This week around SB Nation writers will be looking at some “What If” scenarios. Given how often we dive into this pool, it’s sometimes hard to think of new ones, but while digging for information linking Jim Boeheim to NBA openings, I was reminded that the Hall of Fame coach has said he was only offered one job after he became the Syracuse Orange head coach.
Boeheim has stated that he turned down the head coaching job with the Ohio State Buckeyes telling reporters at the time, “If I wanted the job I had it, but tonight I turned it down”. So while we know Boeheim never took the job, what if he’d decided to head to Columbus in 1986?
Boeheim’s assistants at the time were Bernie Fine, Wayne Morgan and Barry Copeland so the odds of Syracuse staying in-house for a replacement seems unlikely. If we branch out to mid-major coaches in the area Pat Kennedy had just led the Iona Gaels to back-to-back NCAA appearances while John Griffin had another 20-win season coaching the Siena Saints. Those coaches got bigger jobs that year as Kennedy took over with the Florida State Seminoles and Griffin moved on to St. Joseph’s and they both would have been options for Syracuse Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel.
Yet there was one other head coach in the Northeast with Syracuse ties who could have been recommended by Boeheim himself. Someone who’s name has been on the minds of many Syracuse fans as a Boeheim replacement....
Rick Pitino had just finished his first season as head coach of the Providence Friars. Would Pitino, who was Boeheim’s first hire, have left Providence so quickly to join an in-conference foe? I think it’s pretty fair to say yes because we’ve seen that Pitino is always looking for the next big thing.
So what becomes of Syracuse with Pitino in charge? In the short-term the Orange are able to stay at the top of the Big East as Pitino brings his up-tempo style to The Dome. Since NCAA rules would have kept Derrick Coleman committed to the Orange that season Pitino would have had both Coleman and Rony Seikaly to rebound and run. His focus on taking more three-pointers means Greg Monroe and Stevie Thompson open the lane for Sherman Douglas to drive and dish for Coleman and Seikaly dunks as the Orange are able to defeat the Georgetown Hoyas and Indiana Hoosiers to win the 1987 National Championship.
The Orange get back to the Elite Eight the next season before falling to the Duke Blue Devils but when Billy Owens arrives on campus the following year Pitino’s fast-paced attack hits the turbo boost. Owens and Coleman don’t just rebound, they rebound and start leading the break. Douglas turns into a capable shooter from deep and Syracuse rolls past the Michigan Wolverines and Seton Hall Pirates to win their second title in three seasons.
Following the win, Pitino leaves to replace Stu Jackson as Head Coach of the New York Knicks, and Coleman and Owens enter the NBA Draft going first and third overall. Syracuse turns to one of Pitino’s former assistants handing the job to Herb Sendek who elevates Jeff Van Gundy from graduate assistant to full-time assistant coach.
Syracuse fans expect Sendek to keep the dynasty rolling but the 1990-91 season ends up in a NIT berth. Chancellor Melvin Eggers tells fans they are too spoiled by Pitino’s success and need to give Sendek time to settle in. After a repeat trip to the NIT the following year fans start showing up to games with “Send Sendek to the Knicks” banners and with the success of Paul Pasqualoni’s Orange football squad the basketball team is feeling the heat.
After the 1994 season, Sendek is fired and Jim Boeheim comes back to Syracuse to “restore the great program to it’s rightful place”. Aided by the transfer of John Wallace, Boeheim returns Syracuse to the Final Four in 1996 where he’s defeated in the title game by Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats.
Syracuse remains one of the premier programs in the country and aided by the NBA’s new draft rules, Boeheim finally wins his first national championship in 2005 when junior Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick lead a veteran squad to a win over Roy William’s North Carolina Tar Heels.
Boeheim continues coaching at Syracuse as he strives to match Pitino’s two titles. He currently leads all coaches in career wins with 1,204 and when he takes the court to begin the 2020-21 season he’ll be looking down the bench at his two sons as Jimmy and Buddy are prominent reserves for the Orange.