HOUSTON — Jim Boeheim might as well have been George Costanza up at the podium on Thursday.
Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie if you believe it.
According to Boeheim: It’s not cheating if it’s not intentional.
Academic fraud, multiple failed drug tests that didn’t prevent Syracuse players from losing eligibility, money exchanging hands from a local YMCA acquaintance to SU players. Not intentional acts. Not — technically — “cheating.”
This was the argument the 71-year-old Syracuse coach made on Thursday when asked to reflect on how the NCAA’s penalties have affected the well-being of his program. It was an incredible moment of spin for a man who’s otherwise taken in this staggering run the Final Four with humility and emphasized acknowledgement of his own surprise at making it this far with a 10th-seeded team.
With Syracuse and North Carolina — the former on probation, the latter awaiting a potentially historic punishment from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (COI) — set to play on Saturday in the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, the unavoidable showed itself here at NRG Stadium. Boeheim and UNC coach Roy Williams (both men who’ve been inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame) were asked, repeatedly, about their programs’ awkward standing with the NCAA slamming up against the fact they’ve made it to college basketball’s biggest stage.
What Syracuse has done over the past two weeks amounts to one of the best coaching performances of Boeheim’s career. In many respects with that, he’s never looked better. With this spin on what is cheating, in his mind? It’s hard to look much worse.
Williams didn’t have much to say. He mostly dodged or shrugged off the latest round of inquiries from the press. The 65-year-old described his Carolina program’s ongoing account with the NCAA as such: “All that other stuff that sometimes I call ‘junk’ has been talked about too much.”
Boeheim, as has long been his strong suit, didn’t skirt and, in defending himself, caused a stir among those who don’t buy his latest defense of what went wrong at Syracuse for nearly a decade. The NCAA’s investigation and punishment into Syracuse officially completed, upon appeal, earlier this season. One of the sanctions upheld was a nine-game suspension, something Boeheim sardonically on Thursday referred to as a “vacation.” Now, with a fifth Final Four attached to his résumé, Boeheim fought back and went the semantics route to discredit anyone who wants to call him a cheat or to say his program cheated.
“When they say ‘cheating,’ that’s not true,” he said. “Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating, to me, is intentionally doing something, like you wanted to get this recruit, you arranged a job for him, or you went to see him when you shouldn’t. You called him when you shouldn’t to gain an edge in recruiting, to get a really good player. That’s cheating. I think if something happens that you’re not aware of, it doesn’t really affect the recruit, I don’t look at it the same way.”
The NCAA doesn’t agree with that, and neither does its president, Mark Emmert. I asked Emmert at his annual state-of-the-NCAA presser about Boeheim’s personal dictionary. The NCAA president mostly fell back on the COI’s decision, and in doing so, disputed the coach’s contentions.
“When those folks looked at the facts, they reached the conclusion that, indeed, violations of our rules and bylaws had occurred and imposed sanctions that were consistent with their view and that behavior,” Emmert said. “I’ll let coach Boeheim define that how he wants to. But the committee determined these are clear violations of the rules and that, therefore, it warranted some pretty significant sanctions, and they were imposed. … It’s the closest thing you’re going to see to ‘a jury of your peers’ model for as broad an association as this one that includes a wide collection of institutions and members. I have complete confidence in what that body did in this case.”
For months Boeheim has been most vocal about the suspension. He wasn’t allowed to communicate with his team at all during that time from Dec. 5- Jan. 5. And he’s still smarting over the NCAA wiping 106 of his wins off the record books, too. For him, even if rules were broken, no “cheating” happened. The punishment remains unfair, and even though he can’t fight it anymore, he’ll still remind anyone who will listen how unjust, in his eyes, the punishments ultimately were.
“I think being out nine games is a severe punishment for a coach,” he said. “If you don’t think that, you just don’t know it, you haven’t been through it. It’s a severe punishment. Losing the games is the most irritating thing to me because there’s many situations and past cases where similar things, exact same things happen, and games were not taken away. We presented all that stuff. But, you know, nobody listened. But that was the thing that probably bothered me as much as anything.”
Truth is, Boeheim’s program did cheat. It’s historic in its cheating; so rarely has one program been involved in so many murky issues throughout such a long period of NCAA review. It was so problematic that the program’s former director of basketball operations was using players’ school accounts to help them pass classes, and when the director of athlete support services discovered something was amiss, he was hesitant to report anything because, according to the NCAA, “He had a sense that men’s basketball might have ‘a little bit of special treatment.'”
We’re not done here. A former YMCA employee with ambiguous connection to the program handed out cash to five former players for helping out at the gym, an extra benefit so brazen and old-school, it’s amazing to think of it happening in the modern college sports climate. Failed drug tests, academic fraud, all of it encompassed the program for the better part of a decade. Was Boeheim complicit? No, I don’t think so, but the blame has to fall on him in part. That’s part of the deal, and he knows it.
Boeheim’s defense now, and always has been, I didn’t know, therefore I didn’t cheat. The same for my assistants. Amazingly, in the same stream of consciousness, Boeheim said this: “Things can happen in your program. You have to take responsibility for them. You have to go on. I’ve coached 40 years. Yeah, you know, that’s something that I regret. I’m not happy about. I don’t think we gained any competitive advantage at any time in this whole case that we’ve been through for 10 years. I think it weighed on us for 10 years and affected recruiting for 10 years. That’s just part of the punishment.”
Boeheim failed to bring up how the program essentially bargained with the NCAA to not be stripped of it 2003 national title and the 2013 Final Four appearance. And if the program suffered, it’s hard to see how that’s bearing fruit. Emmert himself said Syracuse’s current players deserved to be here, that the punishment system worked. The program instituted a self-ban for the 2015 postseason — after it was clear the team wouldn’t be at-large worthy.
I don’t fault Boeheim one bit for saying what he said. It is who he is. It’s how you get to 71 and stay relevant in this sport; how you win nearly 1,000 games, no matter what the NCAA wants to take away. It’s also how you put your program in the position that he did. Is 2016 a redemption story for him, for Syracuse?
“I stopped trying to prove people wrong a long time ago,” he said.
But he’s also never stopped trying to tell people how wrong they are. He never will, either. Boeheim’s self-assurance and intransigent attitude make him compelling and one of the most reliable quotes in the business. He can’t stop himself from defending who he is and, by extension, the empire he’s built over four decades in central New York. It’s not a fault, it’s a defining character trait.
He can play the semantics game, but no matter the words used, the actions will always outweigh his definitions that follow.
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