Basketball Warfare: The Syracuse Circus
In the city of Syracuse, the Orange trump the NFL and every other pro sports league and that dynamic exists principally because of Jim Boeheim.
Editor's note: From the powerhouse tradition of yesteryear to last season's tourney heartbreak in the Big East, "Basketball Warfare" brings you inside the world that is the Big East. The following is an excerpt from the book. It is available via the author's website.
SYRACUSE; Jan. 15, 2006
As the Syracuse players wipe sleep from their eyes and the Cincinnati win from their heads in time for an afternoon practice in the empty Carrier Dome, Bernie Fine settles into a chair and starts talking about Orange basketball. Fine and Jim Boeheim have coached together for so long that the two have become synonymous. When you see Boeheim on TV bellowing at referees or sitting stoically on the bench, Fine is the burly man seated to his left. It's been that way since 1976 and after falling short a few times trying to land his own head job, Fine and Boeheim will probably be linked until they retire.
"Besides Pearl Washington, in the '80s the only other high school All- American really was Derrick Coleman," he said. "Sherman [Douglas] wasn't anything and no one knew about Rony Seikaly. Rony never played basketball until he got over here. And we red-shirted Rony in his first year. Now that is true for Duke and 'Carolina. They get all the All-Americans. We haven't had a whole lot. The big thing about our program, and Jim's been really good about it, is he wants to see the players get better. We do a lot of individual stuff throughout the year and the players improve."
"I think Jim's a great coach and that's a big part of it. We have a system in place. It's fairly simple and we try to get the players to understand what we want to do. They have to play unselfish and play together and you can win. Look at this team. Who are the All-Americans? Eric Devendorf. That's it."
Fine also shakes his head at the idea that Syracuse simply rolls the ball out and watches its players go. "I believe that Jimmy's one of the two or three best offensive coaches in the country," he said. "We keep it simple and we run what we're supposed to run, which is a big thing. If we're going to play zone we're going to recruit long players. The way we play, we want guys who can shoot the ball. This is one of our better shooting teams. Gerry [McNamara] shoots it. Eric Devendorf shoots it. Demetris [Nichols] shoots it. Andy Rautins shoots it."
Fine is also a great ambassador for his alma mater. Before road games, he's the coach who's besieged by alums and fans looking to catch up on the program and the University. After all, he's the kid who came to Syracuse from Brooklyn in 1964 and has never left. The fact that he's run Boeheim's summer camp and sold insurance, sporting goods and who knows what else in the city through the years makes him as connected as any person in Central New York.
"I've seen where we came from so I don't take our success for granted but a lot of people do up here," Fine said. "They say 'well, we only had 15,000 people tonight.' Somebody said that this year because one game [versus Texas-El Paso] we had 15-something, which was the smallest crowd of the year. I said 'do you know how many schools would kill to have 15,000 fans once in a season?' We're complaining about that? Our fans have been great. Super. They just keep coming. We have people that buy those front row seats now that live on Long Island, Connecticut, Florida. They use the ones they want and give away the others. We have a guy that lives on Long Island who comes to every game, home and away. We have a lot of very loyal alums."
As the practice ends, Boeheim walks off the court with a heavy sniffle in his voice. He settles into a small locker room deep inside the Dome and flicks on an NFL playoff game. An avid sports fan, he calmly answers questions as the Steelers and Colts go down to the wire. As Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt misses a game-tying field goal, Boeheim is locked into the action. The same can be said for every big city in the East, in fact. The NFL has that type of hold on the country, especially come playoff time. But in the city of Syracuse, the Orange trump the NFL and every other pro sports league and that dynamic exists principally because of Jim Boeheim.
In his 29 years as coach, Syracuse has won 20 or more games 27 times. Twenty-four of his teams have played in the NCAA Tournament and three moved on to the national championship game. When the 2003 team won it all, Boeheim punched his admit card into the Hall of Fame.
As good coaches such as Lou Carnesecca, John Chaney, Bob Huggins and Rick Majerus found out, winning big and winning it all are two different things. That they all don't own a national title doesn't make them less of a coach but it does keep them out of an exclusive club that anyone who toots a whistle would love to be in.
