Next Tuesday afternoon, Jim Boeheim will participate in a Celebrity Golf Scramble at the Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic at Brook Lea Country Club. It will be a good time for the second-winningest coach in the history of men’s college basketball to kick back and enjoy drives down the fairway instead of to the basket.
Golf has been a passion since his father—James Arthur Boeheim Sr.—cut down a set of clubs for him when he was about four or five years old. It wouldn’t be long before young Jimmy became obsessed with the game, whiling away many a summer day at Sodus Heights Country Club, a little nine-hole course north of Boeheim’s hometown of Lyons, about 40 miles east of Rochester.
“Jim and I lived there some summers,’’ Tony Santelli told me a few years ago when I was writing a biography about Boeheim. “We’d drive up there with Lee Boice, who was the Lyons High School golf coach and a teaching pro. We’d put the flags out and do a few other chores for Lee, then play until it was dark and drive back home with him. There was one time, Jimmy and I played the course nine times in a single day. That’s how crazed we were.”
Jim’s dad was equally crazed about the sport, and became one of the driving forces behind the building of Wayne Hills Country Club, an 18-hole layout on the outskirts of Lyons. Father and son would play often, and during those familial rounds, golf balls weren’t the only things taking flight. Legend has it that Senior and Junior never finished a round of golf together—the good walk often spoiled by angry words and flung clubs.
“My dad always tried to beat me and I always tried to beat him, so it could get a little crazy at times,’’ the Hall of Fame hoops coach once told me. “It got so that when people on the course heard the Boeheims were playing, they headed for cover.’’
Their matches gave a whole new meaning to the errant shot warning of “fore!” In retrospect, the fiery nature that has enabled the younger Boeheim to guide the Orange hoopsters to a national championship, five Final Fours and 1,047 wins was partly forged on the golf course.
“Jim wasn’t a natural by any means, but he was a fierce, fierce competitor,’’ said Boice, Boeheim’s high school golf coach. “And he had a great focus on the course. He always would be looking for an edge.”
Boeheim would shuffle off to Syracuse in the summer of 1962 with designs on playing basketball. And the gangly, bespectacled teenager would fulfill that dream, earning a scholarship after a strong showing with the freshman team. (First-year students weren’t eligible to play varsity sports back then.) Teaming with backcourt mate and roommate Dave Bing, Boeheim would ignite a basketball renaissance at SU, which only two years before the duo’s arrival had lost a then-record 27 consecutive games. Bing was the superstar, averaging 28 points and 10 rebounds his senior year to earn consensus All-American honors. But Boeheim had his moments, too, contributing 14.6 points-per-game during the 1965-66 season as Syracuse led the nation in scoring (99 ppg) and reached the Elite Eight, where it lost to Duke.
Boeheim also played varsity golf for the Orange, going 4-1 and 2-5-1 in two seasons of match play as the No. 2 player behind Barry Buchsbaum in SU’s five-man rotation. He and Buchsbaum consistently shot in the mid-to-upper 70s for a team that went 7-3 and 5-3 against a schedule that included Colgate, Cornell, Army, Penn State, Yale and Penn.
“Jim was just like he is on the basketball sidelines,’’ Buchsbaum told me. “The only difference was that he would be swearing at himself instead of the referees, because golf is an individual sport. He’d miss a shot and start cursing at himself. He was very hard on himself. But he was a lot of fun to play with and a great teammate.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Boeheim pursued his master’s at his alma mater. He worked as a graduate assistant coach with the basketball team, and also picked up some extra money as the head varsity golf coach—a position he held until the program was disbanded in 1973. “As far as the press knows, we were undefeated every year because I never called in our scores when we lost,’’ he joked.
In reality, the Orangemen went 18-13-1 in dual matches he oversaw, according to research by SU’s Sports Information Department. “The pay was lousy, but the perks were great,’’ said Boeheim, who won the National College Basketball Coaches Invitational in 1988 and ’89 and is enshrined with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and President Eisenhower at Oak Hill Country Club’s Hill of Fame. “Coaches got to play a round every time their team did, and you didn’t have a bunch of reporters around you afterward, hounding you about why you did this and why you did that. Plus, you didn’t have to deal with referees.”
He won’t have to deal with any of those stresses next Tuesday either. The charity scramble will serve as a prelude to the fifth Downey Classic, which tees off two days later and will feature the top players on the Symetra Tour, the springboard to the LPGA. Boeheim will be paired with Kelly Whaley, a North Carolina standout whose mom Suzy Whaley hails from Syracuse and is the first female president of the PGA of America. Other celebs include legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, Greece native and former National Hockey League star Brian Gionta and local musician Elvio Fernandes, who has been a keyboardist, guitar player and vocalist for the Grammy Award-winning rock band Daughtry since 2011.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.