Jim Boeheim has been associated with Syracuse University since 1962, when he began a four-year career as a guard on the Orange basketball team. In 1969 he became the team’s assistant coach. In 1976, he was named head coach, a position he still holds.
Prior to this season, Boeheim’s legacy at Syracuse was anchored by eight regular season Big East titles, five Big East Tournament championships and 28 trips to the NCAA Tournament, including three trips to the national title game – one of which, in 2003, culminated with a national championship.
Among the players he has coached: Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Washington, Derrick Coleman, John Wallace and Billy Owens.
This year, Boeheim, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005, has been closely linked to the controversial situation involving long-time friend and basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine. Fine stands accused of molestation involving three boys (who now are adults), two of whom worked as team ball boys. Fine has denied all charges.
Last week, Syracuse University and Boeheim were sued by two of the alleged victims.
Last month, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story (Triumph Books) by veteran writer Scott Pitoniak hit book shelves. Although it delves deeply into Boeheim’s life and his rise through the ranks of Syracuse basketball, it offers no inkling of the current controversy and was published before the situation became public.
Big Lead Sports spoke with Pitoniak, who covered Syracuse as a sports reporter and columnist with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle from 1985-2008, about Boeheim, the book and the controversy that could damage Boeheim’s legacy.
Scott Pitoniak: I could be totally wrong about this, but from what I know I believe Boeheim was blind-sided on this and wasn’t aware of the serious issues regarding his long-time assistant and friend. I think his initial, over-the-top, insensitive defense of Fine was an indication that he didn’t know. Had he known, he clearly wouldn’t have stuck his neck out to the extent that he did.
BLS: Having been around the program do you think such things could have gone on and Boeheim not known?
SP: I definitely think these things could have transpired without Jim’s knowledge of them. What you have to understand about Boeheim is that – for better or worse – he takes a more hands-off approach than many of his head coaching peers. He doesn’t have a 24/7 stranglehold on his program. His approach has been described at times as an NBA approach. There’s a lot of delegation. He allows his assistants a lot of creative latitude and tends to be more of an overseer.
BLS: That said, should he have been more aware?
SP: Jim’s also a tunnel-vision guy. He’s totally focused on basketball, so I could see where he might be oblivious to things such as which ball boys are involved in the program, etc. Also, as we’ve learned, pedophiles can be incredibly deceitful and very good at hiding their heinous behavior. Looking back, I didn’t sense that Jim and Bernie were super close away from the court. They were friends, for sure, and Jim certainly respected Bernie’s work with the team’s big men – the centers and forwards. But I don’t believe they were spending tons of time together away from the court, especially the past 10 years, after Jim had remarried and he and Juli started a family.
BLS: How will this affect Boeheim’s legacy, even if he did not know but the allegations prove true?
SP: It certainly tarnishes his legacy. To what extent we’ll find out. Jim definitely hurt himself when he lashed out at the men who brought the allegations against Fine, calling them liars and extortionists. But I believe his apology was sincere after he received more information about the situation. And I believe he was genuinely moved when he visited a shelter in Syracuse that helps people who were sexually abused as children. Interestingly, it was a shelter that he and his wife Juli have helped raise money to support. Jim talked about how he was going to do more in terms of raising awareness about this problem. Clearly, if there are revelations that he had prior knowledge, then his legacy will be irreparably damaged the way Joe Paterno’s was.
SP: In my years as a reporter and columnist, I really didn’t have too many dealings with Fine. On the rare occasions I interviewed him for the various newspapers I worked at and for this book, I found him to be rather cold. And other reporters have said the same thing. Perhaps, he was just a person who didn’t care for the media. I just thought he would have been more expansive in his answers when I was interviewing him about Boeheim. But for whatever reason, he wasn’t.
BLS: Could a coach starting today establish such a long legacy at one university similar to Boeheim at Syracuse?
SP: I would think not. I believe the days of coaches such as Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt staying at one school for three decades are gone. I believe there is so much pressure in big-time sports to win and fill seats that you aren’t going to see the longevity and loyalty that you’ve see from those three coaches and a handful of others. One bad season, and people are calling for someone’s head.
BLS: Would Boeheim, if he were to start coaching today in coaching, be successful with his style?
SP: Yes, I think so. But he definitely would have to choose his words more carefully. When he started out as a head coach back in 1976, there wasn’t ESPN or the Internet or YouTube. Things didn’t go viral the way they do today. The scrutiny in all walks of life has never been greater. Virtually nothing is private any more. So, it clearly would be a greater challenge for Jim. He’d have to do a better job of censoring himself and not sticking his foot into his mouth.
BLS: Syracuse has declared its intention to leave the Big East for the ACC. How do you think things will change?
SP: It’s still difficult to imagine SU without the Big East and vice-versa. I believe Syracuse will continue to be among college basketball’s elite in the ACC, and I think new rivalries with Duke and North Carolina will wind up replacing old ones with Connecticut and Georgetown. I think Duke and Carolina will pack the Carrier Dome and establish new, on-campus single-game attendance records. The Big East has been the nation’s premier basketball conference in recent years and was much deeper from top-to-bottom than the ACC, and SU fared well. So I think that will continue to be the case, and I believe it’s going to help expand the Orange men’s recruiting base.
SP: I guess many people, especially outside of Syracuse, will be surprised to discover there is a softer, kind-hearted side to Jim Boeheim. Beneath the occasionally gruff, whiny exterior lurks a decent guy, whose acts of kindness are many. He has worked tirelessly to raise millions in the battle against cancer and has thrown himself full bore behind numerous causes that have improved the lives of young people in the Syracuse community. I also believe that after reading about his childhood as a socially and physically awkward kid and his complex relationship with a domineering father, they’ll understand a little more about why he is the way he is.
BLS: What do you think he would say is his biggest achievements?
SP: His biggest achievements in basketball would have to be the 2003 national championship and his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame a few years later. But he also might say that his greatest achievement is his work with Coaches vs. Cancer, where he’s out-distanced all other coaches, raising nearly $10 million.
BLS: And his biggest disappointments?
SP: I believe his biggest disappointment might wind up being his ill-chosen words after the allegations were brought against Fine. Jim staunchly defending a friend was understandable, but he went way overboard when he lashed out at the accusers. He should have shown some sensitivity and discretion. Basketball-wise, his biggest disappointments were no doubt losing to Indiana in the 1987 national championship game on Keith Smart’s jumper and being hit with NCAA sanctions in the early 1990s for questionable recruiting tactics.
BLS: Could Boeheim’s style work at another University today?
SP: I think his style definitely could work. He’s a brilliant basketball mind – especially on the offensive side. He’s much brighter than most give him credit for. But he would have to do a better job at tempering his remarks and understanding the ramifications of his words.
PHOTOS: Rich Kane/Icon SMI; Jerome Davis/Icon SMI