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Syracuse men’s basketball: Coach K, Roy, Boeheim and the question of legacy

It’s easier to walk away when you feel your business is finished.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

This week’s news that Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski would call it a career at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season was a shock for the sport. It was also the second major retirement announcement in the ACC this year, following Roy Williams’s own decision to depart UNC — effective immediately — back in April.

So that’s two Hall of Fame coaches out of the ACC by this time next year. There’s still one left. You may be familiar with Syracuse Orange men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

The long-time head man will be back on the sidelines yet again at his alma mater for 2021-22. And based on the feedback he’s given in the wake of Coach K’s announcement, I wouldn’t hold your breath if you expected him step away anytime soon from the job he’s held since 1976.

Boeheim noted this week that K and Roy’s respective decisions have no effect on him, and he’s correct in that they don’t actively change the fact that he’s head coach or his desire to remain SU’s head coach for at least another few years (if not more). Remember, this is the same guy who had a three-year retirement plan imposed upon him back in 2015, and then blew right past that sign post and remains the head coach three years after that date.

The retirements of his peers and friends are also unlikely to alter what he and most Syracuse fans are probably keenly aware of at this point: Jim Boeheim isn’t really in charge of his own legacy, or Syracuse’s, for that matter.

While the parallels between K, Roy and Boeheim are numerous, there are clear distinctions that stand between those two and Jim. Titles are the most obvious answer, but Duke and North Carolina also have brands that can withstand (and have withstood) a downturn. Duke and UNC men’s basketball existed successfully before those coaches arrived, even if Duke had yet to win a title at the time. And they’ll exist after they’re gone, even if the first coaching hire doesn’t work out as planned. The legacies of those coaches are secured, as are the legacies of the programs they led.

You can’t say the same for Syracuse and Jim Boeheim. And that’s why it’s so much easier for Williams and Krzyzewski to walk away. They have nothing left to prove. No chip on their shoulder to address. And no program to secure for the future. Their work is done, and they’re largely content.

Not so for Boeheim, of course. Just by his nature, you could argue Boeheim’s never content. But due to how closely the Orange men’s basketball team’s success and history are tied to Jim’s career, his shortcomings — “only one title,” “not enough Final Fours” — become the program’s shortcomings as well. And the second he’s replaced, they never really become someone else’s burden. They’re still his, even if he’s not on the sideline.

From a human perspective, that’s excruciating, really. Like many credited with the establishment of something — a team, a company, perhaps even a family — Boeheim’s forced to take ownership of whatever comes after him. Because failure becomes the fault of the man who built the house, not the one that currently owns it. Given the high likelihood that SU hires a Boeheim acolyte to replace Jim (whether that’s Mike Hopkins, Adrian Autry or Gerry McNamara remains to be seen), that’s even more true because they’ll be replacing him with someone who learned directly under him. It’s not fair. But we’ve all watched this team and this coach long enough to know how this will play out.

Of course, one way this could’ve been avoided was more wins. Or rather, more important wins on Boeheim’s resume. And perhaps avoiding the recent regular season swoon that leads to annual cries of him being out of touch before engineering a surprising NCAA Tournament run.

Like we said with Coach K and Roy Williams, titles are a major differentiator, and that helps secure the foundation their legacies are built upon. Boeheim’s one title is impressive because of how few coaches have actually won one, yes. But for those outside the program, the most notable part about it is the fact that the number wasn’t higher. Those detractors aren’t haunted by Keith (Effing) Smart or Fab Melo’s DQ or Triche’s non-charge or AO’s knee. We are. And so is Boeheim.

Syracuse v Virginia Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

And that’s ultimately why he’s sticking around, I believe. He says he enjoys coaching, and I do believe that’s true. Yet while Boeheim’s not really the retirement tour type, and there’s no way he ever entertains what Coach K will this upcoming season (especially if Thursday was any indication), he also has some sentimentality. And wants to be acknowledged for how great his career’s been. Even if he won’t say as much out loud.

While a national championship in the coming seasons may be unlikely, it’s the quickest path to the end of the Boeheim era, for those actively rooting for it. No, winning two titles doesn’t secure a legacy either. However, it certainly changes the narrative on a coach and program that many (for some reason) are still willing to discount because of the stellar freshman that helped lead the 2003 team.

Boeheim may not take much joy in being the “last man standing” of a certain generation of coaches — a group that includes Roy, Coach K and the original Big East coaches, among others. I’m willing to bet he’s glad he gets a shot to close his legacy out on his own terms, though. But TBD if that winds up being the best thing for his or Syracuse’s respective legacies, in the long run.