Jim Boeheim has been a master at driving the Syracuse basketball team through a storm. That’s the narrative on him now, that in a year of hard times, the Orange have kept winning. If they beat Ohio State on Saturday, they’ll be in the Final Four.
We love people who overcome adversity; it’s one of the great feel-good clichés about sports: "It’s a tribute to him," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said Friday.
A tribute? This season is a tribute to Jim Boeheim? No. That’s just too much. When people credit him for dealing with a mess, they seem to forget that it’s his mess. He is not a sympathetic figure.
How can anyone slide through drug and pedophile scandals on a team the way he has? This is his program. Somehow, he snubs his nose at rightful scrutiny, but nothing touches him, as if he’s not accountable for what happens on or around a team he has run for 36 years.
After Syracuse beat Wisconsin on Thursday night, someone asked one of the players about all the season’s low points.
"Low points?" Boeheim muttered under his breath. "We’re 34-2."
He has done this before, suggesting that the team’s huge success wipes away the negatives. And the truth is, he seems to be right.
But the tributes to Boeheim are coming from everywhere now, from coaches and media. And they all seem to center around his demeanor. It is perfect for surviving the messes. That’s true. But no one wants to blame him first.
You already know what happened at Syracuse this year. Boeheim’s longtime assistant and friend, Bernie Fine, had several accusations of child molestation leveled against him. Fine would be fired. But first, Boeheim stood strongly behind him, even suggesting that the accusers were just after money. No matter what the facts were in Fine’s case, Boeheim had perpetuated a dangerous stereotype. It is hard enough for sexual abuse victims to make the allegations, as someone always questions their motives. To have someone in such a public position do it? That only served to keep future victims in cases everywhere from stepping forward.
By the end of the season, Yahoo! Sports revealed that the NCAA was investigating Syracuse’s drug-testing policy, alleging that several players — none from this year’s team — had failed tests over the years but still been allowed to play. And then, just before the NCAA tournament started, center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for a reason Syracuse has said it can’t divulge.
Sometimes, players manage to treat issues as a personal challenge to prove people wrong. They build around the idea that everyone is out to get them.
That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here. Instead, mostly these guys are just ignoring it.
"We’ve been through a lot," guard Dion Waiters said. "The only thing we can do is face adversity like we have all year. We did a great job of not letting little things affect this team."
See? Something about Boeheim has been just perfect. The players see "little things."
Yet, they aren’t little. Even adversity doesn’t seem like the right word. How about scandal?
Well, Boeheim talked about whether it was something the team rallied around:
"The adversity this year with losing Fab a few days before the tournament started, two days before, was obviously difficult," Boeheim said. "It was difficult to lose a teammate, difficult as a coach to lose a great kid who’s really developed as a player."
It was no accident that when he talked about adversity, he didn’t mention anything other than Melo. The other scandals never filter their way down to the players at all.
That’s impressive on their part. In fact, maybe the season’s success should be a tribute to them. Guard Scoop Jardine has been the leader, the vocal one.
"A lot of it has nothing to do with basketball," guard Brandon Triche said. "On the court. That’s where we find peace."
Boeheim said that what goes on off the court affects him more than the players. And surely he has had some hard times dealing with firings and lawsuits and investigations. He’s human.
There aren’t direct allegations against Boeheim, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be held responsible for what happens in his own program. It just seems that he is skating on all of this. It appears that he’s Paterno-like, in that he has been around so long that he is isolated, disconnected and protected somehow. It comes partly, of course, from all the success.
It’s true that he has done a miraculous job with this team. To lose Melo at the last minute and still run through the NCAA tournament?
That’s hard to believe. It also might be impossible to overcome Saturday, as Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger should be able to dominate the Orange now.
But if Syracuse wins, at least we can acknowledge whose mess this is.
Maybe someone can even include that in the next Boeheim tribute.