Jim Boeheim was never one of my favorite college coaches, at least that was true in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. He was a prickly pear who seemed to be forever whining about one thing or another. I also harbored a suspicion that he merely recruited amazing talent then did very little actual coaching. Down on Tobacco Road we know our coaches. Dean Smith … now there was a guy who drew some Xs and Ox. Boeheim? He just rolled the balls out when the season started and collected them when it ended — usually with an earlier than anticipated exit in the NCAA Tournament.
That was the popular thinking in ACC country back then. And besides, Boeheim was the coach of Syracuse in the vaunted and much ballyhooed Big East. What, then, was to like?
But I ultimately I gained a grudging respect for Boeheim. It came a couple of years after a slew of missed free throws and assignments cost them the national title against Indiana in 1987 (see, that non-coaching thing!). My future wife was a student at Syracuse at that time. We would meet eight years later.
Through her, Syracuse basketball became part of the household. I started to watch Boeheim at work. What I began to notice is how intense the trademark Orange 2-3 zone was played and how every piece of his personnel was recruited to fit that very teachable and sticky defensive system. I noted the patterns of the offense, the motion and passing. I finally had to admit, Boeheim was a coach and a damned good one.
And it didn’t hurt that about the same time Boeheim got himself married and began to mellow out. He gained the perspective that comes to older coaches. He began to reflect more and whine less. I even determined that he had a sense of humor.
So when it came to pass in recent weeks that Syracuse had a burgeoning Penn State-like scandal brewing I wanted to believe that Boeheim was further ahead by far in his thoughts and actions than the largely addled Joe Paterno at State College Pa. who seems to have enabled a child molester for years. The legendary football coach was fired a couple of weeks ago at age 84 for his inaction over the alleged actions of former assistant, friend and hanger-on to the football program Jerry Sandusky.
But on the surface, a parallel was there. Paterno spent a lifetime at Penn State. The same is true for Boeheim. He arrived in snow country as a student in the early 1960s and never left Syracuse. People who remain still for too long develop deep and sometimes tangled roots.
When allegations surfaced from a former ballboy that longtime Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine conducted himself in an inappropriate manner it appeared that Syracuse had handled the matter in a far more professional and legal manner than their colleagues at Penn State. The allegations had been investigated. Police were notified. In the case of Bobby Davis, the statute of limitations for charges had expired — and there were no other corroberating stories. The school had no recourse. ESPN, which looked into the story, let it drop as well.
But the Penn State case focused new attention on the issue of sexual abuse of children under the so-called protection of coaches. One more person came forward in the Fine case. That gave ESPN the backing it needed to proceed with the story.
Then Boeheim did a curious thing. He reverted to the whining and belligerent guy he was in the 1980s. He jumped to the defense of his assistant — which is to be expected and perhaps laudable in the moment. But then he went on to say that the alleged first victim only wanted money and was a “liar.”
From that day forward my spouse, who graduated from Syracuse in 1989, has had little use for Boeheim. After all, who was he to call someone possibly traumatized for life by someone on his staff a liar. Did Boeheim know something he wasn’t sharing with the rest of the world? I figured he had to be. No sane person should call someone who is a potential victim of a sexual predator a liar unless they had some damned compelling proof.
Turns out, he didn’t.
Sunday had to be a horrible day at Syracuse. Now a third potential victim has stepped forward — this one within the statute of limitations. Police have launched a full-court press investigation — as they should. ESPN also aired a report that includes a taped 2002 telephone conversation between Bobby Davis and Bernie Fine’s wife Laurie in whch she admits that she knew of her husband’s abusive tendencies and did nothing about it. By Sunday afternoon, Bernie Fine no longer worked at Syracuse — after 36 years.
The audiotape is a true smoking gun. ESPN had the voice analyzed by an expert to verify that it was Laurie Fine. The tape also makes mention of an affair between Laurie Fine and Davis when the boy was 18. See transcript here.
This may be the sleaziest story of the year — which is saying a great deal when you think of it. Even the journalism is on the slimy side — although it’s probably the only way the entire story would come to light. Taped conversation when one party isn’t aware of it is perhaps my least favorite tactic to obtain information.
Late Sunday Boeheim issued a written statement that said all the right and heavily lawyered things. He said the university acted appropriately in firing his longtime friend. He acknowledged never seeing any sign of potential abuse, which I believe. And he apologized for his statements that perhaps put a victim of abuse in a negative light or possibly slowed any legal action.
Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com wrote a column Sunday night that makes excellent points about the Boeheim statements and what Syracuse should do about them.
Would it be a rush to judgment or somehow wrong to hold Boeheim accountable for making what were clearly boneheaded statements about a sticky legal matter in which the lives of people are forever altered?
I’ll be interested to see what Syracuse does next. Let’s put it this way, Boeheim joked earlier this year when Syracuse joined the ACC that he might be swapping a tournament in Madison Square Garden for one in the Greensboro Coliseum. Turns out, he might not have to book a plane to the Gate City after all.