Let's pretend that you are a cosmetologist with supernatural powers and have been assigned the herculean task of making over Jim Boeheim, whose reclusive-cleric aspect and grumpy demeanor have turned him over the years into a kind of Mr. Wilson, the crotchety neighbor who's constantly peering out the window to catch Dennis the Menace trampling the flower beds. Where on earth do you begin?
Perhaps at the top. The Syracuse basketball coach's hair is thinner than capellini and his forehead is ever expanding, so maybe a consult with the Hair Club for Men is in order. Or you could tell him to lose those damn dark-framed specs (does he shower with those things on?), go for some sky-blue contact lenses to introduce a little brightness to his appearance. Or perhaps you might start with his walk, a long-striding gait once described by former Syracuse coach Roy Danforth as "a western New York skip-a-long," usually done to the arrhythmic accompaniment of nervous, wiggling fingers. A gentlemanly Dean Smith amble or even a Bobby Knight High Noon saunter would be more appropriate for a big-time basketball coach.
Or should your first alteration be a radical whine-ectomy? Lower the voice half an octave, reduce the nasal timbre and just maybe Boeheim sounds analytical and knowledgeable instead of "sarcastic" and "ill-tempered" (as he's usually described). Or maybe what you have to do is cut into the man's brain and shut down his memory bank—a steel trap that retains every slight, every insult, every negative comment; a deep reservoir of defensiveness that compels him to lash back at his critics at regular intervals. Then, perhaps, Boeheim will cease to be what his best buddy, Tony Santelli, calls him: "his own worst enemy."
Or do you stand back, study the whole 52-year-old package of conflict and contradiction that is James Arthur Boeheim, take into account the 483-159 career record, the .752 winning percentage, the 17 NCAA tournament appearances in 20 seasons, the two national championship game appearances, the loyalty and constancy he has shown to one institution, and the dogged you-can-knock-me-down-but-I'm-not-going-anywhere attitude, and come to an even more radical conclusion: Forget the makeover and leave Jim Boeheim just the way he is.
A year ago at this time, college basketball observers were wondering how long it would take Boeheim, his team or both to implode. As the 1995-96 season approached, starting point guard Michael Lloyd left school rather than face an NCAA investigation about the junior college transcript he had used to enroll at Syracuse. The Big East Conference's alltime leading scorer, guard Lawrence Moten, had used up his eligibility and moved on to the NBA. The squad's star was senior power forward John Wallace, a player who many believed had a Derrick Coleman-like attitude but not Derrick Coleman-like skills, a potentially inflammatory combination. Syracuse was picked as low as 42nd in one preseason poll, and no one had the Orangemen in the Top 20. Clearly, this was an assignment that called for a Rick Pitino or a Mike Krzyzewski, a masterly X's-and-O's guy. Certainly it wasn't a job for a Boeheim, who was on everybody's short list of the Worst Coaches in America.
But a funny thing happened along the way. "Suddenly," says Boeheim, perhaps with justifiable sarcasm, "I learned how to coach." Though he has long advocated offensive balance, he designated Wallace as his go-to guy, and the big forward—who had petitioned to leave school early for the NBA in the spring but then decided to stay—became one of the country's best players. The coach told his can't-shoot-straight point guard, Lazarus Sims, that it was O.K. not to shoot and turned him into a solid, mistake-free quarterback instead. Boeheim assessed the slow feet of players like Sims, small forward Jason Cipolla and undersized center Otis Hill and scrapped his beloved man-to-man defense in favor of a swarming zone that threw teams off balance all season. And he played every no-one-gives-us-any-respect card in his deck, turning what was supposed to be a middle-of-the-pack Big East team into a leader of the pack that kept getting better as the season went on.
And there was Jim Boeheim back in the NCAA final, nine years after his first championship game appearance, in 1987, when Indiana's Keith Smart defeated his Orangemen on a buzzer beater in New Orleans. And even more shockingly, there was Boeheim joking with reporters, "laughing off all the curveballs they threw me," as he put it, showing a charming side, swapping old stories and compliments with his final-game rival, Kentucky's Pitino, who happened to be the first assistant coach Boeheim hired after taking the Syracuse job in 1976. Nobody expected the Orangemen to beat Kentucky, and they did not, losing a 76-67 decision. But even Boeheim's critics had to admit that his coaching in the final—Syracuse trailed by only two with four minutes left—was flawless and, in fact, that his performance throughout the season was as good as any in recent memory, one that conjured up memories of Jim Valvano at N.C. State in '83 or Rollie Massimino at Villanova in '85.
Being a master of sarcasm Boeheim doesn't quite know how to characterize what happened to him last season. His nature is to pooh-pooh it and make the standard claims that he has always been a good coach and a reasonably good guy. But at the same time he can't deny that something happened, something beyond a runner-up finish that in a few years will be forgotten everywhere except in Syracuse. "And what does that say about image and public perception, that one guy can change so much in one season?" Boeheim wonders. But when pressed, he will admit that he is a happier person—"more whole," as one of his friends puts it—and a long way from the guy who seemed in a perpetual funk about something: a tough loss, an NCAA investigation, media criticism, sloppy play, even a muffed chip shot during a small-stakes golf match. He will also admit that he is extraordinarily lucky because despite being cold and distant by nature, a loner to the depths of his soul, Boeheim has somehow managed to find love, resolve and renewal from the three most important relationships in his life, all of them potentially messy.
His girlfriend, Juli Greene, a woman about 20 years his junior who, by anyone's standards, does not need a makeover, has moved from Lexington, Ky., to be with him in Syracuse. His 11-year-old adopted daughter, Elizabeth, lives with his ex-wife Elaine. And then there is Elaine, a strong woman who has decided to share Elizabeth without rancor and accept Juli without resentment. The ex-Mrs. Boeheim was there at the Meadowlands on April 1, two rows above Juli and Elizabeth, watching her ex-husband lose the championship game and in the process become, for perhaps the first time in his life, a crowd favorite. "I felt good for Jim," says Elaine.
Before Jim left the family business to become a coach, Boeheim men had been burying folks in Wayne County, N.Y., since 1854. The Boeheim Funeral Home, where the family lived, stood at 77 Williams Street in the center of Lyons, a town of about 5,000 residents that is equidistant from Syracuse and Rochester. The fact that a seemingly joyless person like Boeheim grew up among corpses and caskets is certainly grist for the Freudian mill, but don't go too far with it. "It was a little strange being there in the funeral home," says Boeheim's lifelong friend Santelli, owner of Santelli Lumber on Route 31 in downtown Lyons, "but I don't think it affected Jim at all." What did have a profound effect on Jim was the hard-boiled man, also named Jim, who ran the business. Boeheim's father wasn't exactly the Great Santini, but he wasn't Ward Cleaver either. "My father had a good side," says Boeheim wryly, "but he kept it pretty well hidden."