The complicated legacy of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse

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3:30 PM ET

  • Pete ThamelESPN

SYRACUSE COACH Jim Boeheim never wanted a farewell tour of rocking chairs, monogrammed whiskey bottles and tribute videos.

How it ended on Wednesday was far more fitting: an awkward news conference after losing on a noon-tip buzzer-beater in Greensboro, North Carolina, the ACC tournament town Boeheim had long mocked. All of it unceremonious, much like Boeheim himself.

A few hours later, the school issued a release that didn’t feature the word retirement. There were no quotes from Boeheim, just awkward platitudes from suits who seemed to hope their flowery prose could overcome the uncomfortable realities: Jim Boeheim’s 47-year head-coaching career and nearly 60 years of time with Syracuse basketball as a player, assistant and head coach didn’t end cleanly. It was never going to.

“In Jim’s case, he was never completely sure,” former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN. “When you do something as long as he has in the place that he’s done it — he was never completely sure.

“The other day was awkward. Syracuse the university and Syracuse athletics and Syracuse basketball, they should all be one in making this announcement. The fact that there’s any ambiguity is wrong. It’s not right. I would hope that if that is the case — I’m not saying it is, but I would hope things get right quickly and be celebrated the way it should be.

“It should not be awkward. No way.”

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Boeheim’s exit proved fitting for a complex character who kept a linear focus on winning games at a school he loved unconditionally. He kept things simple, yet remained complicated.

There are parts of the man that are easy to explain. His fidelity to Syracuse is unmatched; he’ll be remembered as the single most transformative figure in the more than 150 years of Syracuse University’s existence. He arrived on campus in 1962, during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, took over the head-coaching job during Gerald Ford’s in 1976, and leaves during the tenure of Joe Biden, perhaps the only more recognizable Syracuse alumnus in the country.

“His career is so unique,” Krzyzewski said. “Because it’s not just longevity at a school. It’s longevity in a community. Jim’s influence on that community, along with [his wife] Juli, has been immense. It’s an incredibly unique career. You can’t say anyone’s is like it.”

From essentially ages 18 to 78, Boeheim endured at Syracuse. He was head coach for 35 of the school’s 41 NCAA tournament appearances, 1,015 of its wins, five Final Fours and the 2003 national championship. He helped usher in the glory days of the Big East and watched them fade away.

He was a bespectacled constant, squinting through frames that ranged in style from Coke bottle to thin wire as the decades and generations blinked by. From Louie and Bouie to Pearl Washington to Derrick Coleman to John Wallace to Carmelo Anthony to Michael Carter-Williams to Buddy Boeheim. From Manley Field House to the Carrier Dome to the JWA Wireless Dome, Boeheim’s sideline sneer and arms raised disbelievingly to officials were as identifiable with the school as any dean, major or campus landmark. Only the February forecast was more consistent.

“He’s everything to that school,” former Providence coach, Syracuse assistant and now ESPN analyst Tim Welsh said late Wednesday. “A tenure like that will never happen again. Today’s world has changed too much.”

Boeheim evolved over the years like every coach must, but one thing that never changed: his dedication to the same 2-3 zone. AP Photo

But the sudden nature of Boeheim’s departure hints at the deeper complexities. Boeheim loved Syracuse unconditionally while maintaining a perpetual scowl for much of his tenure, part of the paradox he perpetuated.

He attacked microphones, swore liberally — “Not 10 f—ing games” — and turned news-conference angst into an art form. (This goes back to an era when something going viral necessitated an antibiotic.) He also countered that caustic side by relentlessly raising money for cancer research, showing an occasional soft spot coaching his sons and quietly giving pep talks to hundreds of cancer patients after beating prostate cancer in 2001.

He developed a reputation for being aloof, but for decades maintained open practices and locker rooms. He often cursed out his beat writers, but always returned calls. He got ripped early on for not maximizing talent, but ended up part of three USA Basketball Olympic gold-medal staffs.

Boeheim evolved over the years like every coach, but remained jarringly consistent — the same 2-3 zone for decades, the same practice setup and the dichotomy of being a consummate consumer of the sport who didn’t watch a lot of opponent film.

