Friedlander: Jim Boeheim tried to control the narrative until the very end
GREENSBORO, NC – Jim Boeheim delivered what sounded a lot like a farewell address in the moments following Syracuse’s 77-74 ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest on Wednesday.
He even referred to it as “a retirement speech.”
But when it actually came time to say he was walking away, the curmudgeonly coach defiantly stopped short of saying he was ready to go.
Instead, he let chancellor Kent Syverud make the announcement about 2 hours after he’d left Greensboro Coliseum. Boeheim has officially “stepped down” and will be replaced by associate head coach Adrien Autry.
The swiftness with which his successor was named suggests that the transition has been in the works for at least the past few days, if not weeks.
Boeheim could have acknowledged as much during his postgame remarks. The fact that he didn’t suggests an implication as unmistakable as the trademark smirk on his face after a foul call he didn’t like.
No matter how many times he’s repeated the belief that he would ultimately be the one to choose when his Hall of Fame career would end, the decision that came down Wednesday was almost certainly not his own.
He made that abundantly clear when pressed on the issue during what turns out to be his final sparring session with his old adversaries in the media.
Q: Are you saying right now that you’re going to retire?
JIM BOEHEIM: “This is up to the university.”
Q: You want to come back?
JIM BOEHEIM: “I didn’t say that.”
Q: So what are you saying? You’re not saying you’re retiring?
JIM BOEHEIM: “I just said it. I don’t know.”
Q: So you don’t know?
JIM BOEHEIM: “I said this is up to the university.”
Q: You’re not sure whether … How will you make a determination about when you will come back?
JIM BOEHEIM: “You’re talking to the wrong guy.”
As a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer with a national championship, 5 Final Fours and 1,116 victories to his credit (only 1,015 of which are official, according to the NCAA), Boeheim has earned at least a measure of autonomy when it comes to determining his fate.
But there comes a point in which there’s no more capital left in the account to spend. It comes when you lose sight of what everyone else around you can see.
Syracuse has finished higher than a tie for 6th in the ACC only once since its 1st year in the conference and have won as many as 20 games only twice in the past 9 seasons. Boeheim finished just 5-8 in the ACC Tournament, never reaching the semifinals. This year’s Orange finished with a 17-15 record and a 10-10 league mark that earned them a tie for 8th.
Part of the problem has been recruiting.
Boeheim wasn’t able to attract the same caliber of players over the past decade as he did during his heyday as a member of the old Big East. His trademark matchup zone, which was so effective in that more physical, inside-oriented league, didn’t translate as well to the shooters in the more perimeter-oriented ACC.
Considering the direction the Orange have been going since joining the ACC in 2013, especially when combined with the increasing frequency with which Boeheim says things that stir controversy, Syracuse’s administration wouldn’t be blamed for concluding that it was time for a change.
Or to use a phrase coined by Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, a rival ACC coach who had already announced that he’s walking away, Boeheim has outlived his “shelf life.”
Judging from his postgame comments Wednesday, his focus shifted from bullying his way into staying to controlling the narrative surrounding his exit.
If nothing else, he appears to at least have had a say in choosing his successor. Autry played point guard for Boeheim from 1990-94, amassing 631 assists and 217 steals, and has been a member of the Syracuse staff since 2011.
How much more influence, if any, Boeheim will have with the Orange is yet to be determined.
“The university hasn’t offered me anything, whether to work or do anything at the university. That’s their choice,” Boeheim said. “It was great to see Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Roy Williams at North Carolina and Mike Brey is going to work for Notre Dame. That’s great. I haven’t had any conversations about that. I hope that we will. But I’ve just been lucky to be able to coach this long.”
Boeheim preceded that declaration with an emotional dissertation on his love for the university he has represented as a player, an assistant and coach for more than a half century, the city of Syracuse and the fans of his program – who have stuck with him despite the recent hard times.
Somehow it’s poetic that his final game took place at an ACC Tournament in Greensboro, a venue he openly derided as “having no value” during his early days in the league.
“I’ve been just unbelievably fortunate to keep this job,” he said. “Mike Brey is thrilled that he was at Notre Dame for 23 years. He’s a puppy. I’ve had 47 years.”
And just like that, it’s over.
No triumphant farewell tour like his friend Krzyzewski. No dramatic April Fool’s Day press conference like Williams.
Not even the warm pats on the back Brey has been getting since announcing his decision to leave the Irish in February.
Just a sterile press release and some comments that sounded like a retirement speech.
But really wasn’t.