Unlike the pros, where the players seem distinctly more valuable and admired than their coaches, in college basketball, where eligibility can last only so long, it is most often the coach -- the only one with unprescribed tenure -- who defines the program. This is particularly true in the Big East, which has recently come to be seen as The Brookings Institution of Coaching thanks to an apparent corporate rate at the Final Four and a package that puts the league on TV more often than "M*A*S*H".
Think of the Big East and some of the country's most celebrated coaches come to mind: Certainly, John Thompson of Georgetown, Lou Carnesecca of St. John's and Rollie Massimino of Villanova are immediate keepers. Gary Williams of Boston College often is mentioned as one of the best young coaches in the nation, and now, after his impressive debut season at Providence, Rick Pitino is hearing his name circulated in that same category.
Now, let me ask you this question: Which Big East coach has the best overall winning percentage?
Carnesecca: 74.6 percent.
Thompson: 73.8 percent.
Massimino, Williams and Pitino are all, curiously, stuck on the same number: 63 percent.
Have I left anyone out? In fact, I have: Roy Chipman, retiring from Pitt, who won 61 percent of his Division I games; Connecticut's Dom Perno, who has won 57 percent of his games, and Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo, who has won 39 percent of his games.
Oh, and I have left out one other coach, the one this column is really about, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, whose overall winning percentage of 75.2 is the highest of them all. Surprised? I was.
The only other coaches I can think of with similarly high winning percentages (and theirs are not as high as Boeheim's) who have been treated like Boeheim, which is to say either shrugged off gratuitously or criticized for not winning all their games, are Houston's Guy Lewis and Maryland's Lefty Driesell. I admit I have been less than laudatory about Boeheim, recently discounting Syracuse's prospects in the NCAAs on the grounds that no Syracuse lead was safe and that this was a team that hadn't proven it could win on the road.
Yesterday, I learned exclusively that Boeheim read that and didn't like it. He told me so.
Sitting courtside, relaxed as you please not more than 30 minutes before his Orangemen would go out and pound BC by 23 points in the first round of the Big East tournament, he said, "I don't care if you give me the credit. I do care if you write that the program is overrated and that we can't win on the road. How do you win 75 percent of your games and not win on the road? We beat BC by 25 at BC. We beat Villanova by 23 at Villanova; Georgetown didn't win there. We won at Pitt; Georgetown didn't win there."
Okay. But what about Louisville? A nationally televised game, a chance to show everyone that this team isn't another El Foldo Choko, and the Orange come apart in sections.
Boeheim gave that look you see so often on the bench, the pained grimace, like he'd just bit through a lemon. "We lost. Fine. We'd won 13 games before that. What happens is you see us once and, because you see it, you believe that once is fact. You choose not to believe what you don't see. Look at who we've lost to this year: St. John's, at The Garden, a top 10 team; Notre Dame, at home -- our one loss at home -- a top 12 team; Louisville, there, a top 12 team; Georgetown, at Capital Centre, a top 15 team. Those four, that's all. We've got nothing to be ashamed of, and we just finished first in a pretty tough league."
Then why do impressions linger that Syracuse is a perennial disappointment in the NCAA tournament, and that Boeheim isn't all that steady at the wheel?
"Maybe in your mind," Boeheim said calmly. "Not in the minds of coaches who know the game." Boeheim ran his hands quickly along the sides of his head and squinted as if looking at an object of great value but very far away, a jewel, perhaps. "I get a lot of positive things from coaches. Ask the coaches in this league about me. It's like when people say Pearl [Washington] isn't that good. I laugh at that. Ask Michael Jackson how good Pearl is. Ask Mark Jackson. Ask Harold Jensen."
Boeheim thinks the postseason rap is particularly unfair, although it always has seemed easy to accuse Syracuse of not living up to its potential in the NCAAs. In eight tries, Boeheim's Orange never have gone to the Final Eight, let alone the Final Four. But in the four times he reached the round of 16, he lost to a team that made the Final Four. "We have never, in any one year, been favored to get to the Final Four," Boeheim said emphatically. "So how can we have disappointed anyone? We don't have a single player starting in the NBA. All of a sudden, people say, 'Yeah, they go to the tournament. But they never win it.' Well, should we have won it?" Boeheim shook his head. "People expect so much of us -- just like they do with Pearl -- that when we do fail our failure is magnified." Shrugging, Boeheim said, "It's like the Yankees," and his voice trailed off, like a car going around a turn and disappearing into the night.
By beating BC, Syracuse advanced to the tournament's semifinal round, where it will play Georgetown, Houdini on the Potomac. John Thompson has said that Boeheim should have been conference coach of the year because winning when you're expected to is the hardest thing of all. Incidentally, the only coach to beat Thompson ever in the Big East tournament is not named Carnesecca or Massimino or Williams, but Boeheim. Twice. You could look it up.