SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The Carrier Dome opened its doors on September 20, 1980. Until this year, the building had deigned to play just two home basketball games without Jim Boeheim, both back in 2001 when the coach was battling prostate cancer.
That changed, of course, this year, when the NCAA sent Boeheim on a nine-game vacation for a laundry list of NCAA sins, locking him out of the Dome for five home games.
But if anyone was expecting Boeheim to get either melancholy or nostalgic on Saturday night, in his first game back, they haven't been paying attention for the past 40 years.
This is Jim Boeheim.
Tulips and unicorns don't exactly pop up in his wake.
After the game, after a handful of Orange defensive lapses spelled an 84-73 North Carolina Tar Heels win, there was no contrition, no drama, just his favorite thrust and parry with the media. He was informative, combative, honest and snippy all in the span of about six minutes.
Asked about his emotions upon returning, Boeheim replied, "Same as always. Same as always. I've coached 1,200 games."
And then he paused to smirk.
"Well, I've coached 1,100 now."
That, of course, would be a zinger directed to the folks back in Indianapolis, the ones who have vacated 108 of his wins as part of his sanctions.
Welcome back, Jim.
If his return wasn't a big deal to Boeheim, it certainly was to everyone else in the city. It probably says something about the winter-time drearies that the return of Coach Curmudgeon would send off a city-wide celebration. But this is Syracuse and Syracuse is Boeheim, and so 26,811 disciples showed up for this one, yet another season record for an on-campus game.
Boeheim himself arrived quietly, walking into the Dome at around 6:30 p.m. ET. Dressed in a light-black overcoat on what passes for a balmy night around here, he passed through the security gate at just about the same time as the North Carolina bus pulled in. A handful of fans, leaning over the edge of the building above him, spied him and greeted him with a, "Yeah, Jim! Welcome, back." He didn't wave, just kept walking.
He allowed himself a few ceremonial waves when he actually came on the court, turning to face the crowd who boomed a thunderous welcome when he came through the tunnel two minutes before tip.
And then it was all business. At the 12:04 mark, he offered his first plaintive hand toss up, his signature pose when a call doesn't make sense. A few minutes later he posed, chin resting in pondering hand.
It was as if he had never left.
Even the game itself seemed like a throwback to the good ole days.
The Orange have not been very good without him, falling to 10-6 overall and stumbling out of the ACC gate with three consecutive losses. That is a byproduct of Syracuse's limitations, not Mike Hopkins' job replacing Boeheim. The Orange have little in the way of an inside presence, and their typically vaunted matchup zone is far more porous than usual.
"Our schemes are the same, we still play the matchup," Trevor Cooney said. "It has nothing to do with coaches. It's on us."
Yet spurred on by the frenzied crowd and the big game, Syracuse gave North Carolina all it had. Until the final three minutes, when a spurt of defensive lapses allowed the Tar Heels to pull away, this was anyone's game to win.
In most places, the fact that North Carolina won will get glossed over by all of the Boeheim frenzy. But not on the bus parked outside of the Dome. Roy Williams stopped after posing for a few pictures with loyal Carolina fans to marvel at his own team's effort. Blessed with enough depth to field two top 25 teams, the Heels counted on Isaiah Hicks as the hero here, the junior coming up with 21 points, all but two in the second half.
"I feel really good about our team," Williams said. "The way the people here gave Jim that respect, respect that he deserved, I was worried how we'd react. I just told my guys, ‘Hey, we've been here before. Let's go play,' and to their credit, they did."
The Orange played, but not quite well enough, and that is really all Boeheim was interested in talking about after the game. He did not delve into this business of being Mr. Popularity. He loves basketball, the nuances of it and the game. The rest of this stuff, it's all just other duties as assigned.
He has talked out on the subject of his own punishment and at least for right now, even tapped out on raising a saber at the NCAA.
"I'm done. I'm done," he said. "The only thing I want to talk about is basketball."
And there is much to discuss.
Syracuse is not quite at the season-on-the-brink stage, but the Orange are on the ledge and peering down. A year ago, Syracuse opted for a postseason ban, in the hopes of mitigating its punishments, but the Orange have only twice gone back-to-back seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance under Boeheim.
Boeheim quickly reminded everyone that he has been here before, too. Back in 1997, the Orange started their Big East season at 0-4 and wound up finishing 10-4.
"There's a long way to go," he said. "We'll be fine. We'll be alright."
And then Boeheim walked off, the press conference over, his return just beginning and everything the same as it always was.