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Boeheim’s “Succession Plan” Comments Are Worth A Deeper Dive

Credit Adrian Kraus/Courtesy AP Photo

With Syracuse men’s basketball’s 2021-22 regular season winding down, there’s not a lot of surprises left. SU knows which teams it’ll face in the ACC tournament’s first two rounds, knows which of its players are now shut down for the year, and just how many games it needs to win to avoid head coach Jim Boeheim’s first ever losing record. But Boeheim’s announcement Wednesday that he’s aware of a “plan” in place for his successor post-retirement shook the Central New York sports landscape.

You’ve probably heard most of it by now, and the Fizz wrote about it pretty extensively yesterday. However, in case you need a refresher on the details: Boeheim told ESPN’s Brent Axe that he’ll be back next year for sure, that he (happily) had limited input in his successor, and that there’s very few details he’s willing to give on it right now. Boeheim was also uncharacteristically candid explaining his reasoning for coming back in 2022-23, explaining that he would feel like he was quitting on an incoming recruiting class he had given his word to. It’s a pretty noble sentiment, and should placate anyone currently baying for his retirement at maximum volume.

Beyond the obvious shock of a 46th year head coach openly talking about his retirement, there’s a couple things that jump out about this entire exchange that are interesting and worth considering as the news cycle moves along.

1. Boeheim Doesn’t Want The Coach K Comparisons

One quote that specifically stood out within the exchange was when Duke’s Mike Kyrzyzewski – better and more widely known as just “Coach K” – was brought up. Duke’s head man announced last summer his intention to retire after this season, bringing this year’s Blue Devils squad an entire layer of “farewell tour” drama. Any distraction that’s presented hasn’t seemed to slow down yet another great Duke team. However, Boeheim didn’t seem entirely keen on the same type of preordained, pre-season exit.

“Everybody brings up Mike Krzyzewski. I’ve known 100 coaches that have retired, 99 of them have retired after the season. Mike Krzyzewski is the only coach I know that retired before the season and coached. That’s highly unusual. It worked fine for Duke. Duke is a little bit different than Syracuse, but it worked fine for Duke.” (Jim Boeheim, 3/2/22)

The distance Boeheim creates between himself and a similar exit likely shows how hesitant he is to go out in a similar way. If not for Coach K’s decision this year, the 2021-22 Orange had the makings of an ideal final team – Boeheim’s two sons were set to depart the program after this year, a strong recruiting class is in tow, and the team seems to have ideal head coaching candidates along its bench. Two problems probably arose: Coach K’s own decision to take over the year’s Hall of Fame coach retirement headlines, and the fact that Boeheim likely doesn’t want to end his career with a team as middling as this one. 

2. An Assistant Is The Likely Candidate…Right?

Speaking of those assistants, it seems clear from what Boeheim has said that his successor is likely going to come from within Syracuse’s program. It doesn’t make any sense for a “plan” to be in place that relies on an outside coach coming in at the perfect time. However, any follower of SU basketball over the last decade probably feels like they’ve seen this movie before.

In the early to mid-2010s, SU longtime assistant and recruiting wizard Mike Hopkins was crowned as the obvious heir apparent for Syracuse’s lead job whenever Boeheim stepped down. However, Boeheim never gave his spot up, and Hopkins departed to coach Washington prior to the 2017-18 season. The Huskies have been up (a 27-win year in 2018-19) and certainly down (5-21 last year) under Hop, but it seems likely he gets at least one more year at UW. If you like the underdog or are just a fan of outrageous, double-secret dark horses, Hopkins may be out in Washington if next year goes bad, and Boeheim could very well step down around the same time. An SU-Hop reunion doesn’t seem impossible – but would you be confident Hopkins could come in and win?

Current assistants with eyes on the job come down to two main names in Gerry McNamara and Adrian Autry. McNamara, a former National Championship-winning player and SU’s all-time leader in three-pointers, has had his name swirling around the head coaching job since at least 2020. He’s partly responsible for SU’s strong Class of ‘22 recruiting spread, and earned high praise from Buddy Boeheim during last Spring’s tournament charge. 

Meanwhile, Autry brings a similar pedigree as a former successful SU player with more experience within the program. He’s occupied the spot as a top recruiter ever since the aforementioned Hopkins departed, and is the one who receives credit for staying on Class of ‘22 commit Justin Taylor’s tail until he ultimately committed.

“We’re very fortunate in our three assistants. Coach Autry [and] Coach McNamara, they will both be head coaches someday. I firmly believe both will be successful. Coach [Allen] Griffin. Allen’s done a really good job since he’s been here. He doesn’t have quite the experience that Gerry or Adrian does, but we’ve got a great staff.’’ (SU Athletic Director John Wildhack, 6/16/21)

Autry and McNamara should automatically be the favorites to land the job when the time comes. Both bring similarly successful resumés to the table and are SU’s most qualified assistants for the role. Their presence now makes them the likeliest candidates to fulfill an “ironclad plan” put forth by Syracuse’s athletic department.

3. Recruiting Implications Are Still Unknown

Finally, it remains to be seen just how this eventual replacement will affect Syracuse’s recruiting. Jim Boeheim’s allure to recruits may not be what it once was, but a Hall of Fame coach with 1,000 wins under his belt isn’t a net negative. However, it would be the potential loss of an assistant – McNamara or Autry – from the program that would hurt. If one assistant gets the job, the other would automatically be more than qualified to seek a head coaching job elsewhere. It seems likely one would do just that if the other assumed a leading role. Meanwhile, Syracuse’s recruiting rankings have been slipping for a while now. Losing top assistants wouldn’t be ideal, but it looks to be the path they may be forced to go down.

In the meantime, Boeheim’s words on Wednesday should serve as a shot in the arm for SU’s incoming Class of ‘22 that just depressingly witnessed Cuse’s late-February beatdown at the hands of Duke. For a team struggling lately for wins, confidence, and good PR, Boeheim’s commitment to his incoming freshmen is certainly a positive thing. Time will tell if his optimism and confidence were accurate or misguided.

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