There are Hall of Fame college basketball coaches of a certain kind. Ones that lead firmly and decisively. Ones that speak in disingenuous ways that solely benefit them and their program. They bury their emotions, put on a brave face to make players believe they have all the answers and maintain an image of control, hopeful a complicit press will shine the veneer on their Potemkin village. Sometimes these coaches are masters of self-deception, actually fooling themselves into believing they have all the answers to the point where they truly think others are buying into the illusion of greatness and engaging in their false idolatry. These are the Hall of Fame coaches who engage in a year-long it’s all about me retirement tour.
Then, there are Hall of Famers cut from a different cloth who weren’t afforded the luxury of matriculating to the priesthood of Hall of Fame college basketball coaching. These coaches are a little less rehearsed and more off the cuff, sometimes willing to break the fourth wall to let you know they hear your criticism loud and clear. They are dangerously honest and sometimes fall short of grokking with adverse consequences. Sometimes you catch these candid coaches in the act, furrowing their brows and giving players a look that clue their audience in on how sometimes coaches aren’t in full control and they really are just as confused as you.
The latter is Jim Boeheim and unlike his Hall of Fame counterparts, he never learned the game from Hall of Famers before him like how Mike Krzyzewski was mentored by Bob Knight. Or how Roy Williams learned from Dean Smith. Or how Frank McGuire imparted his wisdom on John Calipari and Bill Self. Or coaches like Jay Wright and Tom Izzo learned from Rollie Massimino and Jud Heathcote, coaches who had previously won National Championships with their schools.
Boeheim learned from Fred Lewis and Roy Danforth and there’s a reason only Syracuse fans know those names. That is to say Boeheim wasn’t a copy and paste Hall of Famer — Boeheim has always been Boeheim, like nobody before him and nobody after him. When he took over the Syracuse program in 1976 it wasn’t all that distinguishable from any other small private school in Upstate New York. The Syracuse program he inherited never had blue blood history, prestige or the heritage of Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, or North Carolina.
With Syracuse University officially showing Boeheim the door on Wednesday, the storied coach’s career has come to an end in unsurprising fashion.
Boeheim was Syracuse. Ugly departure and all, he meant everything to central New York.
The great thing about Boeheim was that, ostensibly, there was nothing all that great about him. In spite of the extraordinary circumstances of Syracuse’s position in college basketball, Boeheim didn’t quite make the impression of being anything other than ordinary. Part myth, part hero, it was hard to discern the singularity of Boeheim or what made him unique even though he undeniably was. There was nothing in his past or upbringing that served as a harbinger for what he would eventually become, a legendary Hall of Fame college basketball coach with 1,116 wins, 20 Sweet 16s, five Final Fours and a National Championship.
Boeheim grew up in the nondescript small town of Lyons, New York, as the son of a funeral director. He was and is, by all accounts, an everyman who has lived all of his 78 years of his life in the Finger Lakes region and central New York — what you see is what you get. He never really contemplated an existence outside of central New York. The only other life he imagined for himself was one settling to take over the family funeral home. He was someone who was certain of what he wanted out of life.
Boeheim was brilliant, sure, that much was obvious. But brilliance isn’t totally uncommon. He was strategic, competitive, and industrious — also not unusual for this region. There was no great skill, talent or ability that would suggest that he was a fabled college basketball coach. Boeheim could be distant, difficult and downright defiant. He would raise his nose at questions he deemed unworthy of respect, but interestingly only to those who seemed disloyal. He had an air about him, but he could just as easily sneak into his own locker room unnoticed and disappear quietly into the night. Behind every storied coach, there’s the legend and there’s the real you. Those two things are often different. Boeheim could exaggerate and speak in hyperbole, but he never seemed truly interested participating in the smoke and mirrors charade. He just wanted to coach his team and be left alone.
Perhaps there was some need for admiration, but Boeheim never really asked for the hagiography that comes along with American sports so much as he was just asking for a little respect. There was ego involved — he feared and worried his way toward acquiring the coaching skills necessary for winning. But for all of Boeheim’s idiosyncrasies, it never struck as if there was a lack of conscience behind his behaviors, as one would come to expect from those in positions of great power. He’s lost his temper on more than one occasion but he never lost his humanity and for all but one of his career accomplishments, perhaps there’s been no greater impact on what he’s done for others than what’s been accomplished through the Jim and Juli Boeheim foundation. Of course, there’s good PR that comes with good deeds, but Boeheim has been always been quick to donate and lend help to an area he loves and remains steadfastly loyal to.
