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Wednesday, April 2, 2003
Updated: April 3, 4:33 PM ET

There's no place Boeheim would rather be

By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Word had reached Rick Bay that Jim Boeheim wasn't just willing to talk to him about coaching Ohio State, but eager for the encounter. So Bay made the obligatory call to Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel for permission, the telephone conversation that always inspires an awkward discussion. This time for Bay, the tension turned to bewilderment. Crouthamel started laughing and laughing, harder and harder.

Jim Boeheim
Syracuse's Jim Boeheim is the winningest coach in the NCAA Tournament not to have won the national championship.

"I asked him, 'What's so funny?' " Bay remembered the other day. "And Jake said, 'You can talk to Jim Boeheim if you want, but he's never leaving Syracuse. Every once in a while he feels a little unappreciated, but he's never going to leave.' "

As Bay and Boeheim met inside the coach's Syracuse home in March of 1986, it wasn't long before the nerdy, bespectacled Orangemen coach understood the truth too. "Ten minutes into the conversation I knew I wasn't to go," Boeheim said.

He wasn't just talking about Ohio State, but everywhere else. Ever. Boeheim was an upstate New York lifer. Across 27 years as Orangemen coach, this was his first and final flirtation with another job, a half-hearted exercise that left Boeheim understanding that he was fooling no one, least of all himself.

It isn't most intriguing that Boeheim never left Syracuse, but that Boeheim never threatened to leave. He's never hustled job offers to get himself a raise at Syracuse, insisting, "That's just not the way I work." Nevertheless, they know him too well there. Who'd buy his bluff, anyway? He still uses the barber that cut his hair as the freshman walk-on out of nearby Lyons, N.Y., still eats dinner in the restaurants that served him in his assistant coaching days. This is comforting to Boeheim. This is home.

"There are a couple of jobs that I would really like to try, but you'd have to leave to do that," he said. "And I really never wanted to go anyplace else."

These days, everyone is angling for a bigger raise, a bigger contract, a bigger stage. Just take a walk through this Final Four and browse the coaches. Roy Williams had to manufacture drama over his decision to turn down North Carolina three years ago, just so everyone could tell him how much they adored and wanted him to stay in Kansas. When he refuses to just say, "I'm not a candidate for Carolina," he's doing it again. Texas' Rick Barnes has jumped jobs from the Big East to ACC to Big 12. Marquette's Tom Crean will be a top candidate for North Carolina and Pittsburgh, the hot young coach that will never finish his career at a middling catholic college in the Midwest.

This is the nature of the business, but Boeheim is something of a throwback to a different time, a different way of life. After all these years, all these chances, no one can be sure if he is finally coming home to Syracuse with that national championship. All they know for sure is that Jim Boeheim is coming home.

Jim Boeheim
Boeheim hopes to experience a different ending in the Final Four this year.

Before Boeheim made peace with his perception across the country, he had long ago done so at home in Syracuse. They never ripped him there, the way they did everywhere else. There weren't always bouquets, but there was respect, an admiration, for him turning an Eastern program into a national power. His coaching reputation as the man just rolling out the balls changed in 1996, when Syracuse made it to the NCAA championship game with a modest array of talent. All these years later, he still holds out his arms, turns his palms skyward and wonders whether it would've made him a great coach had Keith Smart missed that shot in the Superdome in 1987.

Truth be told, he's going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He has a higher winning percentage (.742) than Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight. His resume is missing just one line. Sixteen years later, Boeheim gets back to New Orleans for a chance to beat back the ghosts of Smart, reshaping his legacy as the winningest coach in NCAA Tournament history -- 36 victories -- without a national championship.

"I can point to a couple of guys that won national championships who I don't even think are good coaches," Boeheim said. "They didn't have great records. They didn't do much else. You get just one special team, does that make you a great coach? The way you judge success, in any business, is over the long haul."

"Paul Westhead said something a couple of years ago: 'Hey Jim, they can't get you now. You've got 'em. Nothing can happen now that can get you. You've outlasted them.'

"That's really the way I look at it now."

He beat the critics in the 1980s, the NCAA posse in the 1990s, and prostate cancer in 2000. Boeheim isn't just Mr. Syracuse Basketball, but Mr. Syracuse. As the old story goes, Boeheim was sitting on the beach in Hawaii with his former assistant, Rick Pitino, and Pitino's wife, Joanne. Someone proposed a question: If you could live anywhere, where it would be?

Jim Boeheim
Hawaii? San Francisco? New York City? Come on, Syracuse is the only place to be.

Rick picked San Francisco.

Joanne picked New York City.

"Syracuse," the pasty Boeheim said in the sand.

What?

"Syracuse."

Hawaii was just Syracuse in July, Boeheim sniffed.

"For eight months a year, it's the best weather in the country," Boeheim said. "The other four months, we're playing basketball."

Once more, he's playing basketball into April. At 58, he'll go a lot longer too. The NBA still intrigues Boeheim, but he knows its too late. "My ship has passed." He is Syracuse's coach for life, working his way into the job long ago with the blessing of his old boss, Roy Danforth, and a high-stakes poker move to get him into the job in 1976. When the search committee wanted to bring more candidates to campus after interviewing Boeheim, he climbed out of his chair, left for the door and warned the school's search committee: "Either you're going to hire me, or I'm going to the University of Rochester."

The Division III offer was on the table, a job he swears he would've reluctantly accepted. As it turned out 27 years ago, the Syracuse search committee bought his bluff and never let a Hall of Fame coach climb in his car for the hour drive west on Interstate 90. Rochester hired Mike Neer, who is still on the job.

"He won a Division III national championship, too," Boeheim said.

All these years later, Boeheim understands too: He probably would've stayed at Rochester, the way he's stayed at Syracuse. So yes, Rick Bay had to laugh on the telephone the other day, talking from the West Coast, where's he's the athletic director at San Diego State. "I was his only one, huh?" he asked.

If Steve Fisher ever leaves, Bay could try again, calling Boeheim and offering a retirement job in beautiful, sunny Southern California.

"I guess he's never leaving there, is he?" Bay said. Why would he? Jim Boeheim has it too good. He's still home, still where his heart is.

And after all, San Diego is just Syracuse in August.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for the Recordand a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.



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