With the 2021-22 college basketball season underway, the sport has crossed over into a new era of player empowerment, The game has modernized with immediate eligibility for one-time transfers and new legislation that allows players to make money from their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). At long last, college basketball has been reimagined and the NCAA is losing its grip. And yet, despite the sea change occurring in college basketball, there’s one aspect that remains constant: Jim Boeheim – past, present, and future – as the head coach of the Syracuse Orange. ‘Twas ever thus.
It feels impossible to state that Boeheim, 77, has entered his 46th season as head coach of his alma mater as the oldest head coach in college basketball history. Boeheim has waxed and waned over the sport across six decades and maintained disinterest in stepping down. He’s kind of like Michael Myers; just when you think he’s done and dusted, he finds a way to come back every October to let you know he has unfinished business.
It’s hard to believe now, after 1,085 career victories (984 recognized by the NCAA), that Boeheim wondered if he’d ever win one game when he took the Syracuse job in 1976. He’s since outlasted all of his old Big East counterparts in John Thompson, Jim Calhoun, Lou Carnesecca, and Rollie Massimino. He appears determined in outwearing ACC Hall of Fame contemporaries as North Carolina’s Roy Williams has already called it a career and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski will step down following this season.
With most of Boeheim’s cohort stepping away, it elicits the question: how long will he continue to coach? His retirement has already been contemplated for a decade, planned, then de-planned, and many thought he would’ve hung it up by now. With Williams and Krzyzewski retiring the intrigue only grows.
It seems inevitable that Boeheim will continue to coach long after both of his sons, Buddy and Jimmy, finish their playing careers at Syracuse this season. But if last year was any indication, the end might come sooner than we think.
At times, Boeheim is ostensibly fatigued with post-game blowups that reveal the chinks in the Orange armor. With forgettable regular seasons and Syracuse teams allergic to the Top 25, the stakes feel smaller than they used to. However, as is often the case, come March, Syracuse is a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament. A run to the Sweet 16 or better whitewashes mediocre regular seasons. Boeheim is then exonerated for his wizardry in March. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So what do we make of all this? Why does Boeheim keep coming back when his peers are stepping down? What to think of his lengthy career at Syracuse with only one national championship? Maybe he feels like he still has something to prove.
A nondescript town equidistant from Syracuse and Rochester marks the birthplace and hometown of Boeheim, which he describes as a Leave It To Beaver kind of place with a little more edge. Other than being situated along the Erie Canal, Lyons, New York, lacks distinct character. Less than 6,000 people have chosen to live their lives there, or rather, some don’t have much of an alternative.
That set the stage for Boeheim, who had a rather unconventional upbringing, which was perhaps requisite in overcoming his conventional surroundings. He was born into the family business, a multi-generational funeral home started by his great-grandfather in the mid-1800s, to a fault-finding father. Boeheim’s famous line is that his dad had a good side but managed to keep it pretty well hidden.
As fate would have it, a reclusive Boeheim took a liking to basketball. He eventually grew into a standout basketball player in high school and, after initially sending in his deposit to Colgate, he decided to enroll at Syracuse in 1962 as a walk-on, also known in the basketball world as a second-class citizen.
Back then, the Syracuse basketball team played second fiddle to the football team, which was just three years removed from a national championship when Boeheim enrolled as a freshman. He was told by friends that he’d never play at Syracuse. He couldn’t even get his own locker as a freshman. The walk-on who roomed with Dave Bing decided to work his tail off to prove people wrong. He eventually earned minutes in his sophomore and junior years before becoming a full-time starter by his senior year.
— Daily Orange Sports (@DOsports) March 20, 2018
Boeheim graduated from SU and went on to play basketball for the Scranton Miners in the Eastern Basketball Association after he failed to make it with the Chicago Bulls. At some point in time, he wondered what would’ve happened if he hadn’t become a good basketball player. He concludes that he would’ve gone home to oversee the family business, the funeral home back in Lyons because he would’ve been willing to settle for something, anything.
