Orange Turns To Red As An Era Eclipses

In a world where increasingly what was no longer is, it was often quite reassuring for me to watch a Syracuse University college basketball game and see a familar, bookish, and consistently competitive face on the sideline.  Since even my college days at a smaller school 30 miles northwest of the domed palace that served as the de facto capitol of the glory days of the Big East, Jim Boeheim was the consistent thread across generations of teams and players that gave upstate New York national prominence and relevance.  Not to mention dozens of NCAA post-season runs and, 20 years ago, to date its only national championship.

Yesterday, that career came to an abrupt end, as the Associated Press reported:

Basketball Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim’s 47-year tenure as coach at Syracuse ended Wednesday, with the university saying Orange assistant Adrian Autry has been promoted into the job.

The move came less than three hours after Syracuse lost to Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, after which Boeheim hinted at retirement but said it would ultimately be the university’s decision.

Then came the news from the school: “Today, as his 47th season coaching his alma mater comes to an end, so too does his storied career at Syracuse University. Associate Head Coach Adrian Autry ’94, one of Boeheim’s former players and longtime assistant, has been named the program’s next head coach.”

Autry has been on Boeheim’s staff since 2011, and held the title of associate head coach since March 2017.

The 78-year-old Boeheim’s record in his 47 seasons, officially, was 1,015-441. That reflects 101 wins taken away by the NCAA for violations between the 2004-07 and 2010-12 seasons.

Whether the count was 1,015 or 1,116, only now-retired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had more wins than Boeheim at the Division I level.

I actually got a chance to cover and interview Boeheim, perhaps the crowning achievement of my sports journalism “career”.  When I was a senior at SUNY Oswego, I interned at the CBS affiliate in Syracuse writing copy and preparing video clips for the station’s longtime sportscaster, a popular but troubled man who basically drank his way between the 6 and 11 pm sportscasts.  Except when Syracuse basketball was playing a home game.  My “boss” was omnipresent on those evenings, and would always give Boeheim a spot on the early news segment during warm-ups.  Boeheim, who at the time looked more like an accountant than an intimidator, was always insightful, respectful and authoritative.

That 1980-81 team wasn’t all that successful, winding up in the NIT rather than the NCAA.  But that meant that they would compete in New York City, and that year the tournament’s concluding rounds coincided with spring break.  Both myself and a cameraman called New York City home, which opened up an opportunity for me to actually be an on-site reporter for the tournament’s final four.

Because I wasn’t a card-carrying union member, I couldn’t appear on camera.  But I did get to stalk the sideline at Madison Square Garden, and it was my stubby hand that held the tv5-flag-covered microphone up to Boeheim’s mouth during the post-mortem of a thrilling but disappointing 86-84 loss to Tulsa, coached by another eventual NCAA title winner, Nolan Richardson.  Boeheim saw the familiar station logo but didn’t recognize me; my boss looked like a less polished version of Ted Baxter, and was far taller and thinner than I was.   After his presser, Boeheim introduced himself to me and he said “If you’re Jack’s guy, my only advice is avoid the pasta and vino”.   I took his advice and skipped dinner, racing over instead to WCBS-TV with my cameraman, where we quickly cut a package and uplinked it to our affiliate just in time for that night’s 11 pm sportscast.  I never did get to do an actual sportscast, nor did I ever get the chance to interview someone in sports who proved to be as iconic as successful as Jim Boeheim.

The Syracuse team that turned out to be Boeheim’s final one wasn’t all that successful.  They finished 17-15, with the first-round elimination in the ACC tournament emblematic of the middling record Boeheim had during his last decade as a member of a larger but less geographically centered conference. Boeheim’s greatest post-season success occurred during the team’s days as a force in the Big East, which always had their championship week occur at the same MSG I got the chance to cover him at.  Loud contingents of fans, bellowing “LET’S GO ORANGE!!!” would cheer, and whenever Boeheim would be within shouting distance, the noise would escalate.  Much as the passionate minority who would treck down to Greensboro would try, the ACC-era Orange weren’t quite as successful.

But Boeheim did make deeper runs in the NCAAs in recent years,  The Orange made it to two Final Fours in 2013 and 2016, respectively.  An Elite Eight appearance in 2018 where he and Krzyzewski wahed war in a thrilling encounter between two true legends.  And, most recently, a surprising Sweet Sixteen run in 2021, with two of his sons, including Buddy, now with the Detroit Pistons, playing for him.

The older Boeheim reinvented himself personally and professionally, and survived several scandals that threatened his tenure, one that indeed saw him step away for the latter part of that 2015-16 season. He remarried, to a younger and stunning partner, and was the envy of every reporter who covered him during his March Madness runs.  But he was a constant in Syracuse and its fans, as certain for some level of success as the likelihood of snowfall in winter,

So now Autry, his heir apparent, will inherit the challenge of keeping Syracuse competitive and prominent.  “Red” Autry, as he’s known, has learned well, and can potentially relate to younger players better.  He’s qualified and competent, though plenty of observers aren’t quite sure the timing of his ascension was one he or Boeheim chose.  Indeed, as Mike Waters and Chris Carlson of observed, yesterday’s news cycle was a tad concerning as to how quickly and coldly the end of an era came down:

The university announced the men’s basketball coaching transition in a news release Wednesday night. There was no mention that Boeheim is retiring in the news release and no statement in the release was attributed to Boeheim.

Instead, the university said Boeheim’s 47th season and storied career simply “comes to an end.”

The university’s handling of the news raises the question of whether Boeheim is willingly stepping away from the program.

His exit came hours after Boeheim cryptically hinted at his retirement following his team’s buzzer-beating loss to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament but said that his future would be left “up to the university.”

Whether Boeheim winds up on another sideline, perhaps at a smaller school the way Jim Calhoun or Rick Pitino has elected to do, remains to be seen.  He’s certainly earned the chance to do what he wants, and trust me, although he’s 78 he’s physically and mentally far younger.

Personally, I hope he does stay involved.  I’d like another crack at interviewing him.  Lacking that, we’ll at least have decades of memories, and the knowledge that Syracuse will forever be respected as a college basketball power thanks to his efforts and intelligence.

Orange we glad we got to enjoy him so long?


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