"The thing about the '80s in the Big East is a lot of the teams back then had great players. Georgetown, certainly," he said. "We had good results during those years, for sure, but I don't think about why we didn't win more games. We won a lot. I think some of those teams that didn't win had weaknesses, for sure. I don't pay attention to any of that shit talk anymore. I just coach. I don't think about it. In '96 we got to the Final Four and that changed a lot of things about us but then we had Carmelo and we won the national championship with our two best players being freshmen. That wasn't our best team or the most talent but it won. That's basketball."
While the NBA scouts still flock to the Carrier Dome, their eyes see potential fringe players these days, not the next Coleman or Carmelo. But that's not by design, of course.
"It's hard to get great players," Boeheim says. "We haven't gone after some for the last couple years, guys like Al Harrington, Sebastian Telfair. We could've gotten those guys but I knew they were going pro. Carmelo wasn't supposed to be a one-year guy. He weighed 180 pounds when we recruited him. He would've been here at least two years if he didn't put so much weight on so quickly, which is unusual. But in Hakim [Warrick], Gerry, we have good four-year players and that's who we want to recruit.
"We'll try to get a great player if we can but we have to pick our spots. Paul Harris [a top recruit out of Buffalo] is a great player and we recruited him hard. A lot of times a great player is from the South or out West and they're a hard get. We'll try to get a player at that level if we can but we also want to make sure we have a good nucleus of guys who we think will be here for four years."
Besides the winning, of course, the crowds that flock to the Dome see an exciting style. Boeheim has lived off the zone defense for about 10 years now but his offenses always push the ball and look to score quickly.
"We play a finesse game," he says. "As a zone team, we don't grab and hold as much as some other teams do. We push it on offense and are a quick shot team. We don't try to run a whole lot off the shot clock. We try to pick at things where we can be successful and get a shot, if not in transition, then a good shot in a short amount of time."
As the Steelers celebrate their upset win over Indianapolis, Boeheim starts talking about this year's Big East. This is when the real Boeheim comes out, the one who is keenly intelligent, strongly opinionated and can squeal in a whiny voice like few other men. He's been on Connecticut's bandwagon since the start of the season and considers the Huskies "easily the best team in the country. If anything, they have too many players."
He goes down the roster, pointing out one NBA-draftee after another. "I say they have four first rounders -- Gay, Armstrong, Boone and Marcus Williams. We have none, I know that. But we have to play them twice, of course."
Connecticut has replaced Georgetown as Syracuse's biggest rival. Tomorrow night's invasion from the Huskies is big but UConn-Villanova is the game people really want to see this year. Then again, there is a great game seemingly every other night in the conference these days.
"This is a big game for the fans and the league but all the games are just too hard. We have Connecticut and they're as good as anybody in the country. I've said that all year long," Boeheim says, ramping up his voice. "Then we go to Villanova and they're as good as anybody in the country. Then you go to Pittsburgh and they're undefeated. They gave us that stretch, wow. There's going to be some bitching when I go to the league meetings in the spring. Some out and out screaming. This has to change. If they go to 18 games, that's fine but the three extra games don't have to be against the three toughest teams. That's just not fair. Any way you add it up we're just going to be beating ourselves up. Louisville could be 0-3 right now. They were on the ropes at Providence. They don't even know how much trouble they're looking at with their schedule."
With that, Boeheim pulls on a Syracuse sweatshirt and a blue Syracuse overcoat and heads out into what is a typical January Sunday afternoon: overcast with snow flurries filling the sky, the wind whipping and 25 degree temperatures chilling the bones. He jumps into his white SUV and as he pulls the truck towards home, he's asked about the phenomenon that is the attention Syracuse basketball receives from Central New York's fans.
"It amazes me every game," he says. "Sometimes I look up into the corners and can barely see the fans and I know they can barely see the game and they're still there, all the time. It's amazing to me. You know that about five, six years ago they were actually worried that we might not get 30,000 in here again. The economy was bad, Carrier laid off a lot of people, the military up here really took a hit. We were struggling. Then we won it all and people just fell in love with Carmelo and Gerry. They love Gerry McNamara up here. Just love him. It's unbelievable. Pearl was the most exciting player we ever had but Gerry is the most popular. By far. We set records, 32-33,000, and they all want to see this kid play. It's unbelievable."
Kevin McNamara is a sports writer with the Providence (R.I.) Journal. He has covered college basketball for the last 18 seasons.