March Madness

March Madness has taken over the sports scene.

It never fails to deliver.

One and done.

Upsets galore.

It’s when you fill out your brackets having no idea, as well all know, who is likely to advance.

Who picked Oakland to beat Kentucky in the first round?

Nobody, except for the students and alumni of that Detroit school.

But it’s fun.

It was always fun to see how far Syracuse would go in the NCAA tournament.

Under now-retired coach Jim Boeheim they played in 35 tournament games, reached the Final Four on five occasions, and won one national championship.

Boeheim is one of only two coaches who won over 1000 games (Coach K).

He was great for the schoool, and great for the region.

Here’s something few people know.

Nobody in the history of college basketball or  football, for that matter, has ever been connected with one University as long as Jim Boeheim.

Look it up.

He began as a student in 1962, and departed as a 47-year head coach in 2023.

That’s 61 years in one place.

A walk-on for a team that set the tone for the remarkable accomplishments for decades.

A graduate assistant, varsity golf coach, assistant basketball coach and then the head man.

Recently, I hosted a gathering in Boca Raton, FL for Boeheim and area alums in the continuing tour of Boeheim Beyond Basketball.

He has made  the rounds from Syracuse to Honolulu.

Call it a victory tour.

Boeheim says retirement is better than he thought it would be. Many coaches just don’t want to say goodbye, and it appeared Jim was one of them. Perhaps he was, but he looked like a man who was in a good place.

Imagine a walk-on winning a place on the varsity having to try out and impress the head coach, which was Fred Lewis at the time, brought in to revive what had become a less-than-mediocre program. Jim told his mother there was little chance of him making it because he was not in the same class with Dave Bing, who was the star player who turned Syracuse basketball around, and eventually one of the top 50 NBA players of all-time.

His mom asked him about the others on the team, and Jim believed he could play with them.

He wound up as Bing’s backcourt partner. He said the task was easy, “everyone we played double-teamed him and I was open and made the shots”.

He revealed that he never had a formula or a set plan as a head coach. He claims his best asset was his flexibility.

What set Boeheim apart from most other coaches was his use of the 2-3 zone defense instead of the traditional man-to-man.

In laymen’s terms, as zone features guarding areas of the court instead of sticking with one player and following him.

It was an effective weapon which was not easy to play.

Two men out front, and three down toward the basket. But it was really a matchup-type defense that collapsed and trapped around a player with the ball, making it difficult to find someone to pass to, or shoot himself.

It became a real asset in the NCAA tournament when it was almost impossible for teams to adequately prepare for with only one  day between games in the early rounds and the regionals.

Boeheim said he never reflected on what he accomplished, thinking only about the next game.

I asked him which ranked higher in his estimation, winning that national championship or coaching his two sons the same year?

He said coaching his sons was special, they knew how to play the game.

If I were judging, I’d sum it up this way: beating Kansas for the national title in 2003 was his coaching highlight. Coaching his sons, Buddy and Jimmy, was his persona highlight.

For a man whose life was centered around one thing, Syracuse University, it is clear that the loyalty he had for the school was paramount.

Boeheim had offers to leave countless times, but never budged.

That one word, loyalty, was echoed by a man who was Jim’s assistant in 1976-78, and has gone on to have a stellar career.

That man is Rick Pitino, who nearly earned an NCAA berth in his first season as head coach at St.John’s this season.

As a basketball coach, Pitino has few peers, away from the court it is a different story.

Pitino has had a checkered past to put it mildly and we’ll stop there.

But as a coach he may be the best in the country.

I think his team played well enough to make the tournament field, but he voiced his displeasure with the decision not to include the Red Storm by calling the NCAA’s measuring stick for getting in the tournament “fraudulent”.

Also, during the season when St.John’s was struggling, he called out his players in disgust with their performance at the time. They did respond with several key victories but public criticism by a coach against his team is rare.

Missing out on the NCAA’s, still gave St. John’s a chance to compete in the NIT, the lesser post-season tournament, but Pitino rejected that in favor of planning ahead with the transfer portal to the future.

Pitino, like most of his colleagues always talk about the team being the focus and not the coach.

In some cases that’s true, but I’ve always felt it was always about Rick Pitino.

Harshly as that sounds, I believe it, just as I feel there is probably no better college basketball coach around.

Are we saying the egos of the coaches are predominant in the college sports world?

Not necessarily. In fact, look no farther than a man who retired from coaching his team a couple of years ago.

I’m talking about Jay Wright of Villanova, who, like Rick Pitino, coached two NCAA champions.

Wright, to me, was the ultimate example of a class act who actually put his team first, coached them brilliantly, and was a gentlemen in every sense of the word on and off the court.

The college coaching profession needs more of the likes of Jay Wright…….and, of course, Jim Boeheim, who devoted his life and his career to one school, and went out having achieved greatness.