After Jim Boeheim and Syracuse University botched the announcement of the Hall-of-Fame basketball coach’s departure following the Orange’s season-ending loss, I was happy to see them kiss-and-make-up. Last Friday’s pass-the-torch press conference was a much better way to say goodbye to the man who made Syracuse basketball and hello to the man who will attempt to restore some of the luster lost in recent years.
Jim deserved that type of farewell and new coach Adrian Autry deserved that type of introduction.
Jim’s retirement was a circle-of-life moment for me, professionally and personally. Of the thousands of people I’ve covered in my half-century as an ink-stained wretch, few were more interesting and confounding than James Arthur Boeheim. When I think of him, Winston Churchill’s quote about Russia comes to mind: “… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
As a journalist and author of a Boeheim biography, I spent decades interviewing him and hundreds of others about him while attempting to unravel that mystery. His relationship with his father, which Jim, his relatives, and friends described to me on several occasions “as more of a competition than a relationship,” cuts to the core of the fire that both fueled and burned Jim through the years.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my research into this riddle began as a pre-teen in the mid-1960s. I was captivated at the time by Dave Bing, the Orangemen’s All-American do-everything guard, but I also began to take notice of Bing’s gangly, bespectacled backcourt mate with the last name people struggled to pronounce. A decade later, I would experience my first journalistic encounters with Jim. My senior year at SU coincided with his first year as head coach. Interestingly, I was there for his first home victory in the cramped, dusty, always crazy Manley Field House “Zoo” in 1976, and would be there in the cavernous JMA Wireless Dome 47 years later for his 1,116th and final win.
What occurred between those bookend victories can best be described as one hell of a roller-coaster ride, with numerous twists and turns. I experienced the best — and worst — of Jim Boeheim. Rarely was there a dull moment.
Through the decades, I incurred his wrath (what reporter didn’t?), but over time our professional relationship improved dramatically. I discovered a man who could be insightful, engaging, thoughtful, humorous, and generous. On several occasions, I’d show up to practice, and while waiting to interview one of the players, Jim would stop what he was doing and come over and chat with me. He greatly added to my understanding of coaching philosophy and basketball strategy. Several times he gave me scoops. I appreciated that.
There were other times when Jim was pompous and sarcastic and tried to intimidate. You developed thick skin when covering him — learned to stand your ground. After he bullied student reporters, I occasionally would talk to them. I’d try to boost them back up. I’d tell them there was nothing wrong with their question; that the cruel, occasionally crude response was, sadly, just Jim being Jim. Or I’d advise them that the next time they might want to phrase their inquiries differently.
Jim’s unvarnished, shoot-from-the-lip comments were often refreshing and made for great copy and sound bites in an era of phony, sanitized coach-speak. But there also were occasions when his words made me cringe. His public excoriation of the men who accused his long-time assistant Bernie Fine of sexual molestation showed a horrible lack of sensitivity to victims of pedophiles. His snippy, “I don’t give a [bleep]!” responses to legitimate questions often reflected poorly on him and his school. His accusations, this season, of other schools “buying” players came across as hypocritical, given my alma mater’s history of NCAA improprieties.
If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say the stuff I wrote about Boeheim has been 90 percent positive. I have complimented his coaching skills and sung his praises for building Syracuse hoops into a national program. He’s the man behind the NCAA championship in 2003, the five Final Four trips, the 35 NCAA tournament appearances, the 47 NBA draft picks and the 86 Dome crowds in excess of 30,000. He played an integral role in putting not only the program, but the university and Central New York on the map. And I’ve also commended him repeatedly for the philanthropic work he and his wife, Juli, have done through their foundation.
I admire him for being true to his school and community. He showed up as a walk-on basketball player in the summer of 1962 and never left, despite lucrative opportunities to bolt. There is something to be said for loyalty in an era when big-time college coaches continually uproot in pursuit of bigger contracts.
Eight years ago, in this space, I took Jim to task after he ran afoul of the NCAA a second time. The disturbing 94-page report chronicled a decade’s worth of malfeasance, resulting in the loss of several scholarships, the erasure of 108 basketball wins, and a nine-game coaching suspension. The dirty deeds included academic fraud, illegal payments by a booster, and drug test violations. In a measured column that was difficult to write, I said it was time for Jim to move on. Scores of national columnists and some television commentators lobbied for his ouster, too. And, unlike me, many of them did so with personal, vindictive attacks on Boeheim. Despite their venom, he wound up talking to them again. We haven’t spoken since my column. His choice, not mine. My Syracuse education had prepared me to write the truth. I felt I did. Two-thirds of the respondents disagreed with me; lambasted me. There was even a death threat. So be it.
I think he made the right decision to finally call it quits. The results in recent years have been mediocre. They include a 17-15 record this season and a losing record the year before. The 2-3 zone has become antiquated during this Steph Curry-ization era of basketball which emphasizes flurries of three-point shots.
I wish Autry nothing but the best. He has a daunting job ahead of him following a legend. And I wish Boeheim the best in his post-coaching career and life. Chronicling him and the juggernaut he created has been quite the ride.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.s