He also never preached about servant leadership. He never tried to peddle a self-help book. Boeheim was authentic long before that became a buzzword. He liked coaching and winning basketball games at his alma mater. He poured everything into that.

He took over at Syracuse in 1976, leveraging the open Rochester job at the time, with a simple and linear game plan that defined him: just win. Win, and they’ll keep having your back. Don’t get caught up in the phony preacher, coaching caricature that overtook the sport.

“He never worried about the stuff that didn’t matter,” said Sean Ford, the USA Basketball men’s team director who worked with Boeheim for decades. “He only worried about the stuff that impacted winning and the game.” Boeheim’s ethos was summed up in a New York Post interview in 2012. He noted that in his first game as a head coach, against Harvard, he overcoached and the Orange led by one at halftime. He let the players play in the second half and Syracuse won by 20. He distilled his coaching essence later in the interview: “I’m a competitor. I like to win games. I like basketball, and I like to win games.”

Boeheim recruited better players than most, coached them well and kept winning for the school he loved, the only place he knew. (It’s hard to remember covering a Syracuse football or lacrosse game without seeing him perched in the back row, as if Syracuse athletics doubled as his pastime away from Syracuse basketball.)

Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim coached Team USA together, and the two remained close outside of the court. Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

Along the way, he saw Syracuse go from an independent to the Big East and now the ACC. He coached 49 NBA players, and his coaching emotional pendulum swung from the heartbreak of Keith Smart’s game-winner for Indiana in the 1987 NCAA title game to the upstart 1996 team that ambushed the Final Four at the Meadowlands to the breakthrough 2003 team that toppled Kansas for the title.

“I’d hope whatever is being done, that he’d be honored, but also he’d be still part of that university for as long as he lives,” Krzyzewski said. “That’d be a big mistake if that’s not done. A big, big mistake. I spoke to him yesterday. He and I are close and our families are close. It’s a difficult time, even if you already know.”

Boeheim was criticized early in his tenure for underachieving with talented teams — the 1991 NCAA tournament loss to 15-seed Richmond stands out — and by the end of his career was lauded for Syracuse’s zone being so effective it befuddled opponents in the NCAA tournament. (Boeheim’s last two Final Fours came as a No. 4 and a No. 10 seed.)

It wasn’t ever perfect. Along the way, Boeheim weathered two NCAA investigations (in 1992 and in 2015) that led to postseason bans, saw the firing of longtime assistant Bernie Fine in 2011 amid ugly abuse allegations and tragically killed a pedestrian while driving on the highway in 2019. (He was cleared by police of any wrongdoing in the accident.)

The second batch of NCAA issues ended with the school saying in 2015 that Boeheim needed to retire in three years. Boeheim blew past that suggestion — with the school looking the other way — because he was winning. The game plan worked, until it didn’t.

In the end, what got Boeheim was simply not living up to what he’d stayed focused on his entire tenure: winning games. He admitted to the joys of coaching his sons in 2021-22, even though the Orange went 16-17. This year, with a recalibrated roster, Syracuse lost to Colgate and Bryant, and closed the season (17-15) with five losses in six games. Boeheim, 78, grumbled about NIL and schools buying teams as the Orange got passed by in the standings.

The school immediately named former star Adrian Autry, a top assistant since 2011, to replace Boeheim. It’s a daunting task that amounts to living up to the legend who not only set the program’s expectations, but also defined the school.

“The ending has to be better,” Krzyzewski said. “Maybe we can do this right in a week or in two days. Just where everyone should know what his future is. It should be at Syracuse, so all the fans and everyone knows he’s always going to be a part of that. I can tell you that it’s helped us and our fans. It really has helped the transition. It shows a level of support for the new person. Adrian is a great choice.”

It’s doubtful Boeheim will stray far from the school; instead of a dream house in the Caribbean, he recently bought a $5 million dream home on Skaneateles Lake, about 20 miles outside the city.

But the ending for Jim Boeheim was fittingly imperfect for someone who never wanted much of a fuss. On the way out of the conference tournament where he was always an outsider, Jim Boeheim’s last act was an evasive news conference where he heckled the media for not realizing he’d given his retirement speech over the weekend.

His farewell tour came via an awkward news release, the perfect unceremonious end for a coach who was never wired for a long goodbye.