In the ultimate plot twist, Mike Hopkins is heading to Seattle to take over the Washington program and now suddenly the future of Syracuse hoops is very murky. It has been assumed (and announced, then unannounced, then kinda announced again) that Hop would be the successor to Jim Boeheim. But as ADs moved through, from Doc Gross to Mark Coyle to John Wildhack, the plan seemed to always have the potential for change. And with Hop jumping to the West Coast, it seems obvious the plan had changed again.
We have been led to believe next season would be Jim Boeheim’s last, and thus Hop would be the assumed head coach at Syracuse in the spring of ’18. After waiting for so long as the first lieutenant under Boeheim, having passed on other jobs, finally arriving this close to the goal, would he pull the plug NOW and jump? It seems crazy to have waited nearly 20 years for this opportunity, to take over a basketball machine, to coach in front of 30K at the Dome, to walk the sidelines of your alma mater, be 12 months away from that and then leave.
This tells us something went sideways in the succession plan. The first possibility is Hop is getting the scoop that Boeheim isn’t actually leaving after this season. Boeheim has been coy about this, and a recent piece by Pete Thamel at SI.com quoted sources close to Boeheim that The Per’fesser isn’t prepared to leave soon. Can the administration push a living legend out? Especially after two Final Four runs in the last five years? Personally, I think it’s time for Boeheim to ride into the sunset. I believe the depth of talented coaches in the ACC has exposed his later-coaching career as impatient and inefficient. But I understand the impossible situation Wildhack finds himself in. This is never an easy spot. Jerry Jones is still lambasted for how he treated Tom Landry at the end, and Jerry replaced him with the man who built an immediate dynasty.
The second possibility is Wildhack and other decision-makers soured on the idea of Hop taking over, and told him he’s not guaranteed to be the successor. Last year’s dress rehearsal did not go well for Hop on the sidelines. Maybe SU also started to realize there will be far more experienced coaches banging down its door for the SU job. It’s ready-made to win. There’s a history, the Melo Center, deep-enough recruiting and assistant coach budgets, and it’s one of the obvious Kingpins in northeast hoops. Nova just won a title, but they’re in a lesser league. UConn is down and playing invisible hoops in the AAC. Boston College, Penn State and Rutgers never will be a power despite their conferences. Syracuse has the bird’s perch for the region. Every year brings hot assistant coaches that took lower programs to March success. Every year there are good coaches that move jobs. Maybe SU realizes instead of hitching its wagon to a complete unknown (but sentimental favorite) is small-minded, and looking for the next Shaka Smart or Sean Miller is smarter, and a better long-term play.
The third possibility is the least nefarious: That Hopkins just finally got an offer he couldn’t refuse. There’s amazing high school talent all around Seattle. Washington has already shown the ability to recruit well (and will likely have the first pick in the NBA Draft). The Pac-12 isn’t as brutal as the ACC, and he got a 6-year deal. It’s possible he knew Syracuse would’ve low-balled him, or given him a three-year deal, and this was simply a better business decision. You could also surmise maybe he didn’t want to be the guy to follow a legend, but I doubt it, since he knew that was his future every step of the way. Maybe last year’s interim gig soured Hop on being the successor, considering Boeheim was still talking publicly about coaching even during his suspension. Boeheim casts a long shadow and showed he’s not exactly ready to fade into the shadows quietly.
Hop taking the Huskies job is a true game-changer, but perhaps not a bad thing for SU. While I don’t think Boeheim sticking around for another 5 years is best for the program, maybe we assumed Hop was the right guy and he wasn’t. He has been a huge part of the recruiting success, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. But maybe SU needs a fresh voice and someone outside Boeheim’s inner circle. Maybe we need a coach not wedded to the 2-3 zone, or one who’s just an extension of Boeheim. Maybe SU needs a guy who has risen up the ranks and done heavy lifting other places, like Jay Wright did at Hofstra or Sean Miller at Xavier. The Orange job is a terrific one and will attract major candidates, and this should open the door for truly the best guy (whenever that may be).