Commentary

Inside Syracuse's unique hoops culture

Originally Published: November 29, 2011
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

In his 35 years as head coach at Syracuse, Jim Boeheim has fostered a professional culture in running his program, leading the consistent Big East and national contender like an NBA franchise.

Assistants have loved working for him, and many have moved on to head-coaching jobs.

The one constant since 1976 had been Bernie Fine, Boeheim's loyal lieutenant who was put on administrative leave Nov. 18 and then fired Sunday amid allegations of sexual molestation made by three men. Boeheim vehemently defended Fine early in the process, then supported his dismissal in a statement released Sunday night.

It was a fascinating dynamic of a relationship that has been constant but often strained -- in a basketball culture at Syracuse that has always been unique in the college hoops world.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/Steve C. WilsonFor 35 seasons, Jim Boeheim and Bernie Fine sat side-by-side on the Syracuse bench.

Several people close to the program told ESPN.com that Boeheim and Fine were very close for the first two-plus decades of their tenure, but that the friendship has not been the same since Fine was essentially demoted in 2000. Recruiting had waned in the late 1990s and Fine's new title of associate head coach basically took him off the road and often relegated him to running the team's camps.

It got to the point that Boeheim wasn't recommending Fine for head-coaching jobs. At one point in the early 2000s, Laurie Fine called an ESPN.com reporter to see how Bernie could get a head-coaching job because she was certain her husband wasn't going to get any help from his boss.

The relationship, even among the families, deteriorated. When the Fines moved across the street from the Boeheims, multiple sources say it greatly irritated Boeheim's wife, Juli. She doesn't like Laurie Fine and made no secret of it.

But while they might not have been the closest of friends in recent times, there is no denying that Boeheim and Fine worked closely together for decades -- and in the latter years even lived close together.

Yet ESPN.com talked to a number of former SU assistants over the past few days, and all of them said they would be stunned if Boeheim knew about any of the specific allegations. It's a belief they said was based upon the way the coach runs the program, and always has.

Boeheim is in control, yes. But he orchestrates the program much like an NBA franchise.

"He treats people like men and expects you to get your job done," said one former assistant, who didn't want his name used. "He expects you to handle your business. Coach doesn't look for anything. He's not looking around. He lets you be your own man and handle your own business.

"He had no idea [about Fine's alleged criminal acts]. I can tell you that. He had no idea. He made sure we were [NCAA] compliant, but he didn't order everyone around. He expected the players to do their job, go to class and come to work. That's how he rolls."

From Derrick Coleman to Gerry McNamara -- Rony Seikaly to Carmelo Anthony -- elite players (and the assistant coaches who helped develop their skills) have enjoyed the freedom that comes with a program that is not operated by a hyper-involved head coach.

Syracuse basketball has worked well for more than three decades because Boeheim created a way to coach and control his program without it appearing as if he was micromanaging every detail.

"It's a pro model," another assistant coach said. "This is a program that over time has been built to run itself. He's not a 7 a.m. in the morning guy. But he knows when he wants the information, it better be done. He knows the talent he wants.

"He gives you the freedom to coach and he also gives you the chance to have a home life. In this business, a lot of people don't."

Boeheim has been a basketball junkie for decades, watching the NBA and college game any chance he gets. He is intense. He is competitive. But he hasn't been one to overanalyze situations. He's not going to focus on the minutiae of the job. He has never been one to demand too much of players as long as they treat the game and the program with respect.

Boeheim does have game-day meetings, but he doesn't believe in game-day shootarounds, which is highly unusual in college basketball. He wants players to be fresh. He doesn't want them to be overloaded with information.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Mark L. Baer/US PresswirePlayers and assistants alike have enjoyed the more relaxed culture surrounding Syracuse hoops.

"We still met the day of the game," one former assistant said. "We just didn't have a shootaround. He doesn't restrict you. It's great working for him. He lets individuals be individuals in the system."

