Kent Syverud is the Chancellor of Syracuse University. John Wildhack is the school’s athletic director. But both of them report to their subordinate, basketball coach Jim Boeheim, who showed that he wields the most powerful hand at the university. On Sunday, the 72-year-old orchestrated a personal coup, reversing his “firing” from two years ago, getting his planned successor to take a nice job out West and firmly entrenched himself on the bench at the Carrier Dome for as long as he wants. Make no mistake, others may have fancier job titles, but Syracuse is ruled by Jim Boeheim.
It was ostensibly announced that Boeheim would sign a contract extension because Mike Hopkins, who’s been a Syracuse assistant for 21 years and had been designated as his successor, took a job as head coach at Washington. Hopkins had been named successor in 2007. After damning NCAA sanctions were handed down in 2015, Hopkins was truly designated the coach-in-waiting when it was announced Boeheim would be out after 2018 – given three more seasons to spare the embarrassment of getting fired on the spot. Boeheim has kept mum on the succession plan for the past two years and we found out why: Hopkins leaving pretty much validated the idea that Boeheim had no intention of ever leaving Syracuse.
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After all, why would Hopkins wait 10 years as the designated successor, sit through all of the NCAA problems, defend his boss with a special blend of love and blindness and then bail with one year left? There’s only one logical answer: Boeheim was only going to leave kicking and screaming. When a six-year deal at a school with a ripe recruiting area and not much pressure opens up, that’s far better than staying at Syracuse to get into a battle of the wills with a Machiavellian coach who’s the most powerful man in upstate New York.
And, shock of shocks, after Hopkins left and Syracuse needed someone to fill the shoes that Boeheim was leaving behind next year, Boeheim himself heroically stepped up to take a deal that will keep him in the job until his mid-70s, allow him to retain full control of the basketball program, possibly get back to 1,000 wins (an honor which was officially stripped when the NCAA took away 101 wins as part of the punishment) and then go out the way he wants. On his terms. It’s not hard to guess Boeheim’s view of the situation: No bureaucrat, especially one who should be so lucky to be at a school that was made famous because of Jim Boeheim’s basketball program, should tell Jim Boeheim to retire. He’s going to outlast them all.
Boeheim knew better than anybody: If Hopkins was gone, there’d be no line of succession at Syracuse, a school that has to fill the 30,000-seat Carrier Dome on freezing winter nights against Georgia Tech. He held all the cards even after the administration thought they’d won the hand.
This wasn’t hard to see coming. It’s like an improbable inevitability. When Hopkins was named successor in 2007, the future was wide open and putting dates on anything felt unnecessary, not with a peaceful transition of power coming. Then, when the NCAA dropped its bombshell report, the 2018 end-date felt long enough away where there’d be plenty of time to maneuver. Syracuse’s lack of spine gave Boeheim the time and ability to save himself, to effectively refuse termination and then, magically, make everyone forget about all the problems of the past five years.
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The 2015 NCAA report revealed, among other things, that Syracuse basketball was a lawless program with a lack of institutional control, where failed drug tests often had no repercussions, basketball staff did players’ homework and cash was given for player appearances. Syracuse was a basketball school that was operating like a 1980s Southwest Conference football powerhouse. All that was missing were free-handed boosters in 10-gallon hats.
Embarrassed, Syracuse fired Boeheim but in the weakest possible way – cutting him off after 2018 and having the magnanimity (cowardice?) to act like it was his decision. But report after report in the past two years have suggested Boeheim wanted no part of this deal and was working to undermine it and go out his way. It worked. Hopkins wanted no part of running out his mentor and his departure cleared the path for Boeheim to stay on in perpetuity (or at least until the ACC tournament goes back to Greensboro in 2020).
Jim Boeheim is Jay Leno – a guy who agreed to leave a job and then orchestrated his own comeback. He’s a Supreme Court justice – the job is his for life or at least until he no longer wants it. He’s bigger than life at Syracuse, a miracle worker who just pulled his greatest trick of all: bringing himself back from the dead.