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This Week at the Final Four: The Bristling Ballad of Jim Boeheim

Syracuse fans have a unique relationship with their head coach. Jim Boeheim is Syracuse basketball. He’s an upstate New York native. He played hoops at SU. He was an assistant there for almost a decade. He inherited the program at just 32 years old, and has steered it to 5 Final Fours and a National Championship in more than four decades at the helm. It’s not so much that Boeheim is Syracuse. It’s more like Syracuse is Boeheim.

He’s also cranky and stubborn and there’s two stints of major NCAA violations during his tenure. So that whole warm and cuddly thing fits him as oddly as a trucker cap and a graphic tee. There is undoubtedly an unending respect for what he has accomplished from Orange Nation. He will have a statue on campus that looms larger than anyone else’s. A school that has created the greatest running back ever (Jim Brown), the first African-American Heisman (Ernie Davis), the first female astronaut (Eileen Collins), and an American pop culture icon (Dick Clark), Boeheim’s legacy towers above all.

But this week has displayed why it’s sometimes hard to throw your full support behind Ol’ Jim. While SU is on one of the most incredible tournament stories in recent memory (the first ever 10-seed to reach the Final Four), there’s Boeheim’s arched back at the podium. Every media question is viewed as a thrown rock that could start a fight. And the most recent NCAA findings?

“When they say ‘cheating,’ that’s not true,” Boeheim reasoned. “Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating to me is intentionally doing something, like you wanted to get this recruit so you arranged a job for him, or you went to see him when you shouldn’t. You called him when you shouldn’t to gain an edge in recruiting to get a really good player. That’s cheating.”

The NCAA’s investigative practices have their own Camry-sized holes, but Syracuse’s director of basketball operations completed coursework for players, the school’s drug testing program was ignored, and a booster doled out extra cash to athletes for their volunteer work. While Boeheim admitted, “Things happen in your program, you have to take responsibility for them,” he has always stopped shy of owning his flaws.

While this seems like a bizarre way to define cheating, in Boeheim’s mind there is a difference, even if it’s hard for many to swallow. The program very obviously meant to break rules by doing coursework for Fab Melo. Keeping an important player on the court who is failing out of school is universally interpreted as cheating. But he’s an old dog, tethered to his ways, unwilling to give and inch, unaccepting of those who don’t see it the way he does.

In some ways, that’s the glorious, profound, honorable trait that is so endearing. Syracuse, New York is a snow-covered, overlooked, middle-sized city, that’s seen its best economic days long gone. But Boeheim’s famously said, “Syracuse is like Hawaii for eight months a year. The other four months, I don’t care about the weather because we’re playing basketball.” I spent four years on the Hill (SU ’01). I’ve visited at least once a year since then. There has never been a time I would compare Maui to Manlius. While it’s a line meant to get laughs, there is a part of Boeheim that truly believes that. Where else would I want to be?

He’s renown for being condescending and snippy toward student media, but at the greatest sports journalism factory in the world we could all use being cut down a peg. A never-ending parade of 18-year-old basketball know-it-alls with microphones and notepads (including myself) have gotten a good introduction to the real world via Boeheim’s terse press conferences. He’s berated and embarrassed underperforming players publicly like Tyler Roberson (“If I had anyone else he wouldn’t play a minute”) and Rakeem Christmas. But so many of his former players love him unconditionally.

This week is perfect Boeheim, being lauded for a tremendous coaching job through the tourney, noted for his longevity is a volatile industry, while battling critics who question his integrity. You can never get too close to the old coach, he doesn’t welcome in many. But that’s part of his cynical charm. March Madness is spring in Hawaii, with a chance of snow showers.

Posted: Damon Amendolara (this column also appears today at CBSlocalsports.com)

The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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