When Jim Boeheim enrolled at Syracuse University in 1962 and made the basketball team as a walk-on from nearby Lyons, N.Y., no one, including Boeheim, could have imagined that he would eventually coach the Orange to 900 wins.
He achieved that lofty milestone Monday night in the Carrier Dome, however, as the Syracuse held off Detroit, 72-68, before 17,902 fans in the Gotham Classic. Next up in this mini-holiday-style tournament is a Dec. 22 date with Temple in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
With three more wins, Boeheim will pass Bob Knight as the Division I men’s coach with the second-most career wins. He then would only trail Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who currently has 936 wins. Boeheim was on Krzyzewski ‘s US Olympic team coaching staff in 2008 and 2012.
While pleased to be in such esteemed company, Boeheim said 900 is “just a number,” and what matters to him is how his team plays. Year after year, of course, the Orange play well and currently are 10-0 and in possession of the nation’s longest home winning streak, of 30 games. In his 37 years at the helm, Syracuse has never had a losing season.
Boeheim first experienced success at the school in the mid 1960s as a player. Despite being a walk-on, he went on to become the team captain and played alongside roommate Dave Bing (now Detroit’s mayor) as they led Syracuse to a 22-6 record and its second-ever NCAA tournament berth.
After graduating, Boeheim (pronounce BAY-HYME) spent a few years playing minor-league basketball in Scranton, Pa., before becoming a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater in 1969. He moved up to a full-time assistant and landed the head job in 1976 when Roy Danforth left Syracuse for Tulane.
A main factor in the school’s proud basketball tradition, Boeheim readily acknowledges, is an incredibly loyal fan base. “That’s why I always felt this was a great place to coach and why I never really thought about going anywhere else,” he said after win No. 900.
Playing in the Carrier Dome has allowed the team to annually draw some of the largest home crowds in college basketball. On 71 occasions since the dome opened in 1980, more than 30,000 fans have streamed into the largest on-campus sports stadium, including an NCAA record 34,316.
Such a spacious facility can mean large crowds, but only if the team wins. It easily could become an empty cavern, but Boeheim has managed to turn what is really a football stadium into the place to be in central New York’s snow belt. Not surprisingly, the Carrier Dome court was named “Jim Boeheim Court” in 2002.
The pressure to succeed probably is what landed Syracuse in the NCAA doghouse in 1993, when it was put on probation for two years for recruiting violations.
Whatever short-term embarrassment that caused, the program has brought much national recognition to the university.
Three times the basketball team made it to the NCAA championship game, winning it in 2003 by beating Kansas, 81-78. Before that, it lost to Indiana in 1987 on a heartbreaking last-minute shot, and to Kentucky in 1996.
Although not known as a high-voltage coaching personality, Boeheim has earned the respect of the basketball community. He has served as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches Association, and in 2005 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Fittingly, it was in Springfield, against Harvard, that Boeheim notched his first coaching win in 1976.
Boeheim is not afraid to speak his mind, and earlier this year was roundly criticized after quickly coming to the defense of Bernie Fine, a longtime assistant at Syracuse who was accused of child molestation. Federal authorities eventually dropped the case saying there wasn’t enough evidence to support the charges.
After win No. 900 Boeheim addressed another hot-button issue: the gun-control controversy swirling around the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. “If we cannot get people who represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society,” he remarked.
He also has expressed his displeasure with all the scrambling that has occurred recently as college teams have realigned in conferences driven by TV considerations, not geography.