Nearing 70, Syracuse's Boeheim Never At A Loss For Words

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Forget the bracketologist-in-chief. The sour puss-in-chief said Wednesday he'd pick Michigan State, Louisville, Florida and Arizona to advance to the NCAA Tournament Final Four.

"Those are the four best teams going into the tournament," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "That doesn't mean they are all going to get there. I would say I would bet they won't all get there. But they are the most likely."

Told that was President Barack Obama's Final Four pick, Boeheim shot back, "How was he last year?"

Obama had Louisville, Indiana, Ohio State and Florida with Indiana winning it all. Only Louisville, the eventual national champion, made the Final Four. Boeheim's angle, of course, was Syracuse made the Final Four. With prickly tongue in cheek and that perpetual bitter-lemon face, Boeheim is his most acerbic in the first half-dozen words of reply to a media question. He's funny. Sometimes.

On this March day, Boeheim, whose No. 3 seeded Orange will open the tournament against Western Michigan Thursday at First Niagara Center, was more than ready to handle my question how, with a year under his belt, he'd compare the ACC to the old Big East.

"The restaurants were pretty good," Boeheim said. "It surprised me."

Boeheim, of course, was referring to his comment in January 2013 when he followed his expression of sadness about leaving the Big East with this gem: "Now I've got to go down to Clemson, S.C. I'm sure there's a couple of Denny's down there."

Yet only a few questions later Thursday, Boeheim, who'll be coaching in his 31st NCAA Tournament, was unable to clearly remember his first one.

"My first as a coach?" Boeheim said. "I haven't been thinking about this, so I probably won't even remember. You'll have to give me a clue. Let's see, first tournament. Is that when we beat Tennessee? I don't know. I swear to God, I wish I could remember."

At that point, the coach was given a little coaching that, yes, it was 1977.

"Roosevelt [Bouie] was a freshman," Boeheim said. "Yeah, I think that was it."

Boeheim has 947 wins. He's second on the all-time list. Only Mike Krzyzewski of Duke is ahead of him at 983. Boeheim can get to 1,000 if he wants. Boeheim can do it all at one school if he wants. What he can't control — no matter how controlling his 2-3 zone has been over the years — is the march of time. He still can give an answer that's sharper than a Rick Pitino silk tie. He still can lose his mind over an official's call like he did at Duke last month. Yet evidently Boeheim can have a senior moment now and again.

Why not? He'll be 70 later year.

Consider the coaches from that 1977 NCAA Tournament. Dean Smith of Carolina, Dick Vitale of Detroit, Digger Phelps of Notre Dame, Dave Gavitt of Providence, Pete Carril of Princeton, George Blaney of Holy Cross, Al McGuire of eventual champion Marquette (''If the waitress has dirty ankles the chili is good''). Some are living, some are dead and some are on ESPN. There's a column in simply listing the names from that 32-school tournament.

At any rate, there was a 32-year-old Boeheim, a decade removed from his senior year as team captain when Syracuse advanced to the Elite Eight. In a fascinating list this week by CBS Sports ranking the 68 NCAA Tournament coaches by their playing ability, Boeheim was No. 16. He had played a couple winters with the Scranton Miners of the ABL and now here he was on March 13, 1977, in Baton Rouge, La., pulling off a 93-88 tournament overtime upset of Tennessee. Beat the Ernie and Bernie Show of Grunfeld and King that night.

"We ended up blowing the regulation … we ended up winning in overtime," Boeheim said. "But it was a great game, a great, great game.

"It was a good tournament for a while. We thought we had an easy tournament and then we had Charlotte. They had a guy named Cornbread Maxwell, and it didn't turn out so easy. I think that was it. I'm not 100 percent."

At that point, the moderator said, "Didn't know it was going to be an aging test."

Boeheim smiled. And it struck me that maybe Boeheim wasn't having a senior moment at all. Maybe he was playing us. He is sly that way. He is famous for his hatred of game videotape. There is an image sometimes of him as an NBA-style coach, going with the easy flow. So there are times when his legacy can be underestimated. Boeheim, who'll always have his national title with Carmelo Anthony, also has lost a number of times in March with a more talented team than his opposition.

Off stage after his podium press conference, Boeheim said: "I can't remember everything. It was a big upset against Tennessee. We had a kid get 21 who hadn't scored all year. We had another kid who I never played, Billy Drew, a good player from Long Island. We had to throw him in there. He had 15 in the second half and never played again. His son [Kevin] played lacrosse at Syracuse."

Actually, Larry Kelly had 22 and had averaged 10. Drew had seven points in 10 minutes. Hey, Boeheim is nearly 70 and has 947 wins. Like Jim Calhoun, who had 873 wins, he is permitted to occasionally alter the facts a bit.

"Once you get to 800, the numbers are pretty big, they mean something," Boeheim said. "And 900 means a little bit more. Those are big numbers.

"When you have about 100, you looked at [Adolph Rupp's old record of 876] and you said, 'Well, that's not happening.' That's 20 wins a year for 40 years to get to 800. It's just not something that you think is going to happen someday."

But it did happen one day, just as the conference realignment that shook college athletics to its core happened one day.

"The ACC is difficult, just like the Big East," Boeheim said. "The style of play isn't much different. If the Big East was exactly what it was years ago, I wouldn't have wanted to leave and it would have been a bad thing. We didn't leave that. We left a league that was moving all over.

"So I don't have that nostalgia because that league wasn't there. The Big East had changed so many times over the years. It was not the same. We got to a league that is going to be stable."

Boeheim said he worried how the fans would react, but Syracuse had it best attendance since 1993.

"Everybody is happy, basically,'' he said. "It turned out really good."

For Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville, it did, yes. Cincinnati and UConn not so much. That's not Boeheim's problem. His problem is his team has lost five of seven after starting 25-0 and assuming the No. 1 spot in the polls. His problem is his team can't shoot. Boeheim, however, insisted matters can change over 40 minutes. He pointed to last season when Syracuse lost four of five games before getting to the finals of the Big East tournament and got to the Final Four.

"The tournament's a different thing," Boeheim said. "You can start playing well in one game and all of a sudden you can get on a roll.

"I think we probably were overestimated a little bit when we were 25-0."

He talked about playing well in most categories in the 66-63 upset loss to N.C. State in the ACC quarterfinals. He talked about the serendipity of Ralston Turner's huge three-point bank shot from outside the key.

"That happens once out of about a thousand times," Boeheim said. "You could win three or four really close games in the tournament or lose the first game and everybody will say they weren't that good. It's not really true."

What's true is Boeheim can't coach forever. Some think he and Coach K will coach through 2015-2016, complete their Olympic commitment together in Rio de Janeiro and retire. That would mean the sour puss-in-chief would complete his term about the same time as the bracketologist-in-chief.

Featured Stories

CTnow is using Facebook comments on stories. To comment on ctnow.com articles, sign into Facebook and enter your comment in the field below. Comments will appear in your Facebook News Feed unless you choose otherwise. To report spam or abuse, click the X next to the comment. For guidelines on commenting, click here.