Today, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim will coach in his 31st NCAA Tournament. That's the most of any head coach in Division I basketball history. So you can excuse Boeheim, who is 69, for experiencing a rare senior moment.
During Wednesday's press conference at First Niagara Center, I asked Boeheim what he recalled about his first NCAA tourney as a head man. He winced, looked over at his sports information man, Pete Moore, and struggled for clarity.
“My first as a coach?” Boeheim said. “I haven't been thinking about this, so I probably won't even remember. You'll have to give me a clue. Let's see, first tournament. Is that when we beat Tennessee? I don't know. I swear to God. I wish I could remember. I think it was. Roosevelt Bouie was a freshman.
“Yeah, I think that was it,” he said. “It was a good tournament for a while. We thought we had an easy tournament, and then we had Charlotte, and they had a guy named Cornbread Maxwell, and it didn't turn out so easy. I think that was it. I'm not 100 percent.”
Moore confirmed that it was, indeed, the 1976-77 team. The Orangemen lost by 22 to NC-Charlotte in the East Region semifinals – what we now call the Sweet 16 – after upsetting a Tennessee team with Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld in the first game. It was a very long time ago. Boeheim took over as SU head coach before ESPN and the Big East, before the Internet, before Gerald Ford left the White House. It was so long ago, Syracuse played Canisius, Niagara, St. Bonaventure (twice) and, yes, Buffalo State that season.
Boeheim is coaching in his fifth decade, and he has endured all manner of triumph and adversity. He has won the NCAA title game and lost it twice. He has beaten cancer, survived an NCAA probation, divorced and remarried, had a court named after him, won two Olympic gold medals as an assistant, been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
He has won 947 games, second all-time behind his friend and Olympic boss, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. And he's done it all in one place. Boeheim, a native of Lyons, walked onto the SU basketball team in 1962 and never left. That alone should earn him a place in the hearts of Buffalo fans, who admire a man who knows his place, and the hell with the weather. It's also surprising that Boeheim is still underestimated in the estimation of hoop experts who, despite his achievements, have never assigned him a place alongside the celebrated intellects of the sport. He has won the national title, but is remembered for blowing it in '87. He's 52-29 in the NCAAs, 25-5 in opening games. But the critics won't him let forget those first-round flameouts against Richmond and Vermont. “I have never been criticized,” Boeheim joked. “Well, not that I would pay attention to, anyway.”
Boeheim hasn't been helped by his reputation as a whiner and a coach who gives his players a lot of freedom. Back in 1996, his so-called “mellowing” was the theme of the Final Four. Where is he now, some advanced stage of mellowing?
He seems like the same old Boeheim to me. Intensely competitive, fiercely loyal, honest and outspoken, sometimes to his detriment. To me, he's the ultimate jock, a coach who doesn't write motivational books (though he's working on an autobiography) or watch a lot of film. He knows talent, the blue-chippers and the late bloomers, and how to get the most out of them.
Boeheim doesn't overthink the game. He admits he watches a lot more Golf Channel in his office than game film. He's not one for shootarounds or long practices. There's a certain genius to it. Boeheim seems to embrace the image of the bumbling professor. He's dumb like a fox.
The guy knows his stuff. He knows the NCAA Tournament is the most overanalyzed sporting event this side of the NFL Draft. Boeheim was asked what he thought of President Obama's Final Four: Michigan State, Louisville, Florida and Arizona. “Well, how was he last year?” Boeheim said. “I don't know. Three weeks ago, you wouldn't have picked those four teams. But based on what we've seen, those teams are good. Virginia is proven to be good. I think those teams are slight favorites to get there, but I'm not sure they will.”
That was a polite way of telling the Prez he's like most fans this time of year. They react to recent events and put too much stock in what happened in conference tournaments. Experience has taught him how hard it is to predict a team's NCAA fortunes.
“We won two Big East Tournaments and lost the first round of the NCAA Tournament both times,” Boeheim said. “We won the national championship and got beat in the Big East Tournament by quite a bit. Last year, we got beat by a lot in the Big East Tournament (final) and went to the Final Four.
“There's just not much relationship to that stuff,” he said. “People want to look at it, but I just don't see it. There's no way to really tell. When Villanova won it (in 1985), we beat them by 30 points and Pittsburgh beat them by 35 their last two regular-season games. They beat the best team in the country (Georgetown) to win.”
His team started the season 25-0, then lost five of its last seven games. The Orange went from a sure No. 1 seed to a No. 3. Boeheim would rather be 32-0, I imagine, but he seems comfortable in the role of the staggering icon. People aren't expecting much from Syracuse. OK, he said they were overestimated when they were 25-0. Now they feel like the underdog, which is when Boeheim's teams tend to become dangerous.
It's hard to tell how a team will respond to the NCAA tourney. Why is it that some high seeds roll over inferior opponents, while others get tight and begin to play scared? The real contenders aren't defined by what happened before. They find their personality when the stakes become highest.
“Yeah, I think so,” Boeheim said. “I think that can happen. Even though we played well in New York (last year), when we got into the tournament we played at a completely different level, mostly defensively. That certainly can happen.”
That's what he's telling his team, no doubt. Winning 25 in a row means nothing now, and neither does losing five of our last seven. This is when it matters. Their best ball could be still ahead, as he found out in 1987 and '96 and 2003 and 2013. He's been around long enough to know it can go either way.
The Orange could lose in Buffalo or they could get hot and go on a long ride. It's never wise to count out a team whose coach has forgotten more basketball than most of us will ever know.