In June of 2015, amid a cloud of NCAA ignominy, Syracuse officials announced a transition plan from head coach Jim Boeheim to assistant coach Mike Hopkins. Since 2007, Hopkins has been the designated replacement for Boeheim. And with that transition just one year away from becoming reality, a new wrinkle has validated—and later confirmed—the skepticism that Boeheim will step down after the 2017–18 season.
Hopkins’s decision to take the head coaching job at Washington on Sunday provided yet another sign that Boeheim’s tenure at Syracuse would be extended. Hopkins’s departure is an explicit acknowledgement of what’s long been perceived as fact in Syracuse circles: Boeheim has no interest in ending his run at the helm of the Orange at the end of next season. “There was a cloud around Syracuse,” said a source familiar with Hopkins’s exit. “Most people feel like Boeheim doesn’t want to leave. It was going to be awkward for Hopkins to take the job from his mentor knowing he didn’t want to leave.”
What unfolded at Syracuse on Sunday began with a fascinating face-off of administrative ethics and a Hall of Fame coach’s power. And it ended in with the inevitable—the university announcing a contract extension for Boeheim. Less than 12 hours after the news broke of Hopkins leaving for the head job at Washington, the university announced that Boeheim “enthusiastically agreed” to a contract extension.
After the NCAA hammered Syracuse in 2015 and the school endured its second NCAA postseason ban of Boeheim’s tenure, the university essentially fired Boeheim in the meekest manner possible. It released the information that Boeheim “intends” to step down after the 2017–18 season. University officials disputed some of the NCAA findings but generally acknowledged the serious nature of a case that included cash payments for appearances as volunteers, forged classwork and no consequence for drug test failures. The news was so devastating that it ended up on the page A-1 of The New York Timeswith a summary of “some of the most widespread and damning transgressions in college basketball in years.”
All that appears to be forgotten. Funny what a Final Four run can do an administration’s ethical compass. Hopkins’s move shifted the focus to Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud and athletic director John Wildhack, who faced a vexing administrative conundrum. Keep Boeheim around, and they are tacitly consenting to the desires of the man commonly perceived to be really in charge on campus. The decision to craft an exit plan for Boeheim was considered a punishment, albeit one administered with oven mitts instead of brass knuckles.
Going through with the university’s exit timeline would have been thorny without Hopkins, as there’s no logical replacement with Syracuse ties. Try putting together a list for that job. It’s not easy. There are no names that immediately come to mind. Following Boeheim and living in central New York aren’t huge draws for hot young coaches. Would an established coach like Dayton’s Archie Miller or Xavier’s Chris Mack leave the comforts of their current jobs for Syracuse? Probably not. It was telling that Syracuse didn’t announce the timeline of the contract extension, as this move essentially just puts the school back at Boeheim’s whims.
The move to keep Boeheim around shouldn’t be surprising, as the school capitulated tofan pressure and an unspoken acknowledgement that filling the Carrier Dome is more important that academic integrity and following the rules. The replacement situation proved so tenuous that Hopkins found a soft landing elsewhere. “Here’s what happens in all these coach-in-waiting deals,” said another source familiar with the situation. “The coach resents the fact someone is sitting there to take his job. It’s human nature.”
Boeheim is a classic survivor, as winning has helped him outlast two one-year NCAA postseason bans, his insensitive public comments in the wake of the Bernie Fine case and countless petulant public outbursts. The university has shown over the years a distinct comfort in accepting Boeheim’s flaws in order to get 30,000 in the stands on a February night and show up in the tourney bracket nearly every March. For Syracuse, Boeheim's success has given the school a national brand, distinct identity and untold millions in exposure.
The overwhelming awkwardness of the hand-off to Hopkins has been amplified by the fact that Boeheim rarely spoke about it publicly or internally. It eventually reached a breaking point where few around the program and close to Boeheim actually believed it was going to happen. Boeheim, 72, vigorously denied not wanting to step down, a sharp contrast from his enthusiastic agreement to keep moving forward. For more than a year,the overwhelming message in his circle was that he was miserable sitting out during a nine-game suspension last year and wants to write his own exit. He feels like he’s earned it, and after 1,004 wins—not including the ones the NCAA vacated—there’s certainly a reason why he’d feel that way.
The other tricky issue at Syracuse is how the program will run without Hopkins, who was the alpha energy and gregarious personality foil to Boeheim’s aloofness and introversion. Hopkins did a majority of the scouting and much of the recruiting at Syracuse, with Boeheim the in-game tactician and living-room closer for prospects. (Remember, Boeheim rarely watches film.)
There’s also an argument that there’s been diminishing results on the court in recent years, despite Syracuse reaching the Final Four as a No. 10 seed in the NCAAs a year ago. The on-court reality that clearly didn’t bother university officials is that the Orange have gone 28–28 in the ACC the past three seasons, if you include the conference tournament. Will the program slip without its best recruiter, scout and ambassador?
For Hopkins, the move appears a wise one. He’s 47, and along with avoiding the impending awkward transition, he also returns to his roots on the West Coast. Hopkins is from Southern California and starred at Mater Dei High School. He met with Washington officials on Friday in Syracuse and offered a simple pitch that he fancies himself more as a builder than a maintainer. (He has agreed to a six-year deal).
Hopkins didn’t chase open jobs anywhere else in this coaching carousel, as places like LSU, NC State and Missouri didn’t interest him. But the fertile recruiting ground in Seattle and the prospect of resuscitating a program after Lorenzo Romar missed the NCAA tournament for six straight years became very appealing to Hopkins. “He can build a program and a legacy there,” said a source close to Hopkins. “The legacy at Syracuse is built and he’d be a caretaker. Now he can be an architect. He thinks Washington can be special.”
By avoiding the clunky transition, Hopkins gets to chart his own course in Seattle. And Boeheim and Syracuse officials can march together in lockstep toward a new future, an inevitability that became a reality with Hopkins skipping town. The move exposed Boeheim’s intended departure as a bluff, and the administration folded as quickly as expected.