For decades, Rick Pitino would enjoy a laugh while telling an old story about his old boss, and later coaching rival, Jim Boeheim.
Back in the mid-1970s, when a young Pitino was an assistant at Syracuse for a still-young Boeheim, they went on beach vacations with their wives. Somehow a debate began. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
Miami? Maui? Madrid?
Rick settled in San Francisco. Joanne Pitino went with New York City. Elaine Boeheim, Jim’s first wife, Paris said. Or maybe it was the Caribbean. No one remembers everyone’s exact answer, except Jim’s.
“Syracuse,” Boeheim said.
The group roared. Wait, are you serious?
“Hawaii is just Syracuse in July,” Boeheim claimed, somewhat shocked that anyone would question his thinking.
“Well, true story for the most part,” Boeheim said years later, when asked about the legendary story. “Rick doesn’t get everything quite right. But, yes, I said Syracuse. They all went away. Literal. They just walked down the beach and said, “What’s wrong with him?” “
In the history of college athletics, there is perhaps no relationship between a school, let alone a city, and a single individual like the one between Jim Boeheim and Syracuse, the private college that sits in the often snowy, involuntary, central New York city of the same name.
Boeheim arrived in 1962, as a freshman from Lyons, about an hour’s drive west. He eventually became a star on the varsity team and later worked as an assistant coach before becoming head coach in 1976, some 47 seasons ago.
On Wednesday, the now 78-year-old finally trained his 1,557. and last game, all still in Syracuse. There was an ACC Tournament loss in the opening round for Wake Forest in a somewhat disappointing season (17-15) that will not include an NCAA Tournament bid.
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The university announced a couple of hours later that former player Adrian Autry would take over, a somewhat clumsy retirement/firing that shouldn’t overshadow a truly legendary career.
That’s a 60-year relationship with a single school, a span interrupted only by a six-year stint in which Boeheim played for the Scranton Miners of the old Eastern Professional Basketball League. He still spent the offseason in Syracuse.
Why wouldn’t he?
“It’s really a great place,” Boeheim said. – Winters are tough, but it’s basketball season. So, April 1st, which is when I start thinking about life, [that’s] when the big months start.”
What is undisputed is Boeheim’s brilliance in building Syracuse into a powerhouse. He led the Orange to 35 NCAA Tournament appearances, five Final Fours and the 2003 national championship behind freshman star Carmelo Anthony.
Boeheim’s legacy goes beyond numbers
Boeheim is a fiery figure, often visibly pained by what he perceived as incompetence around him – usually judges and journalists. He never shied away from a fight, a feud, a controversy or a chance to deliver a sharp quote. He never tried to be liked. He never changed. He was Syracuse.
He won 1,116 games, at least if you disregard the NCAA vacating 101 of those triumphs as punishment from various rules dust-ups … and with Boeheim, it was apparently always a dust-up. That was also part of the fun.
The program was iconic, Syracuse gear carried up and down the East Coast and Boeheim bringing in stars from across the country. Louis Orr. Pearl Washington. Sherman Douglas. Billy Owens. Rony Seikaly. Derrick Coleman. Lawrence Moten. Hakim Warrick. Carmelo Anthony.
Boeheim was an unlikely player’s coach, as awkward as his guys were smooth. He famously kept the rotation small because, he said, after playing backup heavily in a series of blowout games, star Billy Owens pulled him aside.
“Coach,” Owens said. “I didn’t come here to play 30 minutes.”
“Learned a long time ago about great players,” Boeheim said. “They want to be in the game.”
Over the years it worked, as more and more talent rolled through the place. That allowed Syracuse to take on all comers, from the rough days of the legendary Big East to the modern championship-or-bust ethos of the ACC. He had rivalries of varying enmity with everyone from John Thompson at Georgetown and Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams.
All the while he stayed at Syracuse, year after year, content to try to win in a place where winning was neither certain nor easy.
A Life in Syracuse
Bigger state schools with bigger budgets located in bigger recruiting areas often tried to hire him only to find that Boeheim wasn’t even willing to take their call. Even feigned interest would have resulted in richer contracts from Syracuse, but Boeheim refused to play along.
“That’s why I’m one of the lower-paid coaches in USA Today,” Boeheim once said of the annual salary list. “If you don’t play that card, you don’t get paid.”
Well, he still made millions, but raised nearly as many for various charities, notably Coaches vs. Cancer.
In 1986, then-Ohio State athletic director Rick Bay flew to Syracuse and nearly forced a meeting with Boeheim about coaching the Buckeyes. Bay came up with what he thought was a winning pitch and a huge raise.
“It lasted 20 minutes,” Boeheim said. “It was nothing against Ohio State. It just wasn’t located in Syracuse, New York.”
And really, that’s all this has ever been about. A child shows up at a school and never wants to leave, never wants to leave the place he loves.
Whenever he needed motivation to keep working, to keep recruiting, he thought of the 30,000 fans who would brave a cold, snowy night to walk, literally, uphill to the Carrier Dome, where the bleachers and field occupied half a football field .
“The city has embraced our team,” Boeheim said Wednesday. “I’ve been surprised that we’ve been able to draw the fans we’ve been able to draw.”
Home was home. They knew it. He knew it. And they knew he knew it and appreciated it. The more fans around the country hated him, or couldn’t understand him, they loved him even more.
“You can trout fish a mile and a half from my house,” Boeheim said. “I can play golf [at his Onondaga Country Club] in five minutes. I can be in my office in seven minutes. I can walk to any restaurant in town in less than 10 minutes.
“And I like it. I like that life.”
A Life in Syracuse.
“I’ve just been fortunate enough to coach at Syracuse,” Boeheim said Wednesday. “A place I love. A place I love to live. People keep wondering about it. Maybe it’s my fault, but I’ve lived in Syracuse all my life and [I’ll] be there, hopefully, for a long time.”
Training is over. The season’s games and victories and rhythm will follow. He will remain an icon there, as it is almost impossible to separate the man from the school and the place. It is a relationship as long and unique as college athletics has ever known.
Just the way Jim Boeheim always wanted it.
“I meant that about Syracuse,” he said years ago when discussing that mid-’70s vacation with the Pitinos. “They laughed, but I meant it … still do.”