At 65 years young, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has never been better
No. 3 Syracuse is off to the best start in school history at 22-1
Boeheim has been with Syracuse since 1969; head coach for the last 34 years
Boeheim says he makes the time to make the time, if that makes sense
Because Syracuse is unexpectedly 22-1 (ranked No. 3 in the country) and we'd like to know why, we've arranged a few minutes of phone time with the coach Jim Boeheim. But not before we've discussed more important topics.
Such as TV.
"I watch all the 10 o'clock soap operas,'' Boeheim is saying.
"NCIS is my favorite. Numbers. I used to watch St. Elsewhere. That was good. I like them all.''
I could ask Boeheim about Wesley Johnson, the Iowa State transfer who's offering 17 points and nine boards a game, or senior Andy Rautins making the switch from forward to guard, or the overall all-for-one-ness involved in leading the nation in field goal percentage and assists.
Syracuse is 22 for 23 without Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, and with a 65-year-old coach who has coached 820 wins and shows no signs of slowing down, easing up or mellowing out. It's a very good basketball story. We'll get to it. Just not yet.
"I've learned as a coach, you have to relieve stress,'' Boeheim says. He comes home at night, reacquaints himself, briefly, with his wife, Juli, and their three children, then at about 11:30 -- "after everyone's asleep" -- he finds the couch and the TiVo and nestles in for a good, long session with the dead people on CSI.
"All of them,'' says Boeheim.
He plays golf, too, whenever the city of Syracuse isn't under a snow emergency, which is exactly six days a year. Visit a local restaurant in January, see Pike's Peak in the parking lot.
Boeheim once claimed a 2- or 3-handicap. Now, he's a 7 or 8. He has played everywhere that's good: Augusta National, Pebble Beach, Cypress Point (his favorite) and Pine Valley, a place so exclusive, some of its members don't even know where it is. He has a June tee time there already, a perk that somehow doesn't thrill him. "I've played there every year for 15 years,'' says Boeheim. "I'm not that excited.''
I suggest it must be trying, being a golf nut in Syracuse, N.Y., average February high 33-going-on-meat-locker. I mention South Carolina as an alternative. Boeheim says, "It sucks there for about six months. Too hot. We have six perfect months here. The other six is basketball season, when it doesn't matter what the weather is.''
He is 65. He has seen his long-time peer in Big East wars, UConn's Jim Calhoun, take an indefinite leave to handle unspecified physical issues. He says the masses don't understand how it works with coaches. "For seven or eight months (basketball) consumes you. It's all you do. It's all you think about. I don't see my friends for eight months. I see my family and team,'' Boeheim says.
I ask him about all these years, all this time poured into one job that comes to define coaches, as much as any vocation defines anyone. We talk about Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant. We discuss Urban Meyer and Calhoun. Passion and stress, wearing the same whistle. Does coaching add years to your life? Or take them away?
"Bryant was already sick when he retired,'' says Boeheim. Bryant died of a massive heart attack, 28 days after he coached his last game. "People say that Paterno is worried about that, I don't know. If you don't have health issues, it's not going to change anything.''
Boeheim says he makes the time to make the time, if that makes sense. "I tell young coaches, 'You don't have to coach every play in practice. You can do a little less and be a better coach,' '' he says. Boeheim says he "went to every school event'' his 24-year-old-daughter Elizabeth ever had. Now, his kids mostly play baseball, which is when Boeheim is out of the basketball bunker. "I see every game,'' he says. I ask him what he has missed while devoting 34 years to coaching the Orange.
He says, "Not a thing.''
Thirty-four years is a very long time in any job, at any one place. It is several lifetimes in college athletics, where nomadic and mercenary men rarely finish what they start. Boeheim has been so good for so long -- 32 20-win seasons -- he could have bolted Syracuse at some point. Perhaps to a place where July wasn't the only month he could wear a polo shirt.
"I don't believe the grass is greener on the other side,'' he says. It must be something he has said a thousand times. "If you have a good situation, be happy in it. I started out at a good job. It's still a good job. I never saw any reason to leave.''
Certainly not now. Syracuse is surprising even its coach, who didn't foresee his backcourt coming together the way it has. "Andy (Rautins, the 6-foot-4 senior) played forward mostly, before this year. (point guard Brandon) Triche is a freshman," Boeheim says. He counts on the muscle of Johnson, Arinze Onuaku and supersub Kris Joseph. But the guard play has been pleasant.
"They're very unselfish. They all pass it," says Boeheim. "The biggest thing is, we have complementary players. Guys who can play inside and outside, who can pass and shoot. It' a good group.''
Boeheim's image as a grump and, worse, a guy who can't coach, is in the rearview mirror. It was never right, even when it seemed to be. Now, it doesn't matter. A Syracuse team has never started 22-1. "We have so much to learn,'' Boeheim said a week ago, the day before the Orange beat Georgetown.
Meantime, the bunker beckons, and then some late-night TiVo. "I've got about 45 shows backed up right now,'' Boeheim says.
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