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Jim Boeheim: Great coach, but at what cost?

Dec 18, 2012, 9:22 AM EDT

Eastern Michigan v Syracuse Getty Images

You are going to read plenty of words today deifying Jim Boeheim’s 900 wins and the job that he has done turning a private school buried in lake-effect snow in Upstate New York into one of the nation’s preeminent basketball programs.

And, frankly, the majority of those words are going to be well-deserved.

Boeheim’s consistency with the Orange has been unreal. He’s won more than 20 games in 34 of the 36 seasons he’s been at the helm. He’s made the NCAA tournament 29 times, reaching the title game thrice and winning it all once, on the back of Carmelo Anthony. His career at Syracuse will span the creation and the destruction of the Big East, a conference that he won 15 titles in, ten times finishing atop the regular season standing and five times hoisting the conference tournament trophy. His 900 wins but him behind only Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski on the all-time list, and he’ll pass Knight before the calendar turns to January.

Perhaps most impressive is the fact that he’s spent his entire career in the same spot. He enrolled at Syracuse as a walk-on in 1962, eventually becoming team captain on a roster that included Dave Bing. When he began his coaching career in 1969, it was as a grad assistant on the Syracuse bench. He stayed there until he was named head coach in 1976, and as never left. In a day and age where every job is a stepping stone, that’s an incredible feat.

But — there’s always a but — it will be interesting to see how many of the glowing columns you’ll read today mention the arrest record of Boeheim’s players. Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com, in a 661 word column on Boeheim’s 900th win, had all of this to say about it: “what has overshadowed Boeheim’s success recently are the off-court issues surrounding the program and the fact he’s only got one national title to his credit.” And in a way, that’s actually a perfect representation of Boeheim’s attitude towards his players off the court. I’ll let Mike Rosenberg of SI.com explain:

He doesn’t worry too much about what his players do with their free time, how they dress or what they say to the media. He expects them to produce on the basketball court and be good teammates. The rest is not really his problem.

The next time he talks about his players being role models for anybody will be the first time. The Syracuse Post-Standard recently reported that his star point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, admitted shoplifting from a store and paid a $500 fine. Boeheim’s response: “Syracuse police have found nothing to investigate.The mall, the store, is happy and satisfied with the result. Michael is satisfied with the result.” In other words: So what? If players get in trouble, he says: Hey, players get in trouble. When is the next game?

Carter-Williams was caught shop-lifting — reportedly a pair of gloves and a bathrobe — last Sunday. He started and played 38 minutes on Saturday against Canisius, the Orange’s next game. Last season, Fab Melo was arrested for fourth-degree criminal mischief after an ugly incident involving his then-girlfriend. Melo didn’t miss a game until he was suspended during the season for an academic issue.

There’s more as well. The Georgetown blog Casual Hoya compiled all of the legal issues involving Syracuse players (some of the incidents on that list occurred when their time at Syracuse was over, but what do you expect from a rival?), which includes names like Derrick Coleman, Jonathon Wallace, Todd Burgan and Jonny Flynn.

In a way, Boeheim’s attitude towards his player’s off the court troubles is almost, in a sense, refreshing in its honesty. He’s not there to shape the lives of these young men. He’s not trying to claim that he’s the Mother Theresa of the hardwood. He’s there to do his job. He’s there to win basketball games and, hopefully, shuffle these players off to a long and thriving career as professional basketball players. And, quite frankly, he’s damn good at doing that.

He’s done to the 2-3 zone what Bobby Knight did to motion offense. He’s one of the best ‘ball coaches’ to ever grace our presence. He gives one heckuva press conference, whether he’s ripping the local beat reporters, defending one of his stars or giving his opinion on the availability of automatic weapons in out country.

But if you’re going to paint Jim Boeheim as the Patron Saint of Upstate New York, be sure to spend a couple of brushstrokes highlighting just what he allows to go on in and around his program.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

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