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Syracuse men’s basketball will be as good as it wants to be

Is being a “Fine” program good enough? That’s for the program to decide.

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Syracuse v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As the guy who typically talks about football, it was never my intention to spark the flames of a Syracuse Orange basketball conversation beyond, “Things could be better, eh?” As John wrote on Monday, 2020-21 has turned into yet another mediocre ACC season where the Orange just don’t have the pieces to challenge any of the top schools or solidify a position on the right side of the bubble as of yet.

As someone who generally relies more on data than his eyes for college basketball, I wanted to add context as people started mentioning that ‘Cuse is headed towards it’s eighth double digit losing season in nine years.

Matt and I went back and forth for a bit, so let me clarify my intent of that tweet: Syracuse has put up far more double-digit loss seasons than the top teams in the ACC of late, and are more in line with the middle of the ACC than the top when it comes to regular season success. After a back and forth, Matt and I arrived at a consensus:

Syracuse is a FINE program. For many of you, you do not need to let those words sink in before you get riled up. Because fine isn’t good enough for many supporters of the program.

From Syracuse’s first year in the Big East (1980) until they won the program’s first National Championship (2003), the Orange had eight seasons with double-digit regular season losses. They missed the NCAA Tournament just five times. There was a Final Four each decade.

The small, private school from Central New York was one of the dominant programs in the country, sending multiple players to the NBA, who became national stars while wearing Orange. For many of those reading these articles, buying sweatshirts and tickets, and still powering the fan base, this is the Syracuse Orange Basketball capital “P” Program.

During that time period, the Orange locked down program architect Jim Boeheim to a long-term deal that has become an absolute bargain by the current financial standards of college sports. They built an on-campus stadium that can fit twice the capacity of its peers, directly funnels profits back to the school, and established a solid season ticket base to fill that stadium consistently — with said base paying an above average collegiate basketball ticket price. For decades, this model allowed the small, private school from Central New York to use basketball as a revenue driver for its entire Division I athletic department.

There was a four-year blip between 2005 and 2009 when the regular season losses reached double digits, but conference tournament titles and deep postseason runs bookended NIT appearances, and thus retained fan confidence. This was incredibly important; as the landscape of college sports changed, football became the way for a collegiate athletic department to make money, and Syracuse’s football program bottomed out. This school used men’s basketball to keep the entire department afloat until 2013, when the Orange joined the ACC, and revenue sharing a much bigger pool stabilized budgets to the point that football success was not a prerequisite to profitability.

I bring ALL OF THAT up to center us around facts, as some feel the discussions are not rooted within the same reality. Here’s the reality as I see it: Syracuse basketball can be as good as Syracuse basketball wants to be.

As of this writing, Jim Boeheim’s estimated salary of $2.6 million is barely among the top 40 of his peers. This is sixth among the coaches he competes against most in the ACC, and some of you more logically inclined individuals may be going “But Andy, that stands in line with his more recent on-court results. How is this a bargain, as you mentioned above?”

Jim Boeheim is the face of the Syracuse Orange program. As long as Boeheim is patrolling the sidelines, ESPN will have him on their airwaves to talk about the state of the sport and the Syracuse hoops. As long as Jim Boeheim is the head coach, fans will buy Jim Boeheim shirts to benefit his foundation, and make companies want to license Syracuse. As long as Jim Boeheim is the opposing coach in a matchup between UNC, Duke, Georgetown, UConn or Villanova, these games rise above the monotony of pre-tournament basketball and into “lead block of ESPN.”

And let’s talk about those games against old rivals or current conference bluebloods. It doesn’t matter that the Orange more often come into the game unranked and 13-8 or 16-12, the game becomes an event where over 30 thousand of us pay an average of $182 to watch, with celebrities gracing the sidelines of a small, private university in Central New York.

My point is that the Orange, as a program, for a small, private university in Central New York, get more bang for their buck out a college basketball program than pretty much every school not named Duke. From a strictly monetary perspective, the basketball program is one of the best situated programs in country, and it hasn’t had to maintain a top 25 standing in eight of the last nine seasons to keep the cash flow strong.

Off the court, the program can boast a state of the art basketball facility that bears the name of its most famous basketball alum who is still a brand name in the NBA. But let’s not focus on what coaches sell recruits, I want to highlight that the program gets to sell its coaches to us. Until the NCAA fully approves name, image, and likeness compensation, programs are left to market one of two ways to boosters: the name of the program, or the coach. Syracuse is able to do both to the fullest extent. The program can put a Hall of Fame coach front and center who has committed his life to the school, so why shouldn’t you support him?

Not only that, but the entire coaching staff was part of the Orange tree. Remember when Adrian Autry and Gerry McNamera won conference titles? Take a hit of that nostalgia when buying your season ticket package. That block ‘S’ means 50 plus years of the head coach involved in the program, most of which as the head coach that’s turned it into a national brand.

Listen: I’m writing this sipping whiskey out of my wife’s vintage “10 Years of the Big East” glass. I am not arguing that we should be grateful for the good times the program has brought us and accept any slide into the anonymous void of mediocre college basketball.

What I am saying is that there’s a reason we’re here, having these conversations, that go beyond irritability from the world as we know it changing. Fans do not like what they see. We’re hearing how high school kids thinking about playing for ‘Cuse do not like what they see. We’ve got head coaches of opposing teams calling current key players YMCA shooters.

The regular season decline is obvious. The postseason success, when on the right side of the bubble, has kept the faith of the fans and boosters in the way that it matters to the administration. Ultimately, who we see as the root of all of these troubles is the men who we have been sold on as the program: Boeheim and his coaching staff. This isn’t to absolve Boeheim and his staff of mistakes, this is to remind everyone that Jim does not run the small, private school in Central New York, contrary to the jokes told by his friends on ESPN.

There is an Athletic Director, who reports to a Chancellor who are now faced with a simple decision that leads to many more complex ones; Does the Syracuse Program want to be better? If so, do you let the man who built the program correct his own path? And if he cannot, do you push him out before he wants to walk away? And who do you look to hire to do what he could not? Because if you if you can’t fix any of that, you’re left trying to sell “Syracuse,” the middling ACC program that lives on the outside of bubble without anyone that speaks to proof the program can be anything different.

I do not have these answers. I do not think anyone does! I do think that Syracuse controls its own destiny. And that is better than most. What they do with that choice will tell us more about the small, private school in Central New York than a string of losing seasons do.