SYRACUSE, N.Y. – New Dawn. New Era. Similar Syracuse.
It’s a brisk Friday afternoon in Central New York. The cool, crisp autumn air complements the tones of verdant turned vibrant trees this time of year, a reminder that there’s a season for all things. Oh, and that basketball season is near. True to form, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team meets in the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center, only this time it’s after a seismic shift at the top of the program. Ostensibly, not much has changed. Adrian Autry is here. So too are Gerry McNamara and Allen Griffin. Much of last season’s team has returned and the roster is replete with prototypical height and length befitting a Syracuse 2-3 zone playing team.
Despite these Syracuse synonymies, there’s noticeably one man absent. Inconceivably, Jim Boeheim is no longer here. He’s still around, mind you, albeit in a different role. No doubt his knowledge and likeness will still serve as an important resource going forward. Boeheim even pops into practice infrequently, but he’s comfortable to be in the shadows this year as to avoid distraction. Alas, the coaching responsibility is finished.
For the first time in 48 years, Syracuse basketball has a new head coach and Boeheim isn’t mentioned once in the opening media day press conference. It’s a sign of the times. The hardwood still says Jim Boeheim Court inside the JMA Wireless Dome, but this is Autry’s program now.
The end of the Boeheim era culminated in a fever pitch last season, pushing Syracuse basketball to its logical and inevitable conclusion. If Syracuse and Boeheim got to the right place, the execution was heavy-handed. Following a messy transition and confusing goodbye the sun has set on the storied Hall of Famers long career. There will never be another quite like Boeheim, neither the man nor the layered legend. No coach will endure and carry the Syracuse torch in quite the same fashion. A 47-year run at Syracuse simply won’t happen again. As part of the end’s beginning, those in power dared to imagine a Syracuse basketball future without its master strategist. And to his credit so too did Boeheim. There are elements of both fact and fiction that hinge on the idea of strength looking like perseverance through adverse circumstances and hanging on. Sometimes it looks more like letting go.
And so, here we are. With the internal conflict resolved perhaps the Orange can focus on the external and find its way within college basketball. Maybe that will happen, if the decision-makers at Syracuse sought to resolve basketball, not just resolve Boeheim.
Where Syracuse goes from here in unclear. What’s for certain is that the sun is rising for Autry. It’s a new day. But to understand where we’re at we first have to understand how we got here.
It’s hard to accurately recapture the last ten years, where Syracuse basketball went from the peak of its powers to what Orange fans hope was its nadir, compiling a meager 33-32 record in the last two seasons. In the last decade alone college basketball has undergone a sea change. So too has Syracuse, which has had difficulty keeping up with the rapid pace of advancements.
Syracuse’s move to the ACC from the Big East in 2013 was as much a display of strength from the athletic department as it was necessary. But in attempt to both satisfy and revitalize football, Syracuse sacrificed part of its basketball identity, not to mention a familiar pole position in the Big East. The Orange had a historic season in its first year in the ACC, jumping out to a program best 25-0 start. Except the following year the NCAA unleashed sanctions on Syracuse in the form of scholarship reductions, recruiting limitations, 101 vacated wins, returned revenue-sharing to the Big East for March Madness appearances in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and it was placed on five years of probation. The effects were apparent as the Orange struggled to stay atop the ACC in subsequent years. After missing the NCAA Tournament in 2015 with a self-imposed post-season ban, the Orange defied expectations in 2016 with a Final Four run as a ten-seed during a season where Boeheim was suspended nine games. The following year, Syracuse lost its successor to Boeheim, publicly-named heir apparent Mike Hopkins, the longtime assistant who left Syracuse to take the Washington job. Boeheim hung on to coach sons Buddy and Jimmy.
Sanctions, the departure of Hopkins and a power shift in college basketball proved too much to bear. The Orange’s two dead cat bounce Sweet 16 appearances in 2018 and 2021 helped buck the trend of a declining program. Many places would take on Syracuse’s problems to be sure, but since its last Final Four run the program has slowly grown stale and seeks to modernize under Autry. The head coach from Harlem looks to breathe new life into Syracuse basketball with new ideals while keeping the same standard — the Orange Standard, as he insists. Not a buzzword, but an ideal, an ethos.
Autry was plucked as a plausible head coaching successor last March. In the time since, he’s been convincing, retaining the entire freshman class that played in Boehiem’s final season including NBA prospect Judah Mintz, all the while bringing in homegrown talent in Notre Dame transfer and former McDonald’s All-American JJ Starling. There’s an inherent trust factor between Autry and the players. He’s welcoming change, eager to implement new ideas. It’s a persuasive start and he’s confidently moving forward.
What happens next for Syracuse is hard to say. The Orange can’t afford to sit back in a 2-3 zone and let college basketball happen to it. Syracuse needs to go out and happen to college basketball. Autry knows this, which is why he’s intent to implement multiple defenses, including man-to-man.
And then there’s the offense, a seeming C-plot to the Syracuse basketball defense and coaching transition’s A-plot. Autry is going away from the glass cannon approach on offense as Syracuse reverts to having athletes at every position and running the floor while evolving the defense into something beyond 40 minutes of 2-3 zone. The pace has picked up in practice. Shoot-arounds on game day will be installed too, a practice the former coach didn’t believe it. So much change. So indulgent.
Autry is willing to rewrite the script by adding offensive and defensive depth to Syracuse’s toolkit, a more appropriate and necessary response for the advances made in modern basketball. Will he have to sacrifice skill for scope? At the same time, Autry plans on retaining the 2-3 zone and other uniquely Syracuse aspects that made the original program tick.
Inevitable roadblocks will test the weight of this program in the massive space vacated by Boeheim. Nevertheless, a new head coaching entry makes room for authentic hope that wasn’t possible before. Syracuse basketball’s future is no longer handcuffed to one man’s intent to preserve legacy. Freed from that responsibility, a new ambition has emerged to reclaim relevancy within the sport. It’s a new lease of life. Autry won’t need to be shielded from potential pitfalls and trappings in the sport of which he’s already well aware, he’ll need to be armed and equipped with the right resources to fight.
He inherits not a sacrosanct Blue Blood that’s too powerful to fail, rather an established program with heritage and pedigree in the sport but in need of vitality. What kind of program can Syracuse be without Boeheim? It’s anyone’s guess and in the next decade we’re bound to find out.
This Syracuse program is no longer the mom and pop shop that Boeheim assumed when he took over in 1976. America’s twin Gods – money and sports – have intersected in a much larger and more obvious way. There are more stakeholders involved now and Autry has the unenviable task of getting the program back on track while ensuring it stays true to its roots.
Can he safeguard the program while keeping the family together? He’s the Orange’s best bet. While it’s true that Syracuse has fallen from grace, it doesn’t need saving, either. Syracuse basketball doesn’t need Autry to be a white knight. It just needs the head coach to be a professional.