Jim Boeheim was talking on Wednesday about how he feels at the end of each basketball season.
“I hope it lasts forever,” he said, the ever-present wry Boeheim smile — or wince — creasing his face. “Because when it’s over, I have to go to Disney World. I mean I can’t believe it. I can’t even go and play golf anymore.”
Boeheim may have to explain that comment to his wife Juli and their three children, look forward to going to Disney World. But chances are they’ll forgive him because they understand that this is simply who he is: the Happiest Place on Earth is just never going to be Jim Boeheim’s style.
He has won 918 games in 37 years as Syracuse’s basketball coach, making him the second-winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. He’s won a national championship and been to three Final Fours. This is his 17th trip to the Sweet 16. And yet he is being completely honest when he says that very little of it has been fun.
“Coaching is not fun,” he said after his team practiced at Verizon Center prior to playing Indiana on Thursday night. “Going to dinner is fun. Playing golf is fun. Coaching isn’t fun. I don’t know anyone who says coaching is fun and means it.” He paused with the smile/wince on his face. “Winning is fun. I think that’s what players will tell you, too. That part is fun. The rest of it is work.”
Clearly Boeheim must enjoy his work, if only because it keeps him from spending more time at Disney World. He is 68 now and has no intention of quitting anytime soon. He’s been through a hectic couple of years, losing top assistant Bernie Fine to a scandal that ultimately did not result in criminal charges; losing his best rebounder (Fab Melo) just before the NCAA tournament a year ago; getting into a war of words with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about graduation rates last March; and then losing senior co-leading scorer James Southerland to academics for six games this season.
None of it has slowed Boeheim down or made him think maybe it’s time to step down.
“Never crossed my mind,” he said. “I mean never. I guess I’m the kind of guy who if you put more obstacles in front of me it makes me want to do something more. I came to Syracuse as a walk-on basketball player. People said I wasn’t good enough to play for Syracuse and I did. When I got the coaching job a lot of people didn’t think I’d be any good as a coach. I think I’ve been pretty good at it.
“Most players don’t stop playing until someone tells them they have to stop. I do still like the challenge. It’s like in golf if you shoot 70 one day you want to come back and see if you can do it again the next day — or shoot 69. I want to see if I can shoot that 70 again each season.
“Coaches who get out relatively young almost always regret it. I know Dean Smith regretted it. Dick Bennett [who took Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four but then resigned three games into the next season] regretted it. Look at the guys who quit and then come back. I think Gary Williams [a close friend of Boeheim’s] would come back in a minute if he didn’t have to go through what you go through in recruiting now.
“Guys say to me, ‘How do you know when it’s time to stop?’ And I say I don’t know because I haven’t gotten there yet.”
It seems unlikely that Boeheim will be dragged away kicking and screaming anytime soon. Syracuse is 28-9 this season with only two seniors among its top nine players. And as much as Boeheim hates leaving the Big East as part of the never-ending conference re-alignment dance, he is looking forward to coaching in the ACC. The freshness of a different challenge clearly appeals to him.
“The thing that Jim has always done well is compartmentalize,” said Williams, who was put in the awkward position Wednesday of interviewing his old friend and rival for TV. “If he isn’t that happy about practice, he knows that it’s still playing the games that matters. If he isn’t happy about a game, well, he goes back to practice or to the tape to figure out how to make it better.”
Boeheim’s life changed considerably when he remarried in the fall of 1997 and started the second family that now drags him to Disney World each spring. He will tell you that it changed even more when he won the national championship in 2003, finally dulling the painful memory of Keith Smart’s shot 16 years earlier in the same building, which allowed Indiana to beat Syracuse for the title in 1987.
“I don’t think you ever completely get over a game like that — I still think about it — but now I think about winning in ’03 a lot more often.
“Any coach who has a chance to win a national championship and doesn’t win it who tells you it doesn’t matter is lying to you. Of course it matters. I’ve always said that people make too much of March but it’s a fact of life in coaching that these are the games you’re judged on.
“It’s true even more now. Ben Howland and Tubby Smith got fired because they weren’t winning in the NCAA tournament. . . . And there’s more pressure now than ever because every school thinks their coach should do what Jimmy [Larranaga] did at George Mason or what Brad Stevens did at Butler. And they’re all convinced if they fire their coach they’re going to hire Shaka Smart.”
Boeheim is well past worrying about getting fired. He’s in the basketball Hall of Fame and is universally liked and respected by his peers in the game. It may be tough to tell, but he’s looking forward to playing Indiana on Thursday and he’d love to take another crack at a Final Four trip on Saturday.
But he’s not here to have fun. He’s just trying to delay that Disney World trip for as long as he possibly can.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
Photos: Scenes from the tournament