In another world, there’s an alternate timeline where Boeheim never takes over the Syracuse program. Suffice to say, he had to grind and work for everything that came his way. On its face, there was nothing to suggest he’d eventually become legendary Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim.
Alas, we know what’s happened since. A long, spirited run through the Big East with much fanfare, the move to the Carrier Dome, five Final Four appearances, a National Championship in 2003, and the move to the ACC in 2013. Syracuse basketball has captured hearts and minds in that time, with credit due to Boeheim’s coaching to be sure, but especially to Big East founder Dave Gavitt and past Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel for making the move to the Big East and building the Carrier Dome in 1980. Both things that Boeheim, ever averse to change, did not initially want to do.
— SI Vault (@si_vault) February 23, 2015
Boeheim has stayed in college basketball long enough to dispel his own everyman archetype. Instead, he’s metastasized into more of a villain to those outside Syracuse. In three of the last five NCAA Tournaments, Syracuse is 3-0 in making the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, breeding chaos in what’s seen as a disruption of the sacrosanct tournament.
Perhaps it shows that Boeheim still has some fight left. Syracuse wolf-in-sheep-clothings its way to the second weekend as a contrived Cinderella, only for people to be greeted with what’s seen as a smug Boeheim, figuratively pointing his finger at his critics in his nasally Central New York accent as if to say, I told you so.
It’s not even surprising at this point to fans across the country: Syracuse. Of course. We should’ve known.
NCAA sanctions in the form of scholarship bans and recruiting limitations in 2015 were supposed to keep Syracuse down (some of those infractions are legal today after NIL). The punishment did not quite have the effect the NCAA wanted. It only forced Syracuse to evolve into something different. Instead of operating as a power in the sport, Syracuse played the role of spoiler in March. The Orange showed up to the party with a last-minute invite as a double-digit seed. It’s fun when the mid-major shows up, but everyone else felt as though Syracuse shouldn’t have been invited in the first place. To add insult to injury, they overstayed their welcome with runs to the Sweet 16 in 2018 and 2021 and the Final Four in 2016.
Just when you think the unvarying Boeheim is a case of arrested development, he reaches back into his sleeve and pulls out another ace. It’s interesting when a defensive-minded coach pivots to an offensive strategy in what should be his last stand. The coach whose modus operandi is the reliable, invariable 2-3 zone has embraced three-point shooting and spacing with snipers at every wing position.
Boeheim the person remains firm but Boeheim the coach continues to evolve. It feels like deceit. Boeheim game bots the system and reaps the rewards. Unleashing his kin on the tournament last March feels like the most cunning move of all.
Buddy Boeheim just passed his dad and HC Jim Boeheim for most PTS scored in an NCAA Tournament ❤️ pic.twitter.com/ETGxiGeJ4T
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 20, 2021
Last year’s regular season felt like a long winter slog for Syracuse, in large part due to the pandemic-induced season without the fans or pageantry. But college basketball’s most notorious curmudgeon wasn’t exactly shy in expressing himself in post-game press conferences, either, willing to break the fourth wall by rebuking reporters, critics, fans, Jay Bilas, and sometimes everybody and nobody in particular.
Then in March, like Syracuse snow, we saw a thawing of the icy Boeheim as Buddy scorched opponents in an upset run to the Sweet 16. The layers were laid bare for everyone to see. Instead of the usual combative coach, we saw the proud pop. Perhaps he can keep coaching with another run in March?
Now eldest son Jimmy joins the fold after a successful stint at Cornell for one last run at Syracuse. It’ll be Buddy’s last season, too. It’s a clear exit for the legendary head coach. It almost makes too much sense. It’s convenient, even.
But Syracuse is a far cry from Hollywood and Boeheim isn’t exactly the farewell tour type. He’s not one to bask in the spotlight. That is to say, he won’t announce his retirement ahead of time like Krzyzewski. We should similarly expect something to how UNC’s Williams stepped down. It’s also possible his retirement won’t come of his own volition, but Boeheim has said he’ll be back to coach Syracuse again next year.
