The dinosaurs that have roamed the college basketball universe for decades are starting to fade away, killed off by the Ice Age known as the transfer portal and the meteor named “NIL.” A little over a decade ago, Lute Olson retired after a quarter century at Arizona while Bobby Knight sneered at his last press conference after three national titles. After that Gary Williams retired from more than two decades at Maryland. One year later, Jim Calhoun stepped aside at UConn. Then Rick Majerus thirty-year coaching career ended with health issues. A few seasons ago, Rick Pitino was pushed out at Louisville, forced into basketball’s backwaters. Earlier this spring Roy Williams abruptly announced his retirement, and this week Coach K decided this would be his final season.
Which of course, leaves Jim Boeheim. The Man With the Zone refuses to leave the island, insisting to be the last man standing. Neither wind, nor sleet, nor freezing basketball takes will force him out before he’s good and ready. He’s already outlived one Syracuse succession plan. No one would be stupid enough to try another.
Perhaps Boeheim retires when his sons, Buddy and Jimmy, have their eligibility expire. The three Boeheims holding each other’s arms aloft at the Dome’s center court feels right, as Julie would smile adoringly from a few feet away. But assuming Boeheim will leave quietly, gently, warmly is also fantasy. Jim has never been quiet, gentle nor warm.
What Boeheim is, is the ultimate survivor and counter-puncher. When the NCAA breathes down his neck, he sticks it out further. When Syracuse fans grow tired, he grows more emboldened. When the critics shove him down for a rudderless regular season, he rises up with a Sweet 16 or Final Four run. You stick, he moves. That’s how you coach in six different decades at the same school.
Which means as Rick got axed, then Roy and Coach K step aside to allow fresh blood at UNC and Duke, Syracuse is the last ACC school with a legend. And the Orange battle the Cardinals, Tar Heels and Blue Devils for a lot of talent. Duke is in on Kyle Filipowski, the big man leaving eyes bulging across AAU gyms this summer. Justin Taylor is visiting Chapel Hill this weekend, before he heads to Central New York next week. Kamari Lands chose Syracuse over a handful of rivals including Louisville.
Chris Mack is trying to gain footing at UofL, while Hubert Davis and Jon Scheyer attempt to keep the trains on the tracks along Tobacco Road. And while Boeheim has bristled at the notion he’s simply a “closer” now, the fact is Gerry McNamara and Adrian Autry do most of the heavy recruiting lifting. Then Boeheim hops on a Zoom or drops by a gym, and inevitably a high school star is impressed by a living legend he’s watched on ESPN since he was 10.
The attractiveness of playing underneath all those banners at the Dean Dome or Cameron Indoor will always be there. For some prep stars, all those beautiful southern flowers instead of northeast snow makes an easy decision. Syracuse’s undefinable offense and 2-3 zone doesn’t fit with every target. But inevitably the retirement of Williams and Coach K will help Syracuse, even if only marginally. Davis and Scheyer are bright, young former college stars who will connect better with an 18-year old than a guy in his mid-70s. They will embrace social media and brand-building far better than Boeheim. It may give them a leg up in some instances.
But celebrity matters in America, often times too much. Notoriety and fame is the currency of this next generation. Logan Paul is fighting Floyd Mayweather. Addison Rae sang her pop song on The Tonight Show. Paul is not a boxer. Rae is not a singer. They have reached such heights in popular culture by simply being… famous. Those teenage athletes are noticing.
Jim Boeheim is the last of the dinosaurs, and yes that will help with Syracuse’s recruiting efforts. The known commodity of Boeheim’s perennial Sweet 16 runs and NBA lottery picks will score him points. Just don’t tell him he’s the next to exit. He’s not listening anyway.