(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JOHN KEKISAP Sports Writer
Jim Boeheim has experienced a lot since the dawn of the new century – prostate surgery, a national championship, induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, a pair of Olympic gold medals, the firing of a lifelong friend on his staff.
Yet even though it’s been 50 years since he enrolled as a freshman at Syracuse, the 68-year-old Boeheim just keeps rolling along, as intense and focused as ever in his 37th year at his alma mater, worried only about the next game when he’s not recruiting or raising money for cancer research.
`’He hasn’t lost a beat,” said Boeheim’s wife, Juli. ”Jim’s got an intense edge at all times.”
One that has brought him to the doorstep of another milestone – 900 victories. Sometime soon – the first chance comes against Detroit on Monday night in the Carrier Dome on the court that bears his name – Boeheim will join a most elite fraternity, one with only two other members – Mike Krzyzewski (936) and Bob Knight (902), the only men’s coaches in Division I history to win that many games.
”The sooner we get through it, the better we’ll be able to focus on the season,” said Boeheim, 899-304 for his career after his fourth-ranked Orange (9-0) beat Canisius 85-61 on Saturday night. ”This team does not care about how many wins I have. They care about getting the next win. That’s it. Everything else does not matter. It really doesn’t. I’m happy I’m still here.”
Even though his Orange have won more games the past three seasons than during any three-year stretch in his career and Boeheim’s program is probably better than it’s ever been, crossing another threshold on the victory list isn’t fodder for the dinner table.
”We don’t even mention it at home,” Juli said.
One of a vanishing breed, Boeheim has been head coach at Syracuse since 1976 and has never had a desire to go anywhere else. His first victory as a college coach was against Harvard in Springfield, Mass., a 75-48 triumph on Nov. 26, 1976.
”We were behind at halftime, not playing well at all,” Boeheim recalled. ”We just kind of went to something real simple offensively and outscored them about 20-something to six in the second half.”
After taking over for Roy Danforth, Boeheim’s Orange went 26-4 in his rookie season, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
”We were a good eastern program,” Boeheim said. ”At that time, St. Bonaventure, Holy Cross, and all those programs were just as good as we were. We were a little bit better at that point in time, but not much. There was really not much difference between all the eastern schools.”
Boeheim has transformed what was a sound program – Syracuse was 128-71 in eight seasons under Danforth, going 23-9 and reaching its first Final Four in the 1974-75 season – and taken the Orange into the rarefied air of three national title games, winning in 2003 in New Orleans.
Boeheim holds the Division I record for most 20-win seasons at 34, has 48 NCAA tournament victories (fifth all-time and one behind Jim Calhoun) in 29 trips, and tops the Big East with 402 wins.
And, clearly, he’s in a better place than he was a year ago when former assistant Bernie Fine was fired amid allegations of sexual abuse against two former ball boys. No charges were filed, and last month federal authorities dropped their investigation. Fine has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
Boeheim defended his lifelong friend and endured criticism and scrutiny, with some activists calling for him to be fired. He was questioned repeatedly during news conferences about the case and was sued for defamation by the ball boys (the case was thrown out).
Through it all, Boeheim simply did what he’s done for nearly four decades – prepare for the next game. The Orange responded by winning a school-record 34 games, narrowly missing another trip to the Final Four.
”He has so much knowledge and experience. I write in a journal the way that he handles certain situations,” said longtime assistant Mike Hopkins, who performs the job Fine held, coaching the big men. ”Last year was 10 years of education in one, managing and motivating – Cool Hand Luke.
”Every year you think you’ve seen it all, and last year you saw a whole new chapter just in terms of what a great leader he is.”
Boeheim has been part of Krzyzewki’s staff for the past two Summer Olympics, and the two have formed a solid friendship.
”Jim is one of the great coaches of all time, and he’s an even better man,” Krzyzewski said. ”It will be an amazing accomplishment when he reaches 900 wins. What is even more amazing is that he’s done that at one school. Jim Boeheim and Syracuse University are synonymous. He has built one of the great brands in college basketball, one that has withstood the sport’s most unrelenting test – the test of time.”
Knight’s Indiana team deprived Boeheim and the Orange of a national championship in 1987 when Keith Smart’s baseline jumper with 4 seconds left gave the Hoosiers a one-point victory.
Knight could be courtside on the ESPN broadcast crew calling the New Year’s Eve game in the Carrier Dome against Central Connecticut. If the Orange remain undefeated and beat Central Connecticut, Boeheim would pass Knight on that day.
And despite what the coach says, the Orange are stoked for Monday night’s game.
”I can’t wait until he gets to 900,” sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams said. ”He’s been through the ups and downs with the school. He wants all of us to be great and to play to our potential. I think that’s what makes him so great.”
Added senior Brandon Triche, who leads the team in scoring: ”He’s one of the best motivators. Sometimes, he’s tough on you, but he’s motivated me to be the player I am.”
AP Basketball Writer Jim O’Connell contributed to this report.
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