Living legend synonymous with Salt City hoop success
By Lou Sorendo
A wave of brilliant orange and blue. That’s what one is hit with when walking into Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s office at Manley Field House in Syracuse.
When seeing Boeheim comfortably seated amidst a vast display of sports memorabilia, it’s quite evident that he is more than just at work.
He is at home.
In a phrase, Boeheim is Syracuse basketball. He has taken this CNY city to the pinnacle of basketball glory. Season in and season out, he brings a consistency that has led to a singular career unmatched in college basketball annals.
Boeheim played as a freshman at SU in 1962. He has never left.
How popular has Boeheim become as SU’s basketball leader? The university named the Carrier Dome court “Jim Boeheim Court” in 2002 in recognition of the Hall of Fame coach’s numerous accomplishments. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005. His legacy intact, Boeheim still fully enjoys the next challenge on his basketball journey. At 64, he is far from done.
That’s apparent by his undying commitment to the SU hoop program and insatiable appetite for success on the hardwood.
“When you don’t feel that you really work, that’s the best kind of job to have,” he said. “Everybody would like to have that kind of job.”
“I’m lucky and very fortunate to have this job and the support I’ve had over the years,” he added. Boeheim has compiled a jaw-dropping .735 win percentage as head coach entering this season, and will most likely hit the 800-win mark next year.
Boeheim made Syracuse proud when the Orange captured the coveted national championship in 2003. He also brought the Orange to the title game in ’87 and ’96.
Boeheim also served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic Team, which went on to capture the gold medal in the 2008 Games in China.
Fresh start every year
Boeheim has undoubtedly soared to great heights in his sport, both on the collegiate as well as the world stage. But every year is a new one for coach Boeheim.
“The interesting thing about coaching is that you are 0-0 every year and starting out with a clean slate,” he said.
Anything accomplished in the past is rendered insignificant. “Each team is brand new,” he said. “Because you might have done something (in the past) has no effect on the season.”
“The challenge is exactly the same every year,” he said. “You have to start from scratch. I think that’s the challenge and it keeps you interested in going forward.”
“If you’re just continuing something, it could get old,” he said. “It’s brand new every year.”
Boeheim is currently the longest-tenured coach in the collegiate ranks. There have been a few who have stayed longer but are now retired. “It’s been a long run,” he said. Boeheim associates his unmatched consistency to being successful.
“It’s a matter of having a good, fundamental program that attracts good players,” he said. “No coach is successful without having good players, and we have had a number of good players over the years and have been able to win on a pretty consistent basis. That’s what you have to do.”
Some of those notable players include Dwayne “Pearl” Washington (‘83-‘86), Sherman Douglas (‘85-‘89), Derrick Coleman (‘86-‘90), Billy Owens (‘88-‘91), Lawrence Moten (‘91-‘95), John Wallace (‘92-‘96), Carmelo Anthony (‘02-‘03), and Gerry McNamara (‘02-‘06).
Boeheim served as assistant coach from 1969 until he took over the head coaching spot in 1976. He has been there ever since.
He began his love affair with SU as a walk-on player in 1962, and went on to compete in the same backcourt along with all-time Orange great Dave Bing. It was apparent he had leadership skills early: He captained the squad in his senior year along with Bing.
CNY in blood
Boeheim is a true-blue Upstate New Yorker. After getting into coaching, he settled into a comfort zone and has never entertained moving anywhere else.
“I’m not one who looks at other places or thinks other places are better,” he said. “I think this is a good place and it’s been a good place for me.”
“I’ve never really thought seriously about going someplace else,” he said.
His love for SU has transcended any need to enter into the realm of professional basketball.
Has Boeheim ever considered coaching on the NBA level?
“Not really. I though about it a little bit,” he said. “It’s a different game, and it would be fun and challenging coaching in the NBA.”
Nonetheless, he has never actively pursued going to the next level.
“You have to really go after it,” he said.
Boeheim said he has thought about retirement but “not too much.”
“I’m not going to think about what I want to do in retirement until I retire,” he said. “When you start thinking about what you want to do, it pushes you to retire.”
Boeheim is married to Juli, and the couple has three children—James, 10, and twins Jack and Jamie, 8. He also has a daughter, Elizabeth, from a previous marriage.
“If I did retire, I’d have plenty to do with them,” Boeheim said.
He enjoys fishing and hunting, and plays golf, a sport he coached in the 1960s prior to taking on the assistant basketball coaching job.
He once boasted of a two-to-three stroke handicap for many years.
Did Boeheim miss his second calling as a golfer?
“I used to be decent, but with all the things with basketball, my game has slipped every year,” he said. He now characterizes his game as “pedestrian” with a goal of breaking 80.
Even in retirement, Boeheim will be content to stay put in CNY.
“I’d go south for a month or two, but I’d stay here,” he said.
Boeheim, a Fayetteville resident, enjoys the distinct spring, summer and fall seasons in CNY, and being engaged in basketball helps to insulate him from the rigors of Upstate winters being that it coincides with the indoor playing season.
“We have tremendously supportive fans and the people here support all the charitable work we do,” Boeheim said.
“It’s just a great place to live,” said Boeheim, noting that it’s conducive to raising his children and features a solid school system.