Now, maybe Boeheim is playing coy and he will indeed retire after his sons depart. It remains possible that he can get to the end of the season, realize he’ll be coaching a team next fall without his two sons, and decide it’s time to call it a career. But barring an unforeseeable and improbable run to the national title game in 2022, he’ll be back. Because Boeheim lives to coach and he still feels like his legacy is incomplete. Krzyzewski and Williams have legacies that are intact. Fair or unfair, there is a perception that Boeheim does not, with only one title.
Even at this point, Boeheim is still juggling his career, success, and health as he reaches old age, vacillating between life and legacy, between family and his raison d‘être. He’s still as bothered by his critics now as he was when he started. It’s like he’s still trying to square the idea of his legacy after all these years, trying to prove to the rest of us what college basketball coaches already know: that he’s one of the greatest coaches of all time. Maybe if Indiana’s Keith Smart missed a jump shot in 1987 and Boeheim had two national championships there would be less debate.
The one national championship critique is missing some context, though. Current college basketball Hall of Fame coaches all have something in common that they don’t share with Boeheim: they learned from prior Hall of Famers. Krzyzewski learned from Bob Knight at Army, Williams was Dean Smith 2.0, John Calipari and Bill Self were taught by Larry Brown, who learned from Smith and Frank McGuire. Tom Izzo learned from Jud Heathcote, who won a national championship with Magic Johnson at Michigan State in 1979. Rick Pitino learned from Boeheim himself. But Boeheim? He learned from Fred Taylor and Roy Danforth. There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard those names before.
The point is, the Naismith Hall of Fame functions like an elitist club, reserved for those with access and mentorship to previous Hall of Fame members or those who inherit a Blue Blood program (or both). The Syracuse program that Boeheim took over in 1976 never had the heritage of, say, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, or Kentucky.
Recall how Boeheim’s early life unfolded from Lyons to Syracuse as a walk-on. To everyone else, he was the hoi polloi – an undistinguished member of the upstate New York proletariat. He had to fight to get the Syracuse job, giving his athletic department an ultimatum as he nearly took the RIT head coaching position over Syracuse. Boeheim slipped through cracks as he eventually found a way to backdoor cut his way to Springfield.
That’s not to suggest this has exclusively been his determination and skill, or that he never had meaningful mentors, but by and large, he put himself on and figured this out on his own while his contemporaries had the privilege of learning the game from prior legends. Boeheim’s path was littered with inherent disadvantages throughout. That’s why he’s lionized in Syracuse. Maybe there should be more skepticism, but doing more with less is a burden that people from Central New York know intimately well.
One of the unique things about Boeheim is that Boeheim the person never tried to live up to Boeheim the legend. The truth is, even when you become a legend to the outside world, you’re still the same person you’ve always been. Intentionally or unintentionally, Boeheim has never hidden his human side.
Accomplishment doesn’t necessarily change who we are and achievement (read: recognition) doesn’t exactly change the way we feel. It would’ve been easy for Boeheim to pretend to be someone different after all of his success (a legend), but he was only interested in being himself – the same cynical kid from Lyons, that had to walk on at Syracuse and still feels disrespected today. His earnestness has left a lot of people confused.
When it comes to legends, they so often border on fiction. One person tells the story, the next person passes it on and, like a childhood game of telephone, and it deviates further from truth each time. Boeheim has never been the type to believe his own press, but at the same time, he’s cared deeply about his legacy, what he leaves behind, and what people make of both him and his program. He still takes things extremely personally even when it’s not, which is why he reacts the way he does with the media at times. It’s not that he should be discharged of criticism, but his backlash can be explained through perceived disrespect.
When many think of Boeheim, they think of his inflammatory confrontations with the press. This isn’t a new phenomenon – it dates back to his second year of coaching. After Syracuse beat Michigan State in the Carrier Classic in 1977, Magic Johnson won the MVP award and Boeheim threw a rolled-up program at a local writer who voted for Johnson, to which said writer ripped Boeheim in the paper the following day for showing no class. Boeheim swore from that moment on he would always stick up for his players if they were being shortchanged.
But is his treatment of media all bad? He’s admitted, contrary to popular opinion, that he likes doing media sessions. He’s one of the few coaches who still have an open locker room policy after games, both wins and losses. Most coaches elect to bring one or two players to a podium after games and check the box. Maybe Boeheim knows his job is safe, but he doesn’t have to keep the locker room open either.
Consider an anecdote from Syracuse’s win over ranked Virginia in 2020. After the game, the visiting Syracuse locker room was devoid of any player except one, Buddy Boeheim. The other players assumed there was no Syracuse media representation on the road and headed back to the team bus. An upset Boeheim told Syracuse staffers that could never happen again and players were brought back to the locker room for interviews. Now, of course, this was after a win, but Boeheim has at least shown an appreciation for media coverage that grows the game.
There’s only so much augmentation local media can do when things are going well but the downside is unfettered when things are going poorly. Sometimes when national media focuses on Boeheim it’s from something inflammatory he’s said, thus perpetuating his bad-tempered image. That’s not to say he’s not bad-tempered, just that the coverage perpetuates his image as an ill-mannered coach.
With him, there’s been some of the usual head coach posturings and jockeying for narrative control, but he generally tells you what he thinks. That’s gotten him into hot water on more than one occasion, like initially resisting NIL or discrediting players he felt left too soon. But would you prefer a head coach to stand at the podium, say all the right things, and tell everyone what they want to hear? There are plenty of head coaches doing that currently.
That brings us to where we are today. The time has come for a generation of legendary coaches to step away from the college game and, as they do, the clock continues to tick for Boeheim. At times it feels like it’s taking its toll on both him and the Syracuse program.
It’s as if coaching through the wins and losses, the roadshows, and all the drama that comes with being a head coach of a Division I basketball program is an easier burden to bear than to face what comes next.
Boeheim will leave behind a complicated legacy. The NCAA infractions of the 90s and the mid-2010s are coffee stains on his résumé. But the Bernie Fine scandal was a black eye and perhaps the most egregious error in his career. Boeheim stood by his long-time assistant despite multiple accusations of sexual assault. He’s been wrong on many occasions and it’s hard to think he survives a scandal of that magnitude today, nor should he.
Which career bookend will he be remembered for most? His team’s shortcomings of the 1980s or his latest teams that have made runs as double-digit seeds? Barring another title, Boeheim will never be remembered by the masses as one of the all-time great coaches in college basketball.
Perhaps that’s just what his legacy should be. As a coach who has consistently done more with less without ever having a single losing season (so far).
Birthday gift for Coach… he's officially no longer a green texter. 📱 pic.twitter.com/QJeJbNJFL0
— Syracuse Men’s Basketball (@Cuse_MBB) November 18, 2021
Not to go full-bore American exceptionalism, but we live in a country where ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds can rise to do extraordinary things, like lead their alma mater to a national championship. The American Dream has been squeezed and it’s harder today, but, like Boeheim’s grip on the Syracuse job, that’s something worth holding onto.
Maybe it’ll take time, long after Boeheim retires, to truly assess what his legacy will be. We don’t quite know what the Syracuse basketball program is without him. It’s impossible to gauge what Syracuse will be after him because there is no parallel. Maybe the closest comparison with Syracuse is UConn, but never before have we seen a previously unheralded college basketball program move on from a Hall of Fame coach with a nearly 50-year tenure. No basketball coach has been linked with one university the way Boeheim has.
How it ends, when it ends — be it by destiny or disaster — we can rest assured that the sport of college basketball will never see another coach like Boeheim ever again. Never again will a walk-on be given the head coaching job of his alma mater at age 31. Never again will one coach remain wedded to a single university after stepping foot on campus as a freshman. It’s equally unlikely that a walk-on will rise to the Naismith Hall of Fame without having had taken over a legendary program or having the mentorship of a Hall of Fame coach himself.
Boeheim will walk away from the sport as one of one. And both Syracuse and college basketball will be a little less interesting without him.