After nearly half a century at the helm of Syracuse basketball this should have been a sweet, honorable ride into the Central New York sunset fading over Lake Skaneateles. Instead, it was an icy, prickly rain, slamming sideways against the brown sky. But that’s certainly more appropriate, isn’t it? Jim Boeheim is no longer the head coach of SU. That seems strange to write. It’s strange because of it’s suddenness, not because it didn’t need to happen. The program was spinning its wheels in mediocrity, and Boeheim became an angry man yelling angry things at everyone. That part didn’t need to happen, but it was perfectly on brand. Boeheim is a fighter, which was vital for his Hall of Fame career. The hand-to-hand combat (or mouth-to-mouth toward refs and critics) was buried so deep inside him he could never escape it, even when it wasn’t necessary. It built a program. It built Final Four teams. It built a national champion. But it also prevented him from a more honorable departure.
Boeheim did nothing to please anyone. It never even seemed like he took much pleasure in any of his successes. How many times can you remember a smiling Boeheim after a thrilling win? How many times do you recall a content Jim looking at the mountain that was climbed? The postgame scene in 2003 in New Orleans. Maybe coaching his sons. That’s about it. Everything else over 45 years felt like getting up from the chair after a dental cleaning. Annoyed, sore, and spitting a little blood.
The university’s press release didn’t have a happy quote from Boeheim, the kind Mike Brey furnished after 20 years in South Bend. His postgame press conference after the loss today was a “I dare you to fight me” class in condescension and word games. Was he retiring? Well, yeah he gave his retirement speech apparently the other night. Wait, so he doesn’t want to come back? No. He didn’t say that. You’d have to ask the school. Aren’t any of you smart enough? Shoulder shrug. It was the type of rope-pull and mud-splash that Boeheim has perfected. You aren’t listening. I know what’s happening. You’re clueless. I deserve better. You’ll see. Are we done here?
Boeheim took a program buried in a part of the northeast that wasn’t easy to get to, in a city that had lost it’s glory from the boom years of the early 20th century, and brawled to make it a winner. The old Big East, the one with John Thompson, Louie Carnesecca, and Rollie Massimino were bar room tough guys. They created a college basketball conference dynasty by punching and taking a punch. And while his peers retired and/or passed away, Boeheim kept chugging. He was the statue. 1980, that’s Boeheim on the sideline on an old 5 channel color TV. 1990, that’s Boeheim on cable. 2000, that’s Boeheim on the internet. 2010, that’s Boeheim in HD. 2020, that’s Boeheim on social media. He was Otto the Orange in reading glasses.
That continuity was a salve that covered up the harsh reality. Syracuse was once a Big East power, but it became an ACC also-ran. The 2-3 zone perplexed just enough opponents to give SU a good March run every couple of years, a few wow-how-did-that-happen Final Fours. But two weekends in the tourney wasn’t indicative of what the program had become. SU was a perennial 7-seed in the ACC Tournament as Duke, UNC, and Virginia won the national titles.
SU was still something in the last decade, based primarily on what it had been. The Dome rocked with 25,000 fans and SU played on CBS and ESPN. But it wasn’t the same. In the ’80s and ’90s Syracuse was one of the 10 best teams in the country, garnering top recruits like Pearl, DC, Billy Owens, Seikaly, Sherm, and Moten. For the last ten years, SU usually wasn’t even in the top 25. Five-star kids became nearly impossible to find after Melo. The calling card developed into “hopefully they can go on a run in March.”
The SU administration did something most didn’t think possible. It stood up to Boeheim. It had seen the flat-line, the two losing seasons, the short fuse with student media, the ugly headlines. Syracuse basketball may never get back to what it once was. The world changes. The sport is in tumult. But this was mandatory for everyone to feel… well, happy again. Boeheim had sucked the joy out of the program. The games stopped feeling important. Every postgame felt like a lecture. And SU basketball lacked any discernible optimism. It’s too bad Boeheim couldn’t have just put his combativeness and snark aside for a few months. Hell, a few weeks. Man, maybe just a few days. He could have gotten the send off he deserved. But he went out like he coached, in a storm of ego and defiance, the same way he came in.