Mixing with the best
The SU men’s basketball program has certainly built a reputation of excellence. Expectations to win naturally follow.
“We expect to win. It’s a pressure we put on ourselves. We want to win and expect to win,” he said.
“Competition is very tough in the Big East,” he said. “Right now, we’re the best conference in the country. It’s not going to be easy to win games, and we’re going to lose some games, it’s as simple as that. I think our fans understand how tough the conference is, but they still expect us to have success and we do as well. It’s the way we look at it.”
The reason why the Big East is so formidable is simple. “We have a lot of basketball programs that have been traditionally good for a long, long time,” Boeheim said. “It is a great conference, and we added four really good programs in Marquette, Cincinnati, Louisville and DePaul.”
“We built a monster conference. Every game is difficult,” he said. “There’s eight to 10 teams that are really good.”
Boeheim is no stranger to being top dog in the Big East. He’s captured seven Big East regular season championships and five Big East Tournament titles.
He’s also mentored some of the country’s finest coaches, such as Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
He said it’s a “good feeling” to have nurtured such tremendous coaching talent.
The stress factor
Stress, of course, creeps into every profession and every job in life.
Boeheim handles it in his own cool way.
He enjoys watching TV to alleviate stress, and will tape shows during the basketball season and watch them late at night.
He also tries to get as much rest as possible during the season.
“You try to get away from it a little bit,” he said. “Everyone should have a way of getting away, and that’s what I do.”
“You try to get your mind off it, otherwise you’re thinking about it 24-7,” he said.
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about the last game, or being worried about the next one.
“There’s so many games during a four-month period, we’re sometimes playing two to three games a week,” he said. “It’s important to try and get away from it.”
August is normally a good month to vacation, but Boeheim has been involved in Olympic training over the last three years and hasn’t had that luxury of late.
Boeheim said stress comes from getting ready for each game and dealing with issues surrounding the program and players.
“But after a number of years, you become relatively used to it,” he said. “It’s still there, but you’re able to handle it a little better.”
When Boeheim is not patrolling the sidelines for the Orange, he and his wife are devoting time to several charitable causes in the Syracuse area.
The Boeheims have been most active with “Coaches vs. Cancer,” a national fundraising organization affiliated with the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the American Cancer Society.
Boeheim is a cancer survivor himself, having triumphed over prostate cancer after being diagnosed several years ago.
“I’m fine. I do some light workouts and walking, but not as much as I probably should,” he said.
He’s under no special dietary restrictions, but is careful to monitor and balance his food intake. “I just try to be careful,” he said.
Boeheim said it’s vital to get the necessary checks and physicals, such as colonoscopies and the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test used to screen for prostate cancer.
“You have to take care of all those things,” he said.
Boeheim indeed has a personal stake in the battle against cancer. He lost his mother to leukemia and his father to prostate cancer.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind. It’s something we need to fight,” he said.
“I’ve lost some good friends over the last few years to cancer, and that has pushed me to take more leadership of the program,” Boeheim said.
His major objective has been to recruit more coaches into the program, and that effort has been highly successful.
“Coaches vs. Cancer” has generated over $5 million nationally this year.
The couple also supports the Make-A-Wish Foundation, while Juli is on the board of several other organizations, including the Community Health Center and ARC of Onondaga County.
“The rest of our time is spent with the kids, who are active in baseball and basketball. We spend a lot of time going to their games,” he said.
Is Boeheim tempted to jump into the youth coaching ranks?
“I’m just a parent, a Little League parent,” he said.
Boeheim also directs energy toward fundraising and speaking engagements, all of which he sees as part of his job.
The recruiting trail
Boeheim finds recruiting fresh talent both interesting and challenging, and relishes the opportunity to put a team together and have it reach top potential.
“Getting each team to play at the highest level you possibly can get them to play is tremendously challenging every year. I look forward to that,” Boeheim said.
What are the keys to successful recruiting for Boeheim?
“It’s personalities, it’s working, it’s getting to know people and getting them to understand you,” he said.
He noted having a “great university” and league to play in are advantages, along with a solid fan base and the Carrier Dome itself.
“Everybody has a good place to play, but nobody has a Carrier Dome on campus,” he said.
“It comes down to a player’s ability to want to play for you and your program,” he said.
While matching players to SU’s style of play is important, the opportunity to play is obviously of utmost importance to high school athletes, he added.
Boeheim said there is a major difference between today’s college basketball player and the ones he played with back in the 1960s.
“I think they are more motivated to play to get to the NBA,” Boeheim said. “When we played, it was about just going to school and playing basketball. We really didn’t think about playing professional basketball.”
He said most players today think they have a chance at playing in the NBA, and if not, perhaps explore pro hoops overseas or in the minor league circuit around the country
“They need to be kept on track to get their degrees so they are prepared for when they are done,” he said.
“It’s important to me as a coach to get guys through and graduate so they have that background in their back pockets. It’s something to fall back on when basketball is over,” he said
Boeheim earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.
Does Boeheim still get as psyched about the game as back in the day?
“It’s the same feeling. I’ve always been competitive and play to win. I hate to lose and still do,” he said.
Boeheim said he enjoys all sports, particularly golf. He even dabbles in watching and playing poker, which he characterizes as a “sporting game.”