Commentary

Boeheim is last of the Mohicans

The last of his kind in the Big East, Syracuse coach reveals retirement isn't far off

Updated: March 11, 2011, 2:29 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Jim Boeheim had survived and advanced on muscle memory, escaping a St. John's team that might have bounced him from the Big East tournament had D.J. Kennedy not wrecked his knee, and suddenly the winning coach was talking in an exhausted whisper as the color drained from his face.

"It's definitely getting closer and closer," Boeheim said of retirement. "I can see it. I can see the end."

The end of his forever run as coach of the Syracuse Orange. The last man standing in the Big East, the original who outlasted Looie and Rollie and Big John and all the rest, was slowly walking through the Garden hallways and serving notice that the toll taken by his 35 years at Syracuse is about to send him to the bench for keeps.

"I'm getting close, I really feel that way," Boeheim told ESPNNewYork.com. "I'm not making any calls at this stage of the season, but this league has gotten awfully tough. It's a real grind out there."

Boeheim had just claimed his 855th victory, a 79-73 decision over a St. John's team that had a deep March run written all over it until the versatile Kennedy went down in a first-half heap, waved to the bench for help, and ended up in the hospital with a torn ACL that could doom the Red Storm early in NCAA play.

The 66-year-old Syracuse coach felt for the kid, and went on about the burdens of losing a critical player so late in the season. Boeheim certainly was in no mood to celebrate the fact that Kennedy and his fellow seniors managed to defeat every Big East opponent at some point over their four seasons, every Big East opponent but one -- the one Jim Boeheim coaches.

If the St. John's senior class is a tough and resourceful group, it's fitting that Syracuse represented the one crossword puzzle it couldn't complete. Boeheim has taken on all comers over the years, enduring long enough to compete against John Thompson's son while he was coaching Patrick Ewing's son.

The senior Thompson is long gone from coaching, as is Looie Carnesecca, who watched Thursday's game from the Garden stands. Rollie Massimino is working the college basketball fringes at Northwood, an NAIA school.

Jim Calhoun? He didn't land at UConn until 1986, when Boeheim had already finished nine of his absurd 33 seasons of at least 20 victories.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comJim Boeheim has outlasted Carnesecca, Thompson, Massimino and the rest in the Big East Conference.

"Yeah, I'm proud of it," Boeheim said. "It's not that easy to outlast people. I've outlasted them and I've outlasted several of my critics, so that's a good thing."

It's the best thing Syracuse has going for it, that and the 2-3 zone. Boeheim has his national championship in one pocket, his Hall of Fame induction in another, and a strong enough bond with his bygone stars to draw Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens, John Wallace and others to the Thursday matinee, during which Coleman barked instructions at the Syracuse bigs from his seat under the hoop.

"St. John's kept running a guy on the baseline," Coleman said, "so I was screaming at Rick [Jackson] and Fab [Melo] to watch the guy behind them and stay on alert."

Coleman and Boeheim had their differences back in the day, "and for the first two years I never knew my first name," the old power forward said through a laugh. "He'd call me 'bleep & bleep & bleep.' But he knew I could take it and that it was the right way to get the maximum out of my potential.

"Coach has mellowed a whole lot since then, even in practice. He doesn't cuss and fuss as much as he used to."

Boeheim tweaked his approach and embraced a kinder, gentler tone with a different generation of recruits -- if only in the name of survival.

"He's the last of the Mohicans," Coleman said. "I tease him about it all the time."

Boeheim has weathered enough storms to win more Big East regular-season and tournament titles than his contemporaries care to count. He's about to enter his 28th NCAA field, and he'll do so with a big and long team capable of wreaking havoc on nonconference opponents unfamiliar with its signature zone.

But if the Orange are to advance to the third weekend of the tourney, the altered dynamic between coach and player will mean as much as the team's size and aim.

"Jim has a closer relationship with the players now than he did when I was with him in the late '80s," said Boeheim's former assistant, Tim Welsh. "He was a real tough guy with the players back then, and now he's more understanding of their mistakes.

"But you still have to play intelligent basketball for him. He hasn't mellowed in that regard. He's great at not getting too high or too low, and yet always putting the pressure on his kids to understand you have to play the right way."

Welsh believes Boeheim's three young children have helped him avoid a potential disconnect with the teenagers on his roster. He visited the Syracuse coach a few summers back, and watched him follow up a round of golf in 90-degree heat by chasing after his children at a cookout.

"I said, 'I'm exhausted. How do you do it?'" Welsh said. "And Jim said, 'Hey, they keep me young.'"

Boeheim didn't look or sound young after advancing to the semis and a rematch with UConn, the team he needed six overtimes to defeat in 2009.

Boeheim first mumbled something about quitting four years ago. Asked after the St. John's victory if he was uncertain if he would return next season, Boeheim said, "No, I don't think that's in question." He talked about having a good staff, good players, and a healthy appreciation for his staggering success.

"I still try to get better as a coach," Boeheim said. "Because if you don't get better in this business as you get older, you get worse.

"But I won't be here in four years, that much I can say. I'm getting much closer to the end of the road."

The same road traveled by Looie, Rollie and Big John. When Jim Boeheim finally exits the Garden, stage left, a golden era of Big East basketball goes with him.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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