CHICAGO – Jim Boeheim was in his underwear.
This was not Thursday afternoon, when the longtime Syracuse coach settled behind a microphone to preview the Orange’s Midwest Regional semifinal against Gonzaga and wound up speaking candidly for the better part of a half-hour about his sometimes-unorthodox approach to the game.
Instead, that not-quite-fully-clothed scene took place in Boeheim’s office back in Syracuse in October 2003, as he changed from jacket and slacks into a tracksuit. It was the day that Boeheim began practice and the defense of his first and so-far only national title the previous April by granting a reporter a behind-the-scenes look.
But the point in both cases was the same: the man rarely worries about what other people think.
At the end of his 40th year in the business and what might be his most tumultuous season ever, Boeheim has Syracuse back in a familiar place: the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. It was how the Orange arrived there that proved even more newsworthy. Boeheim was suspended for nine games over a nearly five-week stretch and then slammed when 21-13 Syracuse squeaked into the field after a 1-5 finish and quick exit from the ACC Tournament.
If either of those blows to his reputation caused any lingering damage, you wouldn’t have known it when Boeheim followed players Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney at the podium.
Not a half-hour earlier, Gonzaga coach Mark Few preceded all three of them on that same stage and tantalizingly said about Boeheim, “He’s a really, really good guy. I wish you guys could see that side of him.”
“He’s not the surly curmudgeon,” Few added quickly, “you all think he is.”
Boeheim can be stubborn, and we’re not talking just about his clinging to the 2-3 zone defense, a scheme nearly all his contemporaries abandoned long ago because it demands hard work and an attention to detail few players in this era of instant gratification will expend.
Boeheim can be grating, too, whether that means needling players he feels are shorting him on effort, or lecturing reporters whose depth of knowledge he considers too far beneath his own.
But on this day, after two very general answers about how Gbinije, a 6-foot-7, 200-pounder who looks nothing like a point guard, wound up taking over that role for the Orange, someone asked Boeheim how he and Few became close friends.
“He jumped into our card game and got his butt kicked and he took it well,” he chuckled.
“He took his beating like a man,” Boeheim continued through a widening smile. We’ve been friends, really, ever since.”
The man is nothing, if not loyal, a fact that was only too apparent in Syracuse’s tourney wins over Dayton and Middle Tennessee. Both were achieved with the same thin rotation — six players deep, seven at most — that Boeheim has relied on forever. He’s always had to fight for his share of All-American recruits, first in the highly competitive Big East and now in the ACC, and the one thing he learned right away is that stars want to be on the floor.
But whatever accommodations Boeheim made in terms of playing time came with equal measures of accountability. And so alongside all the wins, the roster of glittering names that have passed through campus during Boeheim’s stay — Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Pearl Washington and Derrick Coleman — all likely have stories involving less-glamorous moments, too.
“There’s nobody that doesn’t push,” Boeheim said about his fellow coaches. “Some do it a little easier and some a little nicer may, but we all push, and that’s the way the players get better and at the end of the day, they want that.
“Derrick Coleman told me I was pushing him too much, and he’d never come back to see me again,” he added with a smirk. “Now he’s back more than my sons are. So they understand eventually.”
Exactly what keeps Boeheim pushing himself these days is tough to say. He’s 71 and a member of the Hall of Fame since 2005. He trails only close pal, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, for most wins as a college coach and with the number of wins vacated along with the NCAA suspension (and previous violations) still being argued over, there’s little chance Boeheim will catch up. In the meantime, he’s not likely to change.
“I never curse at a player. I never have,” Boeheim said when the motivation question came up at another juncture. “I mean, I threw something at a player once, but I wasn’t aiming at him.
“That was a long time ago — 30 years ago,” he added chuckling softly. “Probably couldn’t do that anymore.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and at Twitter.com/JimLitke