Apr 04, 2013 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
So what is Syracuse University basketball, circa 2013?
The Orange’s run to the Final Four in Atlanta has evoked a whole lot of examination of what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong here. It’s also evoked the usual amount of journalistic opportunism – some of it legitimate, some of it not.
Long story short, it’s a complex, messy picture, symbolic of the modern game’s myriad problems and yet, at the same time, displaying virtues of loyalty, enthusiasm and support that most other programs would gladly trade for.
First, we’ll share the bad news. From academic questions to off-the-court incidents (small, but numerous) and the Bernie Fine saga, there’s plenty of reason to cast aspersions on SU because, at the least, there’s been less-than-stellar behavior.
It would have turned sinister if the allegations of abuse against Fine were found to be absolutely true. But there’s too much ambiguity (from the accusers), opportunism (from ESPN post-Sandusky) and flat-out lying (from accusers who recanted). As a result, we’ll never know the whole story, and even if we did, a lot of people wouldn’t trust it for the reasons above.
Even without that cloud, the others, causing the NCAA to conduct a years-long investigation into the program unrelated to Fine, has brought some doubt into SU’s basketball future. The threat of doom led many to suspect that Mike Hopkins would run away and be a head coach somewhere else, rather than wait for Jim Boeheim to retire and inherit supposedly damaged goods.
Then there’s the move to the ACC. Boeheim, and many others, were blunt about their sad feelings of leaving their ancestral Big East home for a reason (football) that had nothing to do with events on the court. Even as a measure of survival, the move hasn’t gone over well.
Here, just like with the other non-basketball issues, SU reflects the typical big-time program, always needing to chase that next dollar to keep up with the other superpowers. And if it blows up history and ticks off fans, well, that’s tough.
There’s plenty of reason for cynicism and distaste. Yet there’s also plenty of reason to feel proud of SU and what it has accomplished, beyond getting to college basketball’s biggest stage in Atlanta.
Most of it starts with Boeheim. The 50-plus years and 900-plus wins are staggering enough, but that’s just a reflection of his loyalty to Syracuse and Central New York, a trait rarely shared anywhere in the American sports landscape, college or pro.
That experience leads to virtues like patience and calm. In late February and early March, when the Orange appeared to be falling apart, Boeheim stepped in, took the heat, made everyone speculate about his future plans….all the while shielding his players and allowing them to regroup. Good stuff followed.
Another key thing that Boeheim has done is set up the program for the long term. All of his assistants – Hopkins, Adrian Autry, Gerry McNamara – played for him, so the school need not look outside its own family whenever Jim finally decides that full-time golf is more appealing.
Contrast that with the volatility, instability and hypocrisy seen elsewhere in college hoops. The volatile part is symbolized by Mike Rice, the disgraced and dismissed Rutgers coach whose cringe-inducing tirades and behavior has tarred an entire school that must now deal with tons of collateral damage.
Instability is found in the rush of players heading off to the pros, whether they are ready or not, or the transfers of players who aren’t happy for one reason or another. With that, it’s tough for fans to develop bonds with the guys they cheer on from the stands.
And the hypocrisy mostly stems from coaches pledging loyalty one minute, as Steve Alford did signing a 10-year contract extension at New Mexico, and then jumping ship the next minute, as Alford did running to UCLA less than two weeks after signing said extension.
Free from that sort of drama, SU has defied the trends. Boeheim, while he has his fair share of ornery moments, treats his players well. Few of them leave too early, and those that stay find themselves with a good chance at doing special, as they’ve done in 2013. There also hasn’t been a coaching change since 1976. That counts for something.
So Syracuse has plenty to explain, and defend, as it traverses through the Atlanta circus this weekend. At the same time, though, it can beam about the good qualities that have kept the Orange among the college basketball elite, with a strong enough stomach to deal with the inevitable headaches.