Recently, when a local basketball player lost his father, Boeheim was the first person to donate a large sum to the cause. That one didn’t make the news.
Boeheim will be remembered for many things.
He took people from central New York on the ride of a lifetime, restoring pride to an area when it needed it most during a stretch of post-industrial decline and provided inspiration for a generation of Syracuse kids when his team won it all in 2003. He stood in and stayed loyal to an area when many abandoned it, not just standing up for the community but standing with the community in solidarity, validating Syracuse in the process. Central New York might not be able to lay claim to having its air conditioners in homes across the country, but during that time it could claim its nationally ranked basketball team with the name of the city and university on television sets across the U.S.
Boeheim personified his phrase that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. He could’ve left and improved his career, but instead he stayed and stabilized the community. That meant something to people.
Where people from outside Syracuse have been quick to point out Boeheim’s lack of National Championships, Syracuse fans have always seen a guy who won locally. The American Dream has faded in parts of the American rust belt like Syracuse, where people feel like they’ve been left behind. It’s an area of the country that many still remain confused over. It’s never been about Syracuse fans deifying someone or something they don’t understand, it’s been a celebration of what’s been so familiar: One of our own having success while maintaining values of honesty, loyalty and hard work. In a part of the country that’s been forgotten about, Boeheim made sure people remembered.
While we all play the what if game in sports, Boeheim could just as easily have two National Championships had Keith Smart missed a jumpshot in 1987. It’s not farfetched to think Syracuse was one healthy Arinze Onuaku away from a title in 2010, either.
In the process of elevating Syracuse to a national program during a time of industrial decay, Boeheim fostered a community, one of the important pillars of hope. Everyone needs someone or something to believe in, otherwise, what’s the point of going on living? People rallied around the basketball team. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying he’s one of the most important figures in Syracuse history.
With an unceremonious exit, many point out that Boeheim deserved better. He certainly does, but at the same time he could’ve chose different. He chose to go out this way. Perhaps that’s all fitting along with his final career loss in Greensboro — how else was this to end other than bitter divorce?
Was Boeheim too proud? Did he behave in an entitled way too frequently? Sure. Show us a power five head coach devoid of ego. Until you’ve operated with the sword of Damocles above your head, you never truly understand what it’s like to deal with the weight of pressure and expectations. How you wield that power and how you operate under duress shows everyone who you are. Boeheim was flawed like all of us, but he was absolutely one of central New York’s best. At times, he was the worst of us. For all the things that Boeheim is — and for all the things he is not — he was always one of us through it all. That stood for something.
Like other greats, Boeheim won’t receive his flowers until long after the dust settles and people understand just how hard it is to win at Syracuse. The era of the legendary, all-powerful head coach in college sports is finished. In that regard, Boeheim represented the last of a dying breed. Today’s sport is about being a player’s coach and Adrian Autry would seem to fit the bill. Did the anachronistic head coach hang on too long? He did. With an identity too wrapped up in Syracuse, the exit — and both Boeheim and his program’s decline — is part sad.
Taking the good with the bad in a complicated legacy, Boeheim will always be remembered for sanctions following two NCAA investigations, the black eye of the Bernie Fine scandal and a cantankerous attitude. As time passes and when feelings subside the past becomes clear. Hopefully more people can understand what college basketball coaches already recognize: that Jim Boeheim was one of the best college basketball coaches of all-time.
However people choose to remember Boeheim, we can rest assured the sport of college basketball will never see anything quite like this again and he will undoubtedly, at some point, be missed. Never again will one coach remain loyal to one university and one city for 60 years. Never again will a walk-on basketball player lead his alma mater to a National Championship. It’s just as unlikely we’ll see a walk-on transcend to Naismith Hall of Fame status.
Love him or hate him, he meant everything to central New York. There will never be another quite like him. Jim Boeheim was one of one.