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Call for coaching change sparks heated debate

It’s not every week that I’m called a “Benedict Arnold,” an “idiot,” an “opportunist,” a “scoundrel” and several profane names not suitable for publication in a family newspaper. Then, again, it’s not every week that I write a column calling for an iconic upstate sports figure to resign. As I was reminded quite forcefully and, at times, quite crudely, hell hath no fury like a fan base scorned.

My suggestion that Jim Boeheim step down after his Syracuse University basketball program was penalized by the NCAA for the second time in his Hall of Fame coaching career created quite a stir among supporters of my alma mater’s hoops team. That people would disagree didn’t surprise me in the least, given Boeheim’s popularity. And that’s OK. I was just offering an opinion. We can agree to disagree. But I must admit the depth of vitriol, venom and personal attacks was somewhat off-putting. Sadly, that’s a reflection of the uncivil times in which we live. Whether it is sports, politics, religion or other hot-button issues, many would rather engage in dis-coarse than discourse. Rather than attack the point, people would rather attack the person. It’s a much easier tactic. And many are emboldened by the Internet’s cloak of anonymity.  

My intent certainly was to provoke discussion, but not in a hatchet-job manner employed by too many columnists and commentators these days, who take a stance, not because they believe in it, but rather because they want to enrage you. I believe if more people had taken the time to actually read and comprehend the entire column and not just the headline, they might have been less bombastic. I thought the piece was quite measured. I was not coming at this from the perspective of someone who hates Boeheim. (I do not; many media people do.) Neither was I coming at this from the angle of someone who hates Syracuse University. (Geez, I thought I made it quite clear in the first paragraph how indebted I was for the education I received there, and how sports, especially basketball, were a big part of my experience.) I also pointed out I am not a fan of college sports’ governing body.

All that said, I’m tired of my alma mater’s reputation being dragged through the mud by a lack of proper oversight on the part of its laissez-faire, more-powerful-than-the-university basketball coach and its ethically challenged athletic director, Daryl Gross. I’m glad Chancellor Kent Syverud, an Irondequoit native, began taking some strong action Wednesday. I just wished he had gone further. Gross has been reassigned. That’s good. But Boeheim is going to be allowed to coach for three more seasons. I believe he forfeited the right to continue after this latest round of major transgressions.

I know many disagree. Some critics of last week’s column argued that no coach can monitor his student-athletes 24/7. I concur, but Boeheim’s leadership style has been too hands-off. He has three full-time assistants, a director of basketball operations and a graduate assistant. Given that kind of support, I don’t think it’s too difficult a task to keep close track of the lives of 14 to 15 young men. The NCAA’s 94-page report cited Boeheim’s “failure to monitor” 11 times and his failure “to promote an atmosphere of compliance” 12 times, resulting in a nine-game coaching suspension, the loss of 12 basketball scholarships over three years and the vacation of 108 of Boeheim’s wins. (A decision has been made to appeal the loss of some of the scholarships and victories.)

I might be willing to buy Boeheim’s claim that his trust in his former academic coordinator and the YMCA internship director were betrayed, but perhaps if he had paid closer attention to what was going on, he might have discovered the malfeasance sooner. I’m sorry, but this “Hogan’s Heroes,” Sergeant Schultz “I know nothing!” approach to everything is getting old. You’re the leader of the program. And you were sanctioned once before in your career, so come on. 

Others argued that if the NCAA shined a light on any major college program for as long as it did on Syracuse it would discover violations. Again, I agree, but does the “everybody’s doing it” argument make your wrongdoing right? Methinks not. But maybe that’s just me being “holier than thou,” according to some.

Is the NCAA in need of serious reform, as many suggested? I think so. But that still doesn’t justify breaking the rules that have been established by the organization, which—oh by the way—is made up of you and all the other universities with Division I sports programs. If you are upset with the current system, then lead the charge to change it. Syverud should contact his fellow college presidents and start a reform movement. Perhaps, as some have opined, it’s time to end the charade and allow college athletes to major in professional sports. I’m not sure I buy into that radical concept, but I’m willing to listen to the arguments.

The reality is that we’re all guilty here, not just Boeheim, Gross and SU. I admit it. I love the spectacle of big-time college sports. I sit in the Carrier Dome and marvel at the sea of humanity at a Duke-Syracuse basketball game on a wintry night. I understand as well as any the positive impact this program has had on Upstate New York. And I also understand the sports monster that’s been created, here and at places like Alabama, USC, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Penn State, Notre Dame, Florida State, Texas, and other schools where the pressure to win games, fill seats and placate fans, alumni and media is enormous.

Still, my opinion hasn’t changed. Rules were broken by SU, and harsh penalties were levied for a second time during Boeheim’s reign. Gross’s removal is a positive step, but I believe Boeheim should have bowed out gracefully, too. If you disagree, that’s fine. I just ask you to do so civilly.

Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is in his 42nd year as a journalist.

3/20/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

3 comments

  1. I found Scott’s original column somewhat surprising, but very thought provoking. I found it necessary to read, or carefully scan through, the entire NCAA findings report to better understand their charges. Here in the follow-up Scott references the better known Division I schools who have had controversy. But let’s not forget what happened at St. Bonaventure with a somewhat similar investigation. That resulted in firings, dismissals, and retirement all the way to the President of the university. With the frequent recruitment and departure of student athletes after their first year it is clear that the whole NCAA system needs to be evaluated. A former classmate and prominent NCAA basketball official told me about his observed changes after NBA made major contributions to NCAA. That should be investigated and evaluated as well. Thanks for your columns and opinions Scott.

  2. What the emperor has no clothes on? Hat’s off to you Scott for trying to hold people accountable for their actions and their responsibilities irregardless of the person. As a huge fan of college basketball it’s hard to admit but we need to look at other options to develop NBA players; good old ‘farm’ teams.

  3. Thank you, Bob and Doreen, for your thoughtful comments.

    Bob, I remember the forceful action that Bonaventure took and I applaud the school’s trustees for being so courageous. Sadly, big-time money has corrupted the system to the point where many institutions have lost their way. (It will be interesting to see what happens at North Carolina, where thousands of student-athletes and non-student athletes have taken bogus choruses for decades.) The NCAA also deserves blame and clearly needs to be investigated and reformed by university presidents.

    Doreen, as I mentioned in the column, I like Jim and freely acknowledge all the good he has done, but I wish he could accept at least a little responsibility for his actions. That’s what good leaders do.

    That said, all of us who love the spectacle of big-time college sports (me, definitely included) are at fault here, too. Perhaps, we need to look at radical changes to end the charade.

    Again, my thanks to both of you for your insightful and civil responses.

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