Jim Boeheim has always been an easy target for critics. Observers have been aggrieved by his game management, how his Syracuse teams at times underachieve come March and how he rarely deviates from the 2-3 zone. We've chided and mocked and belittled his frailties while ignoring his greatest asset: success.
"I guarantee that on the years they thought Syracuse was going to be bad or not nearly as good as they usually are, they always have a great year," said Leo Rautins, who played at Syracuse from 1981 to '83.
Cases in point:
*In 1986, Syracuse lost Pearl Washington, Rafael Addison and Wendell Alexis but was a Keith Smart jump shot away from winning the national championship over Indiana in 1987.
*Playing with four new starters in 1995-96, Rochester's John Wallace nearly led Syracuse to an upset of Kentucky for the national title.
*The Orange started the 2002-03 season unranked but Boeheim won his first national championship with freshman Carmelo Anthony leading the way.
"Coach Boeheim is the most dangerous when no one expects anything out of them," said Roosevelt Bouie, who starred for the school from 1977 to '80. "I know what he said before the season. 'Well, I guess they don't think we're worth anything this season. What do you guys think?' He uses it as motivation."
This season is a prime example why, his former players say, Boeheim needs to get more credit for his coaching.
"Regardless of the talent level, he's going to put together a team that can compete and compete at a high level," said Stephen Thompson, who played for Boeheim from 1987 to '90. "I was watching the Villanova game and one of the announcers said that they don't have a player that was ranked in the top 100 out of high school."
Indeed, there isn't a McDonald's All-American among the bunch. Boeheim's best player, Wesley Johnson, was originally headed to Louisiana-Monroe before that school's longtime coach retired.
Go back to last March when Syracuse was eliminated from the NCAAs by Oklahoma. Jonny Flynn was saying all the right things about returning but his NBA stock was soaring and after he announced he was leaving, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf soon followed. Everyone believed 2009-10 would be a struggle. Everyone, that is, outside of the program.
Before the season, Adrian Autry, now an assistant at Virginia Tech, talked to Orange assistant coaches Mike Hopkins and Lazarus Sims about this year's group.
"They were really excited," said Autry, a four-year starter from 1991-94. "Wes Johnson was really good but I don't think they even thought he would make this kind of impact. They had an idea that they were going to be a good team because they had good chemistry."
Boeheim's achievements are well-documented, along with his faults, as if we believe he should be infallible. He's not perfect, just remarkable. Rebuilding?
Not with Johnson, the Iowa State transfer, who claimed Big East Player of the Year honors. Not with two fifth-year seniors in Andy Rautins, Leo's son, and Arinze Onuaku. Not with point guard Scoop Jardine returning to the lineup after sitting out last season with an injury. Not with freshman Brandon Triche, who brought a different approach to point guard than Flynn. Flynn was fire, Triche is ice. Not exactly a rag-tag bunch but they certainly didn't seem worthy of one of the best seasons in Syracuse history.
There was a time, especially in the 1980s, when Syracuse was loaded with talent. Between 1979, when Boeheim signed Tony Bruin, his first high-profile recruit, and 1992, when he signed Wallace, the Orange landed eight McDonald's All-Americans. In the '80s alone Boeheim signed five.
That was also around the time Boeheim started getting the tag of being merely a recruiter, with whispers that Syracuse underachieved.
"Over the years he's had so much talent people have put the label of 'talent guy' on him," said Thompson, a 1986 McDonald's All-American. "They say the same thing about John Calipari: talent guy."
But since Wallace, Boeheim has signed just four McDonald's All-Americans. That's four in nearly 20 years.
Bouie remembers not the recruiter, but the young coach who was more concerned about keeping his job and teaching and motivating players. When he arrived on campus Bouie had a bad habit of catching the ball in the low post then bringing it down low before going up for a shot. Boeheim informed defenders that they could foul Bouie as much as they wanted when he brought the ball down low and Boeheim kept his whistle in his pocket until he broke the habit.
"The one thing we figured out after two practices was that this guy knows his X's and O's," Bouie said. "It was blatantly obvious to us that he knows basketball."
Boeheim's system isn't intricate, but he places players in roles where they can be comfortable, and it's never the same from year to year.
Autry played shooting guard as a freshman alongside Michael Edwards, which took some pressure off Autry as he transitioned to the point.
"As the years went on, he asked more of me," Autry said. "He wanted me to handle the ball more, then he challenged me to be a leader not just in the game but on and off the court. But at first he wanted me to get used to running the team and running sets. That's how he developed me from year to year."
Boeheim's ability to develop players isn't lost on recruits.
"He gave players a system and let them play outside of that system if they had the talent to do it, that's what really drew me to him," said Chicago native Marcus Liberty, the nation's top recruit in 1987 who eventually signed with Illinois. "You had a guy in Derrick Coleman who was 6-10 but he let him bring the ball up the court if he wanted to. . . . Syracuse was my No. 1 choice because of him."
Over the years, Boeheim has mellowed. Whenever he made an error, Rautins would run quickly to the other end of the floor to avoid Boeheim's wrath. There were 15-second breaks for water and after that you ran defensive drills. You couldn't sit down during practice, which was moot anyway because there weren't any chairs in the gym. Placing your hands on your knees meant you were tired and out of shape so Boeheim ran you some more.
Now, he's more comfortable with who he is and utilizes his assistants more than in the past, the former players said. He also communicates better with the players.
"The respect and belief that the players have for him is really magnified," Thompson said.
He has 827 victories but has never been named national Coach of the Year. That could change soon.
"He's the Jerry Sloan of the NCAA," Leo Rautins said. "The two of these guys in their respective professions are fantastic."
Boeheim by the numbers
827 WINS IN 33 SEASONS
14 SWEET 16s
4 ELITE EIGHTS
3 FINAL FOURS
1 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP