The old Jim Boeheim and his incredible two-three zone are on the way to another Final Four. The new Jim Boeheim and his more player-friendly attitude will be there as well.
Syracuse’s 55-39 victory over Marquette on Saturday sent the Orange on to the Final Four for the fourth time under Boeheim, a man as synonymous with his school as the Carrier Dome and snow.
Like his career, the Final Four berths have spanned a long time: 1987, 1996, 2003 and 2013.
He’s been involved with basketball at the central New York school since walking on to the team in 1962. On April 3, 1976, he became the head coach at his alma mater and just days short of 37 years later he is No. 2 on the all-time wins list — and adding to his reputation as one of the best defensive coaches because of that two-three zone that he has so loyal to.
“Jim’s a great coach. He understands this game and if you sit and talk with him, you’ll see that,” said Leo Rautins, who played for Boeheim from 1980-83 and whose son Andy played there from 2005-10. “That zone. It’s amazing. If I was a coach today and the way people shoot the ball I’d play zone too. He’s a genius. All his players love him and look at the way all his old players come back for him. You can’t say enough about him.”
The Syracuse sections in Verizon Center looked like the school’s Hall of Fame had come to life. Derrick Coleman, Pearl Washington, Billy Owens, Sherman Douglas. They were all there and they were all ready to talk about Boeheim, who led the Orange to the national championship in 2003 behind a couple of freshmen named Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara.
Most of his former players agreed there isn’t a lot different about Boeheim as far as the game goes. There are some very different things about the man himself.
“He’s mellow now, he used to scream, and cuss at us a lot,” Coleman said with a big laugh.
“He’s more calm now and doesn’t scream as much. He used to be a screamer,” Owens said, drawing laughs from a couple of former players “Right now he’s calm and has all the confidence in the world. This and 900 wins. I can’t be any happier for him.”
Boeheim has always looked pretty much the same on the bench. He sits with his chin in right hand when things are going smoothly and he’s up in a hurry if they’re not with arms spread wide and a look on his face of pure disbelief. He’s always been an easy target for those who say he’s a whiner but Douglas, one of the best point guards to play in the Big East, has a play on words with that.
Page 2 of 3 - “I think we all mature,” Douglas said. “I was there 20-some years ago. As Jim would say, ‘Like wine, you get better with age.’ He’s looks good and is a little feisty at his age. I’m so proud of him.”
The current players were asked if Boeheim had changed much in their years at Syracuse.
“He might have been more relaxed on me, I can tell you that after being here four years,” said Brandon Triche, who had nine points and six rebounds against Marquette. “I still get yelled at every other play but at least it’s every other play and not every play.”
James Southerland, who led the Orange with 16 points, said there hasn’t been all that much change.
“Coach yelled at me when we were up 30 against Montana, I can tell you that,” he said. “I don’t think coach is going to be relaxed until we win a championship, that’s what I say.”
At 68, Boeheim, who has had 35 20-win seasons, doesn’t look like he’s slowing down and he said as much this week when he confirmed he would be back to coach the Orange. He said that even though the school is leaving the Big East — a conference Boeheim helped build up with fellow Hall of Fame coaches Jim Calhoun, John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca — for the Atlantic Coast Conference. There, he will match wits with Hall of Famers Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski is the only coach with more Division I wins than Boeheim: 957-920. He also has been the head coach, with Boeheim as an assistant, for the U.S. national teams that won the last two Olympic gold medals.
“Mike Krzyzewski and I have become close over the years and whenever we have been together sitting someplace talking about basketball or whatever, we always somehow in the conversation it always gets back to how lucky the two of us have been. Really,” he said. “I was a walk-on at Syracuse 51 years ago and didn’t have a scholarship. I just feel very lucky to have been able to have done what I’ve done and I have had a lot of help, a lot of coaches and a lot of great players that have helped me.”
Mike Hopkins was both a player and coach. He’s on the current staff, which is all former players. He stood on the court with a strand of net tucked into the caps that were handed out.
“He’s the same guy just a lot looser,” Hopkins said. “He’s consistent, tough. All that is the same. The newest thing is he has a great relationship with the players. He communicates with them. He giggles with them. I’ve seen things evolve since I’ve been with him since 1989 as a player and coach. He’s a coaching jewel. When you look back and see and work with a guy like that ...”
Page 3 of 3 - Hopkins choked up a bit and there were tears in his eyes. He didn’t say anything else. He turned to join a group of former Syracuse players and celebrate their coach’s fourth trip to the Final Four.