SYRACUSE, N.Y.—In the 90 minutes before Thursday morning’s press conference at the Carrier Dome, Jim Boeheim shuttled back and forth between his office and the desk of his assistant, Kelly Seubert, making subtle alterations (subtractions and additions) to the statement he was about to make before a roomful of reporters. Parsing words to conform to the dictates of lawyers and administrators is not the Boeheim way. The Boeheim way is to deliver a submarine sandwich of words slathered with a thick level of sarcasm.
But this was not the normal press conference.
Since the NCAA dropped the hammer on Syracuse and Boeheim, I’ve been asked dozens of times for my opinion on the matter because Boeheim and I worked on a book that came out right before the 2015-16 season began. I stayed silent (until now) for two reasons. First, I was fairly certain that the ramifications were going to extend beyond the NCAA sanctions, which turned out to be the case. Second, it’s impossible to be objective when you just worked on a yearlong project with someone you consider a friend. Not a close buddy-buddy friend, but a professional friend.
But I’ll try. We’ll get to that in a minute.
On the way to the Dome, Boeheim, 70, seemed more energized than nervous. He would have preferred, of course, to have been preparing to play an NCAA tournament game, as he was at this time last season. But he also seemed eager for the chance to give his version of events that led to the NCAA’s carpet-bombing of the Syracuse basketball (and, secondarily, football) program that descended upon the university over the last two weeks.
“There are four times in the speech when I take full blame for what happened,” he said in the car ride from the Carmelo Anthony Center to the Carrier Dome. “I wanted to make that clear.” When he walked into the Dome, he was again counseled by various friends and university lawyers to keep calm and not go too far off-script. For the most part he complied.
But anyone who expected Boeheim to slink into the room and throw himself on the sword of contrition does not know Boeheim. He honestly does not believe that the NCAA sanctions against him and the program are equitable. And he said so. The university will appeal the sanctions, not to make them disappear but to get them reduced.
To begin with, I can’t in good conscience wave my arms around, Vitale-like, and proclaim that Boeheim did no wrong. The Buck Stops Here rule certainly applies when you are in Boeheim’s position. Rules were broken that should not have been broken, things were done that should not have been done, and Boeheim was the one in charge.
Boeheim does not hover above the big-time college sports fray. He is part of the fray. Over the years he has been a staunch defender of the NCAA as it has turned into a billion-dollar enterprise, all the while trying to convey the idea that it is a quiet haven where “student-athletes”—its all-time favorite term—divide their time equally between plane geometry and the geometry of the 2-3 zone.
But, having been (somewhat) inside the Syracuse program for a season (as well as on several other occasions), and having observed college sports for five decades, it has been astonishing to read the holier-than-thou chants that have come forth asking for Boeheim’s head.
Get rid of him! He’s overstayed his welcome! He’s lost control of the program!
Most surprisingly, many have come from journalists who cover this sport and who cover coaches far more mired in career muck than Boeheim, writers who are now smack-dab in the middle of March Madness, writers who watch this annual Roman carnival of money and commercialism—glorious as it is—and try to sell it as “amateur sport.”
One veteran writer from another media organization used the following quote during his plea for Syracuse to fire Boeheim: “Committee on Infractions chairman Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA, said the Syracuse violations ‘really go to the core values of the NCAA and higher education.’”
I was waiting for some sort of qualifier to this laughable proclamation, maybe a “however,” or “but.” It didn’t come, so I have to assume that, given the context, the writer never stopped to consider how absolutely ridiculous the statement was.
The timing was perfect. Here was Banowsky pontificating about core values and higher education just as this orgiastic NCAA tournament—in which, as a segment on John Oliver’s HBO show pointed out, sells sponsorship to even the ladder used to cut down nets and which will generate about $800 million—gets underway. It is staged by an organization whose director of communications once conceded its inbred “hypocrisy.” It includes programs that now practically put out banners advertising themselves as one-year-and-out basketball factories. It will feature athletes who have absolutely no intention of getting a degree and everyone knows it. It will have—well, not technically, since UConn failed to make the field—a defending champion who plays in a conference (the American Athletic Conference) far from its roots just because it doesn’t have a big-time football program.
And it will include a press conference from an NCAA president who makes $1.7 million per year and who looks at the night sky and proclaims that the afternoon sun feels just fine, doesn’t it?
If you want to say that Boeheim should quit or be fired because he’s been around too long—he walked onto campus in 1962 and took over as head coach in 1976—that is up to you. But you’d have to show cause that he’s no longer effective. I don’t see that but maybe you do.
If you want to opine that Boeheim should quit or be fired because of his hauteur, that’s up to you. But you better take most of the SEC football coaches with you.
If you want to opine that Boeheim should quit or be fired because his program has now twice been on postseason probation, that’s up to you. But from this reading, two violations in nearly 40 years does not come across as excessive, not given the Sanskrit smorgasbord of NCAA rules and the number of staff people it takes to run a big-time sports program.
And if you want to opine that Boeheim should quit or be fired because he represents a college-sports system out of control—coaches making too much money (his $1.8 million salary puts him 23rd among major college coaches according to some lists, though he says he’s further back), athletics being too much of a force in the college community, academics being shunted to the background—that’s up to you. But you better load up a barge to get rid of, well, just about everyone.
Yes, Jim Boeheim makes a little more money than the president of that organization. But while Emmert has had five jobs in the last 20 years—at Montana State, UConn, LSU, Washington and then the NCAA—Boeheim has had one in the last 40. Has that made him too powerful in the college community, too much of a Joe Paterno figure, a comparison that has been made? I don’t see it. Around Syracuse, Boeheim is the CEO of one thing and one thing only—basketball.
As he built that program, yes, along came the residual conflicts—entirely legitimate—about athletics holding sway over academics. They will never go away, not under the present system. But in his own community, Boeheim has also forged a unity, created an identity and raised millions for charity. That doesn’t make him a saint floating above a big-time college sports system that made it possible. But I guarantee you he’s as good as most people in it.