Leo Rautins couldn't help but laugh Monday when he was asked if anyone was more qualified than he was to answer questions about Jim Boeheim. Rautins has been around the Syracuse coach for the better part of three decades. He has the unique distinction of knowing him as a player, as the father of a star player, as a coach and an analyst.
"It pretty much covers it all," he said.
Rautins played for Boeheim in the early 1980s, back in the early days of the Big East. He spent a few years in the NBA, settled with his family in suburban Syracuse, worked as a television commentator for the Toronto Raptors and coached the Canadian national team. His son Andy is a senior guard who will lead the No. 1-seeded Orange into Buffalo this week for the NCAA Tournament.
It's hard to believe, but Leo Rautins will celebrate his 50th birthday Saturday. All these years later, he still suffers from flashbacks whenever he's around Boeheim. His memory returns him to another life, when he was a slick-passing forward and captain who after making a mistake would sprint as fast and as far as possible to avoid his coach's rage.
For the past four years, he watched his son experience much the same. Andy emerged this year as one of the top outside shooters in the country and a terrific defender in Boeheim's trademark zone defense. He also has become an extension of his coach on the floor, just like the old man was so many moons ago.
"It's extremely weird," Leo Rautins said. "I know Jimmy from playing for him and watching him from the sidelines for years. I know exactly what he's saying to Andy when he says it. I know when I'm at the gym watching practice and he walks over to talk to me, based on what's happened, what he's going to talk about. It's kind of funny when you get to know how somebody thinks and how they go about their business."
Leo made a half-hearted attempt to discourage his son from playing for Syracuse when he was being recruited out of high school. He wanted to make sure the kid was going for all the right reasons and could handle inevitable comparisons to him. Andy was bent on playing for Boeheim after hearing his father talk about him over the years.
Sure enough, when father and son sat down in Boeheim's office for a formal visit to discuss the university and the program, Leo Rautins heard the same speech Boeheim gave him when he was 19 years old. Deep down, he was hoping Andy would land at Syracuse and was thrilled when he made the decision on his own.
Of course, Boeheim is a kinder, gentler, more patient coach these days than he was years ago, when he stormed the sidelines looking like someone who just took a bite out of an onion. He's 65 years old and has won 827 games, his victory total the second-most among active coaches behind Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and sixth all-time.
"I can remember a time when I ran down the opposite of the court from where he was at so I wouldn't have to deal with the wrath," Rautins said. "He's still a tough coach, but he has mellowed. With time, there's security and confidence. Jimmy is a great coach in many aspects. The one word I use to describe him is 'brilliant.' "
For all the adjectives attached to Boeheim, you rarely hear anyone describe him as brilliant. His reputation mostly has been that of being a good coach and a terrific recruiter who has been in the game for a long time. He has won playing a 2-3 zone defense that misguided critics often dismissed over the years as outdated and ineffective.
When you talk about the greatest coaches in college basketball history, the conversation usually revolves around Adolph Rupp and John Wooden or more recently Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and Bob Knight. You rarely hear Boeheim's name mentioned among the best ever. But let's face it, when your name is splashed across the court in the Carrier Dome, you've done something right.
At some point, even Boeheim's biggest detractors have to concede he's right up there with the best. He has won 20 or more games a record 32 times in his 34 seasons. He has reached the Final Four three times, winning a national championship in 2003. He has been named the top coach in the Big East four times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. Strangely, he has never been named the national coach of the year.
That could change. Boeheim's best work has been this year with the 'Cuse, which finished with a 28-4 record, dominated the tough Big East Conference and earned a No. 1 seed despite an early knockout in the conference tournament. All this after the Orange opened the season unranked and supposedly decimated.
Point guard Jonny Flynn jumped to the NBA and Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf left to pursue professional careers. Certainly, Syracuse would have been a favorite to win the tournament if Flynn stuck around. Truth is, Harris and Devendorf probably wouldn't have cracked the 'Cuse starting lineup this season.
Andy Rautins is a selfless leader who built a strong relationship with Boeheim in his first three seasons and took over when Flynn walked out the door. Transfer Wes Johnson will be a lottery pick. Freshman Brandon Triche quickly proved he's a capable point guard. Scoop Jardine provides important minutes off the bench.
Boeheim will likely be without big center Arinze Onuaku for the first game, but he has plenty of long, athletic players to get through the first two rounds. All are part of his master plan. And that attacking zone defense, well, that's where his coaching brilliance comes into play. All these years later, some things never changed.
"Here's a guy who has played zone for his coaching career," Leo Rautins said. "He has modified it and had it evolve into something that is really unique. He doesn't care what you think. He understands it, and he's going to win with it. The basketball people understand what he does. You have to tip your hat to him."