LAHAINA, HAWAII – Jim Boeheim doesn’t have to strain to think back to 38 years ago.
Just a year older then than the Gophers’ Richard Pitino is now, Boeheim — the elder statesman of college basketball, and a Syracuse living legend — was a rookie coach. He recalls the start of the Bouie ‘n’ Louie era with incoming freshmen Roosevelt Bouie and Louis Orr, the team balance, the second-round loss to North Carolina-Charlotte in the NCAA tournament.
But what he remembers most is the feeling. Perhaps that’s because nearly four decades later — as the Gophers prepare to meet Syracuse on Monday in the first round of the Maui Invitational — it really hasn’t changed much.
“It’s eerily similar,” said Boeheim, who turned 69 last week. “I don’t feel that much different than I did my first year of coaching.”
That consistency has marked the performance of Boeheim’s teams. In the only head coaching job he has ever had, Boeheim has taken the Orange to the NCAA tournament 30 times, while advancing 17 times to the Sweet 16, four times to the Final Four (most recently last season) and three times to the championship game, winning it all in 2003. In the Big East, he directed Syracuse to nine regular-season championships and five conference tournament championships while earning Coach of the Year honors four times.
“He is obviously one of the best coaches there is,” Pitino said. “But he’s sustained success — he rarely has an off year. Phenomenal recruiter, phenomenal developer.’’
Pitino knows plenty about Boeheim. His father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was an assistant under Boeheim from 1976-78. And the younger Pitino, in his second year as a head coach, faced Boeheim six times while working under his father and at Florida under Billy Donovan.
It’s no secret then what to expect from the Syracuse coach: a suffocating 2-3 zone defense and a relaxed offensive structure, usually with one key scorer.
“That scout never changes,” Pitino said. “He does the same thing year in and year out. … They keep it very, very simple. He’s a phenomenal in-game coach. But it is consistent as it gets. … He just believes in his system and really doesn’t change much from it.”
It remains tough for opponents to simulate because of how precisely Boeheim recruits for his style, with long athleticism throughout the lineup.
“They play such a different style, it’s hard to prepare for them,” the Gophers’ Austin Hollins said. “We’ve got a great opportunity for us, it’s going to be tough. They’re not going to be pulling any punches, but it’s going to be really exciting and fun.”
The early years
It’s a system that was developed in the heart of University Hill more than a generation ago. In 1969 Boeheim took an assistant job with Syracuse, his alma mater, working under Roy Danforth. Seven years later, when Danforth was hired away by Tulane, Boeheim replaced him.
At the time, he was just turning 32, beginning to get his feet underneath him in the college basketball world. He took over a squad that had just reached its first Final Four in 1975.
“When I was freshman, I struggled a little bit, just to make it here in 1962,” said Boeheim, who joined Syracuse as a walk-on. “But I got through the year and made it, and never left. Everything really fell into place.”
Most would call that an understatement.
Boeheim, with 925 career wins, trails only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in victories accumulated at a Division I school. He served as an assistant with the U.S. men’s basketball team at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, helping to secure two gold medals. He is a former chairman of USA Basketball and former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). In 2005, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It’s a laundry list of accomplishments that on their own speak to just how skilled the well-versed pro is at his craft.
“Or how old I am,” Boeheim said with a chuckle. “It’s one of those two things, I guess.”
Season after season, players would come and go, but for the most part, the efficiency, the meticulous execution didn’t change. Each fall, Boeheim would make minor tweaks to his offense, depending on who his go-to guy was at the time, but his defense never blinked, and despite decades of talented teams scouting it, it almost always worked.
The game around him evolved; rules changed; three-point shooting turned strategy on its head. Boeheim always adjusted, and Syracuse basketball remained a constant, an unflappable powerhouse in a constantly shifting landscape.
“I have a great many memories of being involved with this game through the start of the Big East through the things that have happened in the Big East and now moving into the ACC,” Boeheim said. “There have been so many things that happened. I remember when Rick Pitino and I first went on the road recruiting, and all that stuff — the first games and all that. [Coaching the team] against Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin and those guys. It’s been a great experience.”
Boeheim doesn’t sit still long enough to reminisce, much.
“You don’t have time, really, to reflect,” he said. “There will be time for that someday but not now.”
When that is, Boeheim still doesn’t know. It’s not as simple as waiting for the job to stop being fun — he never looked at coaching as fun, anyway, he said, but more internally satisfying. The accomplishments, watching kids develop into men, those are the things he enjoys, a feeling unlikely to fade.
“I don’t know exactly how I’ll know,” he said. “And I’m not sure you do know for sure. But at some point in time, it’ll come.”
Until it does, Boeheim almost surely will remain the same force he always has been, since well before Pitino was born.
It’s enough to make another youthful coach’s head spin, but Pitino, accustomed to working with legendary coaches, insists he won’t be looking down at the other bench Monday.
He knows who’s there, and just what the man is capable of.
“It’s hard to do,” Pitino said. “It’s hard to be really good, year in and year out. You’re more impressed by the culture they’ve created, the culture they’ve established, they’ve got great players from top to bottom. And that’s what you strive to be.”