Jim Boeheim had a birthday last Sunday. If you must know, he turned 69. To him, it’s just a number. He doesn’t feel old, or tired, though he does try to get to bed by midnight these days. Boeheim is in his 38th year as the head men’s basketball coach at Syracuse, and if anything, the man feels rejuvenated.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 30 years old or 80,” Boeheim said by phone Tuesday. “If I was running up and down the court, it would matter. But when you’re sitting over there on the bench, it doesn’t matter what age you are. If you want to coach and you know what you’re doing, you can coach until you’re, well … you can coach a long time.”
Who can argue with him? Boeheim stepped onto the SU campus 51 years ago, a freshman guard from nearby Lyons, and he never left. He has never stopped winning, either. Over the last five years, in fact, after his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Boeheim has won even more. During the last five years, his teams have averaged a stunning 30 wins a season.
Boeheim has 924 career coaching victories, second to Mike Krzyzewski, his boss on the USA national team at the last two Olympics, who has 960. Boeheim has taken the Orange to 30 NCAA tournaments in 37 seasons. He is the only coach to make a Final Four in four different decades and won the national title in 2003.
He loves what he’s doing, and he’s still one of the best at it. Who retires if that’s the case? Critics wondered if Boeheim would survive an NCAA probation in the 1990s, or after some down years in the mid-2000s. There were calls for his job when he defiantly stood behind his former assistant, Bernie Fine, during a sex scandal two years ago.
Last year at the Final Four, Boeheim got so fed up with the speculation that he blew up after the Orange’s loss in the national semifinal and said he wouldn’t address his job status unless the reporters asked every other coach the same thing.
You want the secret? Coaching and family keep him fresh. He has three teen-aged sons from a second marriage. Being around players, around young people and coaches and students, keeps a coach young. Competing does, too.
“I’m certainly aware that it helps you to recharge every year,” Boeheim said. “There’s high anxiety. You get everything moving around; your brain is functioning every minute of the day. I don’t know if medically there’s any truth to it, but I think when you are functioning like that every day at a high level, it keeps you aware.
“It keeps you sharp, keeps you aware of what’s going on. If you’re not, you’re in trouble. You won’t succeed.”
This might seem incongruous, considering that Boeheim hasn’t left Syracuse in 51 years and hasn’t come out of his 2-3 zone in the last 20, but he believes change is a good thing, too. Oh, Boeheim wasn’t happy with the demise of the old Big East; he was sad at first when Syracuse made the jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But in time, he accepted it. The Big East had undergone periodic changes; the old basketball-driven league had been torn apart by the imperatives of football. He could cling to the old, like some crusty coot, or adapt and become an ACC guy.
“I think it’s a great league,” Boeheim said. “You’ve really got to be excited about it. I’m shocked by our fans’ response. We’re probably going to be up 5,000 season tickets – and it could end up being six. We’re almost at 22,000 season ticket-holders. We sold out Duke and North Carolina sooner than any game ever.”
That will energize a coach. North Carolina makes its first visit to the Carrier Dome as an ACC rival on Jan. 11. Duke and “Coach K” visit on Feb. 1. Imagine the hype when the two winningest coaches in history square off. Boeheim might sense some of that “high anxiety” as he approaches his first season in the ACC — which added Notre Dame and Pittsburgh this season and will take on Louisville next year.
Syracuse, which lost to Michigan in the national semifinal last spring, is currently 4-0 and ranked ninth in the country. But SU hasn’t dominated its annual cakewalk through the state schools. The Orange trailed Cornell by 14 in the opener at one point. They were down with two minutes to play Monday against St. Francis before escaping by six.
One thing about Boeheim at this stage in his career, his comments aren’t always filtered. At the start of the season, he called it “the height of foolishness” to expect the Orange to win 29 games or so. He said, “Maybe I don’t know basketball.”
Boeheim likes to temper expectations, but he had a point. Despite the 4-0 record, the Orange haven’t played like a top 10 team. People underestimated the loss of guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, a superior defensive backcourt that helped Syracuse limit teams to 36 percent shooting from the field last year, third in the country.
“Our front line is as good as it was last year, or better,” he said. “Our backcourt is young and not as strong. We’re struggling to defend. People are shooting much better from the three-point line against us than they did last year. So we’re struggling to get where we need to go right now.”
Eventually, he’d like to go to Buffalo. We’re hosting an NCAA subregional — second and third rounds, if you will — at First Niagara Center on March 20-22. Syracuse came as a No. 1 seed the last time the tourney was here in 2010. The NCAA likes to reward the higher seeds by placing them in the closest sites possible in the early rounds.
“I’d like to be playing in Buffalo, that’s for sure,” Boeheim said. “Last year, we ended up going to California. Maybe they’ll remember that and try to keep us closer to home. Buffalo would be great, but you take what you get in the tournament. You’re usually just happy to be playing in it.
“I think every year as a coach, you’ve got a new team, new players, and you just try to figure it out, how it all fits together. It’s always a tremendous challenge. It’s interesting. So we’ll keep doing it for a little while.”