The easiest thing in the world is to throw roses at Jim Boeheim’s feet — and then say, “But it was time for him to retire.” That is exactly what Syracuse did Wednesday afternoon.
In his postgame news conference, Boeheim said it was “up to the university” to decide whether he would coach next season. Most people took that to mean the decision had been made for him — and apparently it had. The school announced a few hours later that associate head coach Adrian Autry would succeed his former coach and boss.
Autry may be college basketball’s next great coach. But if, as seems to be the case, Syracuse forced Boeheim out, that’s both wrong and unfair.
Boeheim’s legacy is absolutely secure, though the NCAA stripped him of 101 wins and the Orange twice had postseason bans during his career (one self-imposed). He wasn’t perfect by any stretch and frequently got himself in trouble for being outspoken. But he won a national championship, went to five Final Fours and won countless conference titles and coaching awards.
Was it time for him to step down after his team finished 17-15 with Wednesday’s loss? I don’t know. Neither does anyone in the media — or at Syracuse. Only one person knows: Boeheim. Not many coaches earn the right to choose their exit. Boeheim is one of them. The past few seasons have not lived up to the ludicrously high standards he set early in his career. Boeheim’s teams won at least 20 games in 26 of his first 28 seasons — including three seasons with 30 victories or more.
But soon after leaving the Big East — over Boeheim’s objections — to join the ACC, Syracuse became a perennial bubble team, although the Orange bounced off it to make the Final Four in 2016. The past two seasons have produced a record of 33-32 and, presumably, the first two seasons in Boeheim’s career when teams eligible for postseason didn’t make it.
Boeheim retirement rumors began in 2007, when stories surfaced that longtime assistant Mike Hopkins would be Syracuse’s coach-designate. The school denied the story, and it wasn’t until eight years later that Hopkins was formally named the coach-designate. But when it became apparent two years later that Hopkins — who played for Boeheim and coached under him for 20 years — wasn’t getting the job anytime soon, he took the job at Washington.
Boeheim then planned to retire in 2018, but when the chance to coach his sons, Jimmy and Buddy, came along, he did his “Old Man River” imitation and kept on rolling along. Jimmy and Buddy both graduated after last season, and the sense was that Boeheim would hang it up.
Clearly, he didn’t want his last memory of coaching to be his only losing season. Now, at least, that won’t be the case.
Boeheim played at Syracuse in the 1960s and then was an assistant to Roy Danforth for seven seasons before succeeding him in 1976. He won 74 games in his first three pre-Big East seasons and then became part of the coaching dynasty that ruled the conference in the 1980s — John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Rollie Massimino and P.J. Carlesimo. The first four, like Boeheim, are Hall of Famers.
That was when I first got to know him, and to be honest, I wasn’t terribly fair to him. I once wrote in a book: “If a hemorrhoid could talk, it would sound like Jim Boeheim.”
When I saw him early the next season, I prepared for him to scream at me. He did — sort of. “A lot of my friends are really angry at you for writing that,” he said. Before I could start to apologize, he smiled. “I told them you were probably right.”
In 1991, when I was working for the ill-fated National Sports Daily, I wrote a pre-NCAA tournament piece saying Boeheim was the worst bench coach in the tournament. This time, he really did scream at me, telling me the day before his team played Richmond that I didn’t know a thing — profanity excluded — about basketball.
As luck would have it, Richmond became the first No. 15 seed to win an NCAA tournament game the next night. I had selected Richmond coach Dick Tarrant as the second-best bench coach in the event. When Boeheim walked in for his post-midnight news conference, he walked straight to where I was standing, pointing a finger: “You know the worst thing about this?” he said. “Now there will be people who think you do know something about [profanity excluded] basketball.”
He was absolutely right. Of all the dumb things I’ve written through the years, that may have been the dumbest. The National folded three months after that game. Boeheim did not.
Amazingly, he never held a grudge. His M.O. was simple: Get angry, express your anger and move on. When Tom Watson and I started a charity golf tournament to raise money for ALS research, he played almost every year. One year, he bid way too much money on an auction item — one of my books, to be signed by me.
“But only if you write in it that I’m a good coach,” he said, in making the bid.
I didn’t write that; I wrote that he was a great coach.
Indeed, his 2-3 zone defense and the way he was able to teach it to one generation of players after another were ingenious. He even taught it to Mike Krzyzewski when he was his assistant on three U.S. teams that won Olympic gold medals.
The one person I’m certain Boeheim consulted with — other than his wife, Juli — was Krzyzewski, his best friend in coaching and someone who just went through the “to-retire-or-not-to-retire” dilemma. He should not have needed to consult with “Syracuse people,” as TV talking heads kept saying. Boeheim should have asked a college president or athletic director about whether he should keep coaching? Seriously?
In the end, it should have been 100 percent his decision. If he thought he could put together one more good season next winter, then he should have been allowed to keep coaching. There’s no doubt that “Syracuse people” were ready to move on, that they thought “it was time.” Alumni and boosters always think that.
Like Boeheim when he took over, Autry has never been a head coach. He’s 51 — 20 years older than Boeheim was when he became the boss. Boeheim will no doubt stick around to help — just as his pal Krzyzewski did this year with Jon Scheyer at Duke.
Fifty-eight years at one school, all those wins and all that money he made for Syracuse, should have meant one thing: He owed the school absolutely nothing. It owed him. Most of all, it owed him the chance to coach for as long as he wanted.