocking chairs or fishing rods at mid-court before Syracuse road games, that's for damn certain. There won't be some grandiose announcement prior to a season, or even mid-season. That's absolutely not his style. He's way too blunt, too "get to the point already" to ever have a show put on him for an extended period of time.
Likely, without much fanfare, the end will come a little out of the blue for most of us. Just because most of us will never really be ready for it to be happen. Whether it's at the conclusion of a season or an exit stage left during it. Sometime I can see both happening. Sometimes I can't see either happening, ever.
Ultimately, it's always had the feel of Boeheim going for one more magical March. One last marquee match, a Final Four run, trying to uppercut his way to another national championship for Syracuse. His leaving during the year, leaving HIS guys, just doesn't sound practical, doesn't sound "Jim Boeheim."
But I certainly have no idea how he feels now or how he will feel. Sometimes the greats don't realize they've gone through the last chapter of their story and are lingering in the acknowledgements. If one day, in let's say February of some coming year, Boeheim realizes he's on empty, he may just up and call it quits -- especially if he thinks it helps the program to do so.
It's all Boeheim's choice to make, when and how to go out. One year from now or three. Whenever it's right in his mind, he'll step out of the ring for good. No one person or *cough* organization will ever make that kind of decision for him.