Late Wednesday afternoon in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jim Boeheim’s tenure as head coach of basketball at Syracuse came to a befuddling and resoundingly ignominious finish. Or it came to the most appropriate end imaginable, depending on your perspective and home address. Confusing, because it remains uncertain whether Boeheim retired, was retired or forced out, parted ways or was effectively fired. (This may remain a mystery). Fitting, because his last public appearance, in the postgame press conference after a 77-74 loss to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament, was prickly and cryptic in a way that many will see as classically Boeheimian – giving no quarter and revealing little, stubborn and borderline immature (no small feat at the age of 78), almost funny, but not quite. (It was appropriate that all of this happened in Greensboro, a place where neither Syracuse nor Boeheim ever belonged, in a conference with which he won’t be enduringly associated).
Also: The passage of time will render all of these details insignificant, likely sooner than later. They will be replaced by more enduring ones: Boeheim arrived as a walk-on player in Syracuse in 1962, and eventually coached his alma mater for 47 years and 1,557 games. These are preposterous numbers. His teams went to the NCAA Tournament 35 times, reached five Final Fours, won the national championship in 2003 and on two other occasions lost in the championship game. It’s a fool’s errand to rank coaches across eras, but Boeheim is on whatever short list you might construct. He was deservedly elected to the Hall of Fame 18 years ago.
It is worth noting the moment of Boeheim’s departure, not just as a passage of great and unmistakable importance in Syracuse, but as another milepost of broader (and perhaps less obvious) significance in the college game writ large – the passing of a certain type of celebrity coach.
Drawing a timeline of a sport’s relevance is a slippery operation at best, educated guesswork at the vagaries of cultural preferences. There are absolutes in this discussion: The NFL is now king, boxing and horse racing are relics of a distant past, hockey has a ceiling, college football’s religiosity is so intense that it turns a regional game into a national one. After that: You’re on your own to a large degree.
But there are fuzzy truths: College basketball’s modern-era popularity (I’m leaving the UCLA Wooden era just prior) was built on a few things: The explosion of the NCAA Tournament that began in earnest with Bird vs. Magic in 1979 and began evolving into the brackets/buzzer-beaters/upsets extravaganza of today, two years later on the second Saturday in March, when NBC introduced the country en masse to the cutaway moment, three times. (I wrote about this afternoon for Sports Illustrated a decade ago and stand by its relevance, the shoulders upon which everything March Madness-related stands today).
And in that same era, something else: The Cult of the Coach. Maybe it’s fair to argue that it began with Wooden, but his career unfolded in the pre-cable age, with no more than a few regular season UCLA games available for a wide audience (and seemingly most of those against Notre Dame). Wooden’s run – 10 titles in 12 years and seven straight from 1967-’73 – unfolded in the print journalism era. When he appeared on television in horn-rimmed glasses, with a program rolled up in his hand, never calling timeouts, it was akin to seeing Nixon at the supermarket – a figure from the newspaper come to life.
And it’s equally fair to argue that first manifestly famous coach of the television era was Marquette’s Al McGuire, who won his only national title on a Monday night in 1977, cried on the bench, promptly retired and became the sport’s first celebrity announcer, Madden before Madden. (If I have to tell you what an aircraft carrier is, or French pastry, well, we can’t be friends).
The real and true rise of the coach as architect of an unspoken college basketball business and media strategy coincided with the birth of the Big East Conference, a story oft-told and by now enmeshed in cobwebs, but a valuable one nevertheless. The league played on Monday nights on ESPN and despite a deep roster of talent – Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Ed Pinckney, Pearl Washington, Ray Allen, and so many others – the coaches were made the stars. In the first generation there were John Thompson at Georgetown, Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s, Rollie Massimino at Villanova, and of course, Boeheim. They battled each other for recruits, referees’ whistles, and, subtly, TV time. They were the central characters in a recurring drama.
Generations followed: Rick Pitino at Providence and Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, who ultimately won more NCAA titles than anyone else from the league.
The celebrity-making was not limited to the Big East. There were Dean Smith at North Carolina, Jim Valvano at North Carolina State (whose hug-chasing run after winning the ’83 title remains a March highlight staple), and of course, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Elsewhere: Bobby Knight at Indiana, Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV, Roy Williams at Kansas and then at North Carolina. In the even more modern era: Billy Donovan at Florida, Tom Izzo at Michigan State, John Calipari at Kentucky, Bill Self at Kansas, and Jay Wright at Villanova, whose reaction to Kris Jenkins’s game-winning three in the 2016 national title game might be both the peak of the Power Coach Era and its last gasp. (Pat Summit, Geno Auriemma, Kim Mulkey, Tara VanDerveer, Muffet McGraw and Dawn Staley belong on this list, too).
Let’s be clear: These were – and are — all excellent coaches, deserving of praise. And their players were excellent. But on game night, they prowled the sideline as if playing Richard III on the London Stage. They commanded massive salaries, giant shoe company deals and ruled small – and not-so-small – kingdoms with impunity. (Yes, football is bigger, but that very scale is what makes the coach oddly smaller, surrounded by the barely contained chaos of a sideline, overwhelmed by cavernous stadiums. Like we don’t see a football player’s face, we don’t see a football coach’s soul, the way we saw Boeheim’s grimace all these years).
Gradually most of them have left, though a diminished Pitino remains at Iona; Calipari, Izzo, Self (with a real chance at another title this year). But inexorably, the game has been returned to the athletes. The coaches still make money (but now, in the NIL era, so do the players). In some ways the change is subtle – Mick Cronin can perform with the best of his forebears, but the evolution of the sport has made him less king, and more partner. Same with Mark Few, Kelvin Sampson and Scott Drew. The game is the thing; it no longer needs to mythologize the coach. We are in the age of athlete empowerment at the college level, a good and fair thing.
The old system both elevated Boeheim and caricatured him. It made him a star, and a foil, wincing and groaning behind his professorial spectacles, and then conducting dismissive, theatrically unrevealing and combative Belichickian pressers. Much of it he brought upon himself, but as with Belichick, a chunk of it was for show. Away from a dais, Boeheim was insightful, frank, funny. And he loves basketball. I interviewed him once as he rode an exercise bike and talked about his days hooping in the Eastern Professional League for the Scranton Miners. “Once I drove back to Syracuse from Scranton,” Boeheim told me, “And it was snowing so hard I had to open the door and follow the guardrails to see where I saw going.”
He liked good players and kept his rotation tight to keep those good players on the floor. “Dean Smith used to have his ‘blue team,’” Boeheim told me, referring to the full-five subs Smith once employed. “I loved when he put those guys in, because there’s a reason they aren’t starting.” (As an aside, a small piece of my spirit will always think of Boeheim as the one counselor at Dolph Schayes’ Basketball Camp in the 1960s who campers did not want to get sideways with, lest they wind up doing pushups on the planks of a bunk floor; but also as a hellacious competitor in pickup games that often included NBA players).
He’ll be known in perpetuity as a guy who loved a cold and cloudy place – Syracuse – that many others only tolerated, or less. He was one with it. In 2003, in what would become his national championship year, I arranged to meet him at his office for an interview; I arrived early and his assistant called Boeheim, who was still at home; 10 minutes later he walked in, tossed his jacket over a chair and sat down to talk. That is a convenient life that he embraced. He did not build Syracuse basketball from scratch, but he made it bigger, and gave it endurance. Adrian Autry has a job ahead of him to sustain it.
Boeheim, meanwhile, exits as one of the last of his kind, part of an era that is nearly gone.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.