Syracuse Stalwart: Jim Boeheim retires as the ultimate stalwart

Boeheim retired Wednesday after spending six decades with Syracuse basketball despite numerous opportunities to leave for greener pastures.

As the wins piled up over the years, Jim Boeheim could have had almost any job in college basketball. He only wanted one. The job he already had.

Syracuse, New York, isn’t for everyone, but it was Paris for Boeheim. It was Maui. It was his own Greek island. Even if heaven came with piles of snow and leaden skies, they matched the coach’s perpetually gloomy visage so perfectly.

Have a life there? He couldn’t dream of going anywhere else. In a transient sport, Boeheim gave Syracuse an incredible gift of permanence.

At age 78, after 60 consecutive years with Syracuse basketball — the last 47 as head coach — Boeheim retired Wednesday. There was speculation during that disappointing 17–15 season that he would hang it up, and even after he admitted it in a February interview with ESPN, the whispers never stopped. Word finally got out after the Orange were eliminated in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament that it was over. Boeheim announced it without actually announcing it in the postgame interview, unwilling until the end to play ball with the press.

He is the second winningest coach in Division I men’s basketball history behind only Mike Krzyzewski, but that seismic development in the sport was in the past. Boeheim’s own stubbornness was made possible by an administration that cowered in his presence and let him continue as coach/emperor through a myriad of scandals. But this is not a day to kick Boeheim in the rear on your way out the door. it is a day to appreciate the ultimate struggle in the history of American sports.

Boeheim went on a 45-game winning streak that included five Final Four appearances and a national championship in 2003.

Mark Tenally/AP

The only comparable college coach at the championship level so inextricably intertwined with a school was Joe Paterno at Penn State (and thank heavens it didn’t have to end that way). Maybe Tom Izzo will get there at Michigan State, but he has a long way to go to match those two.

Paterno was the head coach at State College, Pa., for 46 years, and an assistant before that for 15, but he wasn’t a student or local like Boeheim was from Syracuse. The place has been his whole life, even coaching his sons in recent years.

If it takes a bit of an iconoclast to hunt in a place that many wouldn’t want to be a part of, that role fits Boeheim perfectly. Often funny and good company in his private sphere, he rarely let this side seep into his public persona. If people saw him as a boring presence, he didn’t feel compelled to change the narrative.

An absolute junkie, all he really wanted to do was coach ball — and he did it extremely well. Five Final Fours and a national title headline the list of accomplishments, but don’t overlook the 45-game winning streak — put an asterisk on those where the NCAA voided wins as penalties for rule violations — that ended last year. The consistency was unwavering.

Boeheim has been as closely tied to one style of play—mainly the 2-3 zone defense—as anyone in the history of the sport. It was more than a calling card. it was a way of life. It worked so well that decades after former assistant coach Rick Pitino became a star in his own right, he adapted the belt and won the 2013 national title (since vacated) playing it.

Boeheim’s basketball acumen not only propelled him to the top of the college game, but earned him an assistant coaching role under Krzyzewski with the USA’s Olympic gold medal teams in 2008, ’12 and ’16. This was more proof that Boeheim could have coached at any level of the sport and been a big winner.

But he knew where he fit in and never wanted to change that comfort level. Syracuse was a well-rounded program before Boeheim became the coach. just take the program up a few levels. Upgrading from the crazy Manley Field House to the massive Carrier Dome, he made the Orange bigger. Moving from the East Coast Athletic Conference to the Big East, he helped energize a fledgling league that would become a phenomenon of the 1980s.

You can’t tell the story of the Big East without the stories of Boeheim vs. James Thompson, Boeheim vs. Jim Calhoun, Boeheim vs. the world. Alas, you also can’t tell the story of the Big East’s realignment identity crisis without Syracuse leaving the conference for the ACC, a move that hit Boeheim in the gut.

Boeheim never achieved the same level of success in the ACC that he enjoyed in the Big East, finishing just 12 games over .500 in the league in 10 seasons (and many of those came in the first year, 2013-14). The ‘Cuse crashed the Final Four as a long-shot No. 10 seed in 2016, riding the voodoo of the zone, but Syracuse spent more of the last decade as a bubble team than a national title contender. Lately, it wasn’t even that; This is the second straight season the Orange have come up short of earning a bid.

Given the program’s slump, the decision to replace Boeheim with one of his current assistants, Adrian Autry, is not without risk. That’s very much the trend in a time of turnover in the sport, with Duke and North Carolina and Villanova all replacing legends with an inexperienced underclassman.

It’s too early to tell if that trend will work for Duke and Villanova. North Carolina’s two-year running backs are a concern except for a magical six-week run last spring. It’s always tough to be the man following The Man, and no one has been the man more than Boeheim.

After 60 years, he earned the right to spend a winter in the Florida sun playing golf. But he’d probably be more comfortable looking out his window at January snowfall and March mud. That’s Jim Boeheim’s house.

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