By his own admission, it took Jim Boeheim a long time to figure out that his ninth-grade guidance counselor had it right 54 years ago.
“Jim,” he said to the eager-to-please teenager, “no matter what you do in life there are always going to be people who aren’t going to like you.”
Perhaps if Boeheim had understood the wisdom of that comment back then, he would have chosen a different profession. After all, in coaching, you can win a national championship, go to three Final Fours, win at least 20 games in 34 of 36 seasons and be No. 2 on the all-time wins list and there are still going to be some people who don’t like you or don’t think you can coach.
“I think everyone wants to be liked and respected,” Boeheim said on Friday, shortly after his Syracuse team had practiced in preparation for an attempt at win No. 904 on Sunday at South Florida. “Some care more than others. I was always someone who cared a lot — more than I should have, but I did care. It bothered me when people said I wasn’t a good coach. It took me a long time to realize my guidance counselor was right. I still worry about it sometimes but not nearly as much as in the past.
“I think I’ve reached the point where I know I’m a pretty good coach.”
The numbers say he’s a lot better than pretty good. He is now No. 2 on the all-time wins list, having passed Bob Knight on Wednesday night when No. 7 Syracuse beat Rutgers to raise its record to 13-1 in Boeheim’s 37th season at his alma mater.
In classic Boeheim fashion, he admitted he was proud to have reached the number but, more than anything, was glad to have it behind him and a little disappointed that it took his team 14 games, rather than 13, to get him there. “I would have liked to have had it over a little bit sooner,” he said.
In short: Why couldn’t we have figured out a way to beat Temple last month so we’d be 14-0.
That’s the Eeyore in Boeheim. But underneath the veneer of the glum donkey, he is a man with a sharp wit, a supple mind and a genuine love of basketball that is almost unique among the best coaches.
“That’s something Mike [Krzyzewski] and I talk about a lot — the need to give back,” he said. “Sometimes coaches who’ve had success forget how lucky we all are to have been in the game and around the game and made the money we’ve made. There were a lot of great coaches before us who didn’t make close to the money we make now. There are young coaches coming along who need guidance, need to be helped. There are people who we have the ability to help just because of the platform we have.
“It’s just wrong to only worry about coaching your team. When I hear guys say, ‘My only job is to coach my players,’ my reaction is: ‘No, that’s not right. It’s more than that.’ ”
That might explain why Boeheim walked into his news conference after winning his 900th game a few weeks ago and, after talking briefly about the game and the milestone, turned his focus to gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings. “We have to do something,” he said that night. “If people can’t see that, something’s wrong.”
The response he got to those comments was, he said, overwhelmingly positive. “One veteran called me and said, ‘I don’t want to give up my gun,’ ” he said Friday. “I told him I wasn’t saying that anyone should take his gun away.
“I just don’t know how anyone in this country can believe that allowing people access to assault weapons is a good thing. If I hear one more NRA member say that the answer is to arm teachers I’ll go out of my mind. What worries me is it’s only been a few weeks and it feels as if people have already forgotten those 26 people who died. All I’m hearing about is the fiscal cliff. We need to keep pressing for this. I simply can’t believe there aren’t more people who want gun control than there are NRA members.”
But Boeheim knows his focus at this minute needs to be on this Syracuse team, which appears to have the potential to go deep into the NCAA tournament — again. He lost Fab Melo, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph to the NBA draft from his 2012 Elite Eight team, but has come back this winter with a team that may be as good or better.
Boeheim turned 68 in November and has no plans to stop coaching anytime soon if only because he enjoys it too much. “I love basketball,” he said. “I’m up at 2 o’clock in the morning watching games. When [Gonzaga Coach Mark Few or San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher] win a big game, I send ’em a text. I think watching helps you coach better but I also enjoy doing it.”
Which is why he will coach in the ACC next year after 34 years in the Big East.
“It’s the right move, it had to be done,” he said. “But it’s also sad. The Big East made Syracuse. It made me. If not for the Big East we’re one of 20 reasonably good programs in the east. I still remember sitting in that room all those years ago with John [Thompson] and Louie [Carnesseca] and listening to Dave Gavitt talk and thinking, ‘This could be special.’ I had no idea though, none of us did, what it would become.”
When Syracuse joins the ACC, Boeheim will compete regularly against Krzyzewski, who has become his closest friend in coaching after they worked together for six years coaching the U.S. national team in the Olympics and the world championships.
“There are four coaches who are on a different level from the rest of us,” Boeheim said. “Coach Wooden, Knight, Coach [Dean] Smith and Mike. Forget any numbers, the rest of us aren’t there. They’re Mount Rushmore.”
Perhaps so. But Boeheim isn’t that far away when the entire body of work — on and off the court — is taken into consideration.
“For a long time I hoped that when I stopped coaching people wouldn’t say I was a bad coach,” he said. “I think now that won’t be the case. How good they think I was, well, that’s up to other people.”
Not all of them, as the guidance counselor pointed out, will appreciate him. But Boeheim need not worry about his legacy. He wanted to be a great coach. He wanted to be someone who gave back after he’d had success.
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