And it has worked. He has won 862 games, eight Big East titles, a national championship in 2003 and two other appearances in the NCAA title game (1987 and '96).

Wayne Morgan was an assistant at Syracuse in the late 1980s with Fine and Tim Welsh, the former Providence head coach. Morgan is now an assistant at Hofstra.

"[Boeheim] is very professional, he's very smart and he's a staunch, staunch competitor," Morgan said. "He can keep things so simple. He's not a micromanager. It's very much a pro mentality. You come to practice and you're expected to perform."

Practices always tend to be open at Syracuse and players are almost always accessible to the media, another rarity among big-time college programs.

As for the staff, Welsh said Boeheim has never been big on details and was very much a delegator, fully expecting his assistants to be detail-oriented when called upon.

"He's a great guy to work for because he gave you a lot of experience," said Welsh, who now works as an analyst for ESPN. "You're helping run the program every day. Details aren't ignored. But they are delegated. He doesn't want to get involved in the minutiae. He knows about all the important parts of the program. He's aware of everything like academics, weight training and all that stuff. It's still run in an organized way. But there are different ways to do it.

"Some guys have their hands on every little decision. Some coaches want to have a meeting on what posters to have to promote the team and want to know about the picture or the wording. Jim's not involved in that stuff. He puts his energy into what counts. It has worked for him and it has worked for the program."

In turn, Boeheim has commanded loyalty from his former players and assistants -- in large part because of the freedom they enjoy.

"There is such a consistency in the program," said another assistant who didn't want his name used. "Syracuse is a job that you have to know the city. The right players have to fit the system. Recruiting has always been a huge key. So, too, has the Big East.

"The coaches have been with Coach for so long, and now that Gerry [McNamara] is moving into [Fine's spot], there is even more familiarity."

Allen Griffin, a former Cuse player and assistant who is now on the staff at Dayton, said he sees "the freedom that he gave us now that I'm away from Syracuse."

"He expects you to do your job," Griffin said, "but when he asks for something, make sure you have the answer for it."

According to Boeheim, though, that "something" never dealt with the personal lives of his assistants. He never sought out answers about anything other than basketball. Their personal lives were their personal lives.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliBoeheim finds himself at the center of controversy after his comments dismissing the alleged victims' claims as "a bunch of a thousand lies."

When asked last week by ESPN if he had ever discussed with Fine the school's 2005 investigation into the former assistant, Boeheim said no.

"You have to understand as the basketball coach, I don't get involved in that stuff," Boeheim said. "That's not something I should be involved [with]. That's something whoever does the investigation, whether that's the police, the district attorney, the newspaper, ESPN, they're going to do what they have to do, and we wait and see what the results are and that's all we can do."

It is a situation that has left friends and former colleagues of Boeheim and Fine feeling helpless.

"Being a former player, being a friend of Bernie's, it's a feeling of shock and frustration," Griffin said. "I knew Bobby [Davis, the first accuser] when I was a player at Syracuse. I know him very well. I know Laurie. I know Bernie. I know their kids. It's an unfortunate situation and a tough situation. I'm just praying that everyone can find peace in this and move on with their lives and live them the best way they can."

Will Boeheim be moving on from Syracuse?

When contacted Monday night, one source close to Boeheim said, "He's not going to resign. He's like [UConn's Jim] Calhoun -- old warriors. He'll get through this."

At this point, though, it might be out of his hands.

Boeheim is the face of the program and has been for 35 years. Syracuse basketball is Jim Boeheim. And if something illegal, unethical or untoward went on within his staff, it will affect him in some manner -- whether that's his job status, his personal legacy or the perception of the university and the program he's been dedicated to since arriving as a freshman guard in 1962.

Through all of those years and all of those wins, Boeheim has taken more of a CEO approach in guiding the Orange: a brilliant mind and a strong tactician during games, but someone who has chosen to give his assistants plenty of power and deal with any consequences that might come from it.

Now -- faced with the biggest scandal his storied program has ever seen -- he has no other choice.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com