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Monday, December 17, 2012
Boeheim deserves place among the greats

By Bruce Pearl
Special to ESPN.com

Nine hundred. Nine hundred of almost anything is a lot.

But when it comes to winning college basketball games, it's truly rarefied air. There are only four coaches who have reached that milestone, and their names are Summitt, Krzyzewski, Knight and Conradt.

That exclusive club is about to welcome Jim Boeheim.

You’ve heard most of it before. He’s snarky. He’s stubborn. The 2-3 zone is gimmicky. He never leaves New York state until after the New Year. Some might think he could be a little nicer to the media.

All these things may be true. But he’s also a Hall of Fame coach who has won 75 percent of the games he’s coached in a remarkable 37-year career at Syracuse. He’s been to the Final Four three times and won a national championship in 2003. He’s served on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff on two gold-medal-winning Olympic teams. The list goes on and on.

Jim Boeheim
Jim Boeheim has helped Syracuse crack the top five among college basketball's all-time winningest programs.
And while 900 wins -- which he'll attempt to reach tonight against Detroit (7 ET, ESPN2) -- is an impressive statistic, as a coach, the thing that sticks out to me most is what Boeheim has meant to Syracuse and its university. The feeling is definitely mutual.

There’s a famous Rick Pitino story involving Boeheim that sums up what I mean. As it goes, Pitino, Boeheim and their wives were on a beach somewhere. The question was asked among each member of the group: “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

Pitino and the women offer different exotic locations from across the globe. Boeheim, who responded last, says “Syracuse.”

I believe him.

Few sports figures have had an impact on a community like Boeheim has in his central New York neck of the woods. I can’t help drawing parallels to one I saw firsthand: the legendary Pat Summitt.

Pat is to Knoxville as Jim is to Syracuse. She grew up in a small town and spent her entire career at Tennessee, coached a gold-medal Olympic team in 1984, helped set home attendance records for the Lady Vols, has worked tirelessly for local charitable organizations that are important to her and even saw UT’s home basketball court dedicated in her name.

Boeheim has done all those things at Syracuse as well. The most interesting similarity to me, though, is that in an era of constant coaching changes, both legends were rarely attached to other jobs (there once was some talk of Boeheim leaving for Ohio State, but that conversation didn't last 10 minutes) -- even though they would have unquestionably been successful in different ventures.

This, Jim’s 43rd season with a whistle on the Syracuse bench (he served as an assistant for six seasons under Roy Danforth), marks 50 years since he came onto the SU campus as a student way back in 1962. All that’s happened since is that the Orange have made 34 NCAA tournament appearances, won the Big East regular season nine times, produced 35 All-Americans and have become the premier program in one of the most prestigious conferences in the country.

Not bad for a guy who grew up in a little town called Lyons, N.Y., and to some is still more famously known as Dave Bing’s teammate than the third- (soon to be second-) winningest coach in men’s basketball history.

Some of the old-timers will appreciate this list: Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino, John Thompson, Dr. Tom Davis, Bill Raftery, Dom Perno and of course Jim Calhoun. This is a roll call of the coaches who made the Big East into such a giant in the college basketball world (until now). Boeheim not only stands tall among that group, he’s still going! And though he’s spent three-fourths of his life at his alma mater, Boeheim literally scoffs at the mention of retirement.

On a bigger scale, the discussion sometimes turns to whether Syracuse is among the “blue bloods” of college basketball. Both Boeheim and his university aren’t on most people's top-five list, but he’s certainly on mine.

Here’s another list for you: (1) Kentucky; (2) Kansas; (3) North Carolina; (4) Duke; (5) Syracuse. That's a list of the programs with the most wins in Division I history. The Orange are fifth all-time and will have 1,852 wins when Boeheim reaches his 900th. You don’t see UCLA, Louisville or Michigan State on that list. Indiana, UConn and Georgetown aren't on it, either. Syracuse is on it because of Boeheim.

A debate about things like that is for the fans, but the statistics tell a very real story. Jim Boeheim has had a historic career while at Syracuse and deserves to be recognized as one of the game's true icons.

Bobby Knight played at Ohio State and coached at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech. Krzyzewski played and coached at Army before going to Duke.

Boeheim has done it all in one place: Syracuse, N.Y.

There's no place he'd rather be.