Commentary

Jim Boeheim is still … Jim Boeheim

Originally Published: March 22, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- In the most mundane of times, what Syracuse has been able to do this season would be fascinating. To win 33 games and lose just two is a historic achievement, not just in the record books but in the everyday reality that is sport.

That this season has been anything but ordinary in central New York makes the Orange's run downright mesmerizing.

Syracuse has packed controversy, scandal and intrigue into every step of this would-be joyride and heads into Thursday's Sweet 16 date with Wisconsin as much a curiosity as a favorite, a team expected to fail more than lauded for its survival.

Standing at the epicenter of the plot is Jim Boeheim, a fascinating -- and in some precincts polarizing -- figure.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliIf a 33-2 season can be considered stressful, this season would certainly qualify for Jim Boeheim.

His fans applaud his calm amid the storm while his detractors wonder how he can be so blasé with charges ranging from the criminal to the collegiate swirling around him.

Turns out he might just be the perfect man for this imperfect season.

"I've always told him I don't want to look like him, with that potbelly on a skinny body," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said, "but I've always marveled at his ability to shake things off. I don't know what happens when his head hits the pillow, but publicly, there aren't many guys who could have done a much better job."

There are few coaches who will go through a career without a scandal, or at least a public hiccup -- "We all know we're one headline away," Calhoun said succinctly -- but Boeheim has managed to hit the trifecta this season, dealing with legal accusations against his former associate head coach, NCAA investigations involving his program and the suspension of one of his starters on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Yet somehow his team has lost all of two games, a staggering rate of success during an equally staggering run of problems.

It is mind-boggling even to the people who deal daily with the inner workings of college athletics.

"He's a good friend of mine, but I will tell you I have been fascinated by this," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "I'd read a headline and think, 'That's the one. That's going to crack him.' Not one time has that happened. I couldn't do it. Some of these blows would bring you to your knees, but not him. Maybe 5 percent of coaches could handle what he's handled."

Then Martelli paused.

"No," he said, "that's too high." Ironically, what separates Boeheim also has alienated him from some this season. He comes across as indifferent at times, which plays well in the sports media but not so well in the mainstream.

He's a good friend of mine, but I will tell you I have been fascinated by this. I'd read a headline and think, 'That's the one. That's going to crack him.' Not one time has that happened.

-- St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli

In his first interview following the Bernie Fine allegations, Boeheim was flippant, even dismissive and defensive, coming off equal parts callous and clueless to people who'd never heard of him before.

Those who know him insist he is none of those things, that he is wily and smart and certainly not unaware of the seriousness of the allegations.

But what outsiders don't get is that his personality is like armor, feeling dings but deflecting the hard hits -- with basketball as his bunker.

"Any of us, when you find yourself in that sort of a situation, you turn to what you love and who you trust," Calhoun said. "For Jimmy, that's his team and his players. Jim Boeheim believes in himself and he believes in Syracuse University. He is from there. He went to school there. He is Syracuse and he's a lot tougher than people think." Martelli calls Boeheim a basketball Rain Man, a guy with just two loves: his family and his sport. He is not just a coach and fan; he is a hoops carnivore, devouring any and all information like a savant.

"I bet you a drink in New Orleans that if you called him right now, he could tell you who is in the NIT and who the best high school freshmen are in the country," Martelli said.

On Feb. 25, St. Joe's beat Temple in a critical Atlantic 10 game. Later that night, Syracuse dispatched Connecticut in a thriller. Twenty minutes after the Orange game ended, Martelli's phone rang.

It was Boeheim offering congratulations on the big win against the Owls.

"How did he even know?" Martelli said. "His game started like 20 minutes after ours ended. How in the world did he know we beat Temple? And why did he care? But that's Jim."

That sort of isolationism and devotion to hoops has served Boeheim and, in turn, Syracuse well this season.

It is clichéd to say that players are extensions of their leaders. Clichés, though, are borne out of truths and these players have followed Boeheim's lead.

"The way he's handled everything on and off the court has helped us a lot," Scoop Jardine said. "We go on how he's acting. We look to him through the tough times. He's been great and that allowed us to be even better because all we had to do was worry about basketball."

Martelli admits he couldn't do what Boeheim is doing.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim
Bob Stowell/Getty ImagesFrom the same old-school coaching era, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim (seen here in 1990) have experienced their share of controversy lately.

His personality is too large to absorb it.

Even Calhoun, who rode to a surprising NCAA title last year while dogged by NCAA sanctions and APR questions, admits he didn't handle things as well as Boeheim. It's not his nature. Calhoun is combative, quick to verbally tango with anyone who wants to cross him.

"Every one of us wishes we could grab a quality from someone else," Calhoun said. "We're similar in that, by nature, both of us are going to fight you. But I'm more on my sleeve. He's better at it than I am, much better. He's better than most of us."

At least the combative Calhoun seemed to almost enjoy the verbal fencing, growing more energized with the attention.

Boeheim seems mostly annoyed.

Washington Post columnist John Feinstein recently likened Boeheim to Eeyore, but that is a disservice to the gloomy donkey.

Misery certainly has found its most loyal companion in the coach, who on a good day seems to be followed by a dark cloud.

After his team dispatched Kansas State to reach the Sweet 16, the 67-year-old Boeheim dismissed the notion that he wasn't having fun because of the distractions.

Turns out he's never having fun.

"I have never had fun coaching," he said. "I hope that a doctor who operates on me in the operating room, if it's a serious operation, isn't there to have fun."

Reminded this week that consequences for the surgeon are slightly more dire than they are for the basketball tactician, Boeheim amended his thought, but not his opinion.

"I don't want to make light of what a doctor does, but what we do to us is very serious," he said. "It's what we do and we want to do it right, be able to get it right. If I want to have fun, I play golf. This is not fun. If I wasn't getting paid, I wouldn't be doing this. You get satisfaction out of doing something right, just like everybody else does, and I get a lot of satisfaction when we do things right and play right. I think that's the way it should be."

If that sounds depressing (and it should) -- that a man who gets paid to coach basketball can't find the joy in it -- consider the man.

And then consider the results.

While the rest of the world tries to figure out just how Syracuse is surviving this free fall without a parachute this season, the Orange already know the answer: They've got the right man for this difficult job.

And Jim Boeheim may just be painfully smirking all the way to the national title.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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