With or without high-waters, it was a huge step for Boeheim to begin appearing publicly with Juli. He still steadfastly refuses to give her age and laughingly, but firmly, keeps her from doing it, too. "The youngest estimate I've heard is 24," says Boeheim. "That's just not true." After being pressed he allows, "All I'll say is she's over 30. Barely, maybe, but over 30." If they have plans to marry, they have not revealed them, but it seems like a good bet.
Juli, a Kentucky grad who is pursuing a master's in special education at Syracuse, knows she's now in the fishbowl once occupied by Elaine. "The age difference, the fact that we're not married, Jim's being a public figure, all those things sometimes make it awkward," she says. "I know some people are just waiting for me to show I'm just a dumb bimbo. But I gave up a lot to come here. I miss the South. I miss my family. But I always wanted someone to love and share my life with. And I know that's Jim. And he's in Syracuse."
He probably always will be. Back on one of those Boeheim-Pitino vacations, the husbands and wives were lying around the beach one day when they started talking about ideal places to live. As Boeheim recalls it, Pitino said Hawaii or some island; Elaine said San Francisco; Pitino's wife, Joanne, said Park Avenue; and Jim said Syracuse. They asked him again. Jim said Syracuse. Said he wasn't kidding, said he wouldn't even consider anywhere else. Said it was the best place on earth, and Hawaii was just "Syracuse in July." They got mad at him and left the beach.
In an age of peripatetic, keep-trading-up-for-a-better-job coaches, Boeheim has stayed put. He's been around long enough so that when he used to walk around campus, people would say, "Who's that guy with Dave Bing?" and now when Bing comes back to visit, people ask, "Who's that guy with Jim Boeheim?" During his two decades as coach, Boeheim has seriously entertained an offer from only one other school. In 1986, before it hired Gary Williams, Ohio State sent a representative to Syracuse to talk to Boeheim. but nothing came of it. After all these years Boeheim has gathered around him an extended Orange family. Granted, with personalities like Coleman, Washington and Orlando Magic center Rony Seikaly, it's a little more dysfunctional than, say, North Carolina's, but it's a family.
Boeheim's top assistant is Bernie Fine, another Syracuse lifer. Fine was the student manager on the Bing-Boeheim teams of the '60s, and when Boeheim got the head job, Fine came aboard. Only Bill Guthridge and Smith at North Carolina and Jerry Jones and Denny Crum at Louisville have been together longer than Boeheim and Fine. The other assistants' offices are occupied by Syracuse products too. Orr has one, and Mike Hopkins, a guard who played four seasons beginning in '89-90, has the other. An outgoing Californian with a call-me-dude outlook on life, Hopkins might seem misplaced on a Boeheim staff, but, hey, he's a Syracuse guy. So is Coleman, and don't even think of saying something bad about him. The subject doesn't have to be broached for Boeheim—or Fine, for that matter—to launch into a spirited defense of Coleman. They'll tell you he's a guy who gave 100% every day at Syracuse and won 113 games over four years and got 19 rebounds in the '87 final and visited the team every day during the Final Four at the Meadowlands last year. The only negative thing Boeheim will say about Coleman is that he was a bit of a dog in the weight room. And Coleman, no lover of coaches, reciprocates. "I'd do whatever Coach Boeheim asks because of the loyalty he shows to his players," says Coleman. "We are all an extension of him and of Syracuse University. Coach gave us the opportunity and the freedom to expand our game. I think that really helped prepare us for the next level."
Seikaly, ringing his buzzer to begin Family Feud, begs to differ. During an ESPN interview last March, Seikaly, a four-year starter for the Orangemen beginning in the '85-86 season, went out of his way to torch Boeheim. He said that the coach did not stress discipline, did not prepare his players for the NBA or for life after it, and wouldn't be successful at all without Fine at his side. Boeheim then took the low road, telling the Syracuse Herald-Journal that Seikaly "has been an idiot all his life and just continues being one." The subject makes Boeheim uncomfortable, and he won't elaborate on it other than to say that Seikaly later told a reporter in Syracuse that he regretted what he had said.
All things considered, though, the Syracuse family has always been fairly tight. Washington, who last year underwent an eight-hour operation to remove a brain tumor, says, "This place, Syracuse, was everything for me. And Jim Boeheim is Syracuse. The idea that he can't coach is ridiculous, and the idea that he's not a good guy is more ridiculous."
The case against Boeheim. the coach and the person, goes something like this: He never won the Big One despite having immense talent. He runs an unstructured program. He is grumpy at best, downright nasty most of the rest of the time. He only graduated 23% of his players in the latest six-year period measured by the NCAA. And we're sick of looking at those glasses.
The case for him, which after last season can be stated with a straight face, goes like this: He very nearly won two Big Ones. Where some see lack of discipline, others see a system that is entertaining for fans and fun for players. The talent on Boeheim's teams was never nearly as immense as it seemed, and the fact that he has sent 24 players to the NBA might be a credit to his coaching, not the indictment some make it when they point out his lack of postseason success. Clearly, Boeheim would not be as successful without Fine, whose specialty, incidentally, is developing big men like Seikaly; but neither would Smith without Guthridge nor Knight without any of the outstanding assistants who have been with him. As for the paltry graduation rate, Boeheim pleads guilty on that score, saying his rate was higher earlier in his career and adding, "They count transfers against you, and we've had a lot of transfers [in the most recent survey period]. That's a reason, but not an excuse. There's no way to put a good light on it, and I feel bad about it."
Off the court Boeheim performs charitable acts without much fanfare. He is the second-leading fund-raiser in the nationwide Coaches vs. Cancer program, started in memory of Valvano, and he is also involved in many other good works in and around Syracuse. But he never leaves his cynicism far behind. Last month, after receiving a coach of the year award from the March of Dimes, Boeheim said his thanks and added, "Of course, a few games into the season you'll want to take it back."