Another season on the brink for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team, another year where the program makes national headlines for something Jim Boeheim shouldn’t have done or shouldn’t have said. Following the first losing season in over 50 years in 2021-22, the pressure continues to mount for the program that had previously been so successful for so long.
It’s somewhat hard to blame fans for growing impatient. It’s even harder to blame the criticisms being lobbed at its leader. Following Boeheim’s far from sugar-free remarks to ESPN over the weekend, he hinted toward returning as head coach in 2023-24. His illuminating “I know it’s my choice. I can do whatever I want” designation on his retirement have Syracuse fans questioning the strength of the athletic department. Boeheim’s “ninety-five percent of Syracuse people want me to coach,” statement runs in stark contrast to the barbarians at the Melo Center gate with torches and pitchforks.
Boeheim has long been prodded on retirement, but at age 78 and with the success of his program waning as Syracuse is set to miss the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season, it seems all the more relevant. Hard-boiled responses in recent weeks in the form of walking out of a press conference and belittling a student reporter continue to wear on the goodwill he’s built up at Syracuse. Whether it’s a case of too much power to grok with the adverse consequences or too old to care about the backlash, the responses are hardly surprising. The apologies and walking back of statements occur, but the behavior doesn’t change. What does that say of the current state of affairs within the Syracuse basketball program?
With all that’s happened in recent weeks one has to wonder if Boeheim is simply wrapped too tight, behaving contemptuously for his own amusement — quick to raise his nose at questions he deems unworthy of respect. He’s long been the dissatisfied type that’s unafraid to tell you where he’d rather be, subsequently letting you know exactly where things stand. I’m not privy to how he feels, but the outward display of anger is just a secondary emotion. He clearly still cares, why else would he be here? Maybe Boeheim acts that way to keep himself from getting hurt or to shield against attacks out of fear of being seen as incapable of running a successful program.
The overarching story of Boeheim seems lost on many now. A local kid and everyman from Lyons, Boeheim evolved into legendary coaching status not by matriculating from the priesthood of Hall of Fame college basketball mentorship like so many of his successful peers, but through hard work, determination, skill, dogged competitiveness and a little luck to be sure. Maybe that’s naïve, but Boeheim never learned the game from the greats before him like other Hall of Famers such as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self or John Calipari. For so long he’s been in control of his own destiny. Maybe championing a division one program is an easier weight to handle at this stage than to deal with what comes after.
Boeheim’s story and success is, of course, paradoxical. His most recent pivot has turned him into a college basketball villain. Still, all those tropes seem a little too reductive when assessing someone as complicated as him. A sort of Byronic hero amongst Syracuse fans, Boeheim, practical, had a basketball path that fortuitously intersected with (former Syracuse AD) Jake Crouthamel’s vision and relational ties and Dave Gavitt’s ambition, another reminder of the necessary ingredients in American success where industriousness and intellect still have to meet opportunity and the right people.
In a rust belt city that’s often relied on endemic talent to push through, it makes sense why Boeheim has been able to last 47 years at one place in an industry where so many other coaches fail to go the distance. Values have been aligned. People in central New York used to relate to the head coach, the sometimes curmudgeon and cynical type that’s unabashed in telling you exactly how he feels while keeping conversation dangerously honest. When things are bad, they’re terrible and when it’s good it just isn’t quite good enough. Sound familiar?
Boeheim’s credentials need no reintroduction here. Over 1,000 career victories, 20 trips to the Sweet 16, five Final Fours and a National Championship in 2003. But one of the more undertold aspects of Boehiem’s career is how he made people feel, at least locally. In a part of the country where longtime residents can feel trapped or left behind and young people feel persuaded to flee, he gave people permission to feel proud of Syracuse again during a stretch of post-industrial decline when there wasn’t much to feel proud about. Syracuse alumni had the basketball program to thank for national visibility. Not only this, but he personified values of honesty and loyalty by staying true to his roots. He gave validation to Syracuse, as a University, as a community, through devout commitment to one place.
We’ve long since forgotten about the spirited, upward rising through the Big East. It seems like a lifetime ago where fervent fandom fueled Syracuse basketball to grow into the larger than life phenomenon it is now, capturing hearts and minds along the way. There’s non-fiction but then there’s also folklore that comes with the game, which helped build the Big East.
Boeheim always understood that aspect and couldn’t really be bothered with cloying fanfare. His no-nonsense approach didn’t much leave room for romanticism, nor did he buy into his own press. Uninterested in the money, fame or distractions that came along with the college game, are we really all that surprised the 78-year-old coach is jaded with the pay-for-play aspect of NIL?
In the same breath, he’s becoming impossible to defend.
If it feels like the old Big East was so long ago, that’s because it was. College basketball has undergone a sea change and in the time since Syracuse’s departure from the Big East, Boeheim has failed to imagine a defense outside of his flagship 2-3 zone that created an identity synonymous with Syracuse basketball. He’s gone long on the defensive scheme that’s fallen short of the KenPom top 100 in three of the last four years, which invites the question of whether it’s still an effective defense in present-day basketball or whether lesser talent has just failed to materialize into something greater than the sum of its parts. That, and with Syracuse’s former top-50 recruit and starting forward missing the Virginia game last week, it’s easy to wonder how he might look under different leadership. Boeheim likes to allow his players freedom on offense which works with top tier talent, but more instruction and offensive intervention might be needed without the talent Syracuse is used to.
Perhaps history matters not in the what have you done for me lately? world of college athletics. It seems hard to reconcile an anachronistic head coach, who came into this game when freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity to now, an era where incoming freshmen are offered six- or seven-figure deals.
Nobody is going to feel bad for a millionaire coach who’s achieved Hall of Fame status. College basketball definitively is a results-driven business. Love is hardly unconditional. Boeheim has given so much to so many. It feels like he deserves better. Recent remarks make it hard to believe that’s true.
Greater programs have suffered more significant falls from grace. Syracuse isn’t in as bad of shape as most fans think, no. But a quick glance at Louisville offers a reminder of just how bad things can get. Indiana is still trying to reclaim relevancy and get out of the Bob Knight shadow. Duke and Villanova show that transitions are hard.
At Syracuse, the JMA Wireless dome barely envisions a future. With a 40+ year old cemented structure and exposed ventilation contrasting with fresh paint and new lighting, it symbolizes a program that’s clung too tightly to the past. Could this only be the beginning of Syracuse’s decline?
The success of a modern college basketball program is dependent on access to resources first and foremost, followed by recruits and coaching. Syracuse should have that in theory. Every now and then good coaching can supersede a war chest and that’s happened at Syracuse more than a time or two, but the times keep changing.
The most successful athletic departments are the ones that identify the changes and move quickly to adapt. The plates are shifting out from underneath Syracuse and the power in college basketball has moved away from leagues like the Big East and ACC to conferences like the Big Ten and SEC (while the Big 12 is maybe the best basketball conference currently but soon to be broken up). Those programs reap the benefits of more lucrative television contracts, football-sized balance sheets, wider alumni bases and deeper booster pockets. Boeheim’s admonishment of the current system makes more sense in this light. Running a modern college basketball program demands a skillset that looks less like a basketball coach and more like a CEO.
Even the very best can be convinced their run has come to an end. The walls are closing in and pride so often comes before the fall. It always felt like Boeheim’s tenure could end in a less than graceful way. Syracuse now faces the conundrum of letting go of the legend who gets the full credit for building the program, tarnishing a fabled legacy while rolling the dice on its coach going scorched-earth on the way out. Or, it can continue to look supine as the storied coach runs out his tenure despite the cost. The question for Syracuse isn’t what comes now or next season, but how it moves on from a legend.
Boeheim never wanted to be the head coach who left the sport too soon. He really has nothing left to prove, but now he fits the bill of the coach who hung on for too long. During the ring of honor ceremony against Georgetown earlier this season, Boeheim shouted out to a sea of orange-clad fans, “this has been my whole life.”
Now, more than ever, it’s easy to believe him.