Big East Burning Question: Are Syracuse And Jim Boeheim Really Overrated?Posted by mlemaire on January 15th, 2013
We are admittedly well late to the party with this question, but amidst all of the fawning articles and celebratory columns remarking on the incredible 900 wins that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has amassed, there was one turd in the punch bowl – CBS Sports college basketball analyst and noted Syracuse agitator Doug Gottlieb. Gottlieb has contended for quite some time that Boeheim is a great coach, but not an “elite” coach, especially when compared to some of his contemporaries who have had more success in the NCAA Tournament such as Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun. Now its true that Gottlieb has a rather testy history with Syracuse, its fans, and its famed head coach, but for the sake of this argument, we will ignore the suspicions of personal bias and just take his argument on its face. So without further delay, we posed the question to the three microsite writers and here is what they came up with.
Will Tucker: It’s hard to pass up an opportunity to lampoon Doug Gottlieb, especially when his subject is a coach with whom he seemingly has an ax to grind. But it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. As Mike points out, when you compare Jim Boeheim’s postseason accomplishments to those of his peers, his 900+ wins––amassed disproportionately early in the season––serve as an indictment in their distribution as much as a milestone in their volume. And Gottlieb’s accusation that Boeheim’s soft nonconference schedules have been a disservice to his team’s toughness is a fair criticism that merits further investigation. But Doug’s aversion to nuance is on full display, and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. While Boeheim’s nonconference scheduling is and should be fair game, Gottlieb further attributes Syracuse’s postseason stumbles to feasting on an overrated Big East schedule. This seems more ad hominem than intellectually honest, and Doug conveniently ignores the 2010-11 UConn and 2011-12 Louisville teams that reached Final Fours with nearly ten Big East losses apiece. He also summarily mocks Boeheim’s zone defense as an inferior system nobody else uses with any success. In doing so, he ignores that Boeheim’s protégé Rick Pitino took an offensively stunted group to a Final Four with a variation of that zone last season, and the Cards retain the most efficient defense in the country again this year (Syracuse is hot on their heels at #3). Rhetoric notwithstanding, at the crux of this discussion is a fan’s aesthetic preference between regular season success and tournament success. Sure, the two aren’t mutually exclusive (paging Mike Kryzyzewski), but most coaches fall somewhere toward either end of the spectrum. Knowing all too well how a team’s struggles in the winter can exacerbate my seasonal affective disorder, I’m philosophical about the whole thing. I’ll take a Sweet 16 preceded by four months of big wins, high rankings, and conference championships over an agonizing regular season capped off by an Elite Eight––every time. Gottlieb subscribes to the notion that tournament success supersedes any other measuring stick, and the rigidness of his assumptions leaves little room for us to meet in the middle. Ultimately, I think it detracts from the salient questions his raises about what makes a coach great.
Mike Lemaire: I have plenty of issues with Gottlieb’s piece and the arguments he lays out in defense of his assertion that Boeheim and Syracuse are overrated, but I do think there are some kernels of truth in what he says. Winning over 900 games at one school is an incredible feat and should not be discounted, but it is true that Boeheim earned a healthy portion of those wins feasting on non-conference patsies and for all of his success, his NCAA Tournament resume pales in comparison to those built by some of his colleagues like Izzo, Calhoun, Calipari, and Pitino. Trying to determine where he ranks amongst the all-time coaching greats in the sport is useless because there are far too many factors to consider and the list would span many different eras. But if we were to look at the current group of coaches and where he ranks I think it would be safe to put him behind Izzo, Self, Pitino, Calhoun, Williams, and Donovan in terms of true coaching chops. There is definitely something to be said for achieving such long-term success and consistency at a school in upstate New York, but ultimately coaches in college basketball aren’t judged by their regular season records, they are judged by their postseason success and the fact that Boeheim needed more than 30 years to amass all those accomplishments should diminish his standing amongst the true giants of the profession.
Dan Lyons: Boeheim’s career arc could have been monumentally different if not for an off-balance jumper by Keith Smart in the 1987 National Championship Game. If that shot rattles out, and Syracuse holds on for that national championship, it ends much of the discussions about Boeheim’s lasting legacy 16 years before his run with Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Sure, there would have been dissenting opinions who would have echoed things like “you never would have won without Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas“, because I don’t think Keith Smart’s shot had any impact on the status of Doug Gottlieb’s life direction. However, the two national championships would have tied him with Knight, and at this point he has more wins, and it is very hard to argue against someone who has better raw numbers than “The General”. Aside from hypothetical situations, Boeheim’s career is one defined by consistency. The man’s worst teams are on the bubble come March and have won 20+ games. His career is probably most often compared to that of Jim Calhoun for obvious reasons, and while few Syracuse fans who aren’t being very biased wouldn’t trade Boeheim’s consistency for 1999, 2004, and 2011, there is something to be said for the program Boeheim has built. Syracuse has hit a zenith in terms of recruiting, much of which is spearheaded by coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins. In a recent USA Today interview, Boeheim said many kids commit without knowing if Boeheim will be around for more than one year of their careers, and the fact that they still come is a testament to Hopkins, and the rest of the all-alumni coaching staff at Syracuse. On the other hand, Calhoun had to be quite devious to ensure his heir apparent Kevin Ollie would receive the job, and even with Ollie doing a very nice job this year, the UConn athletic department as a whole has serious issues, some of which stemming from violations and academic struggles under Calhoun. The Syracuse program seems set up to continue to thrive under Hopkins and beyond, and that may end up being Boeheim’s most lasting legacy. College basketball is a wonderful sport because of its frenetic, one-off style tournament, but that can also throw off our opinions of someone’s legacy when it is the only thing that we weigh in terms of “greatness”. At the end of the day, championships matter above all else, but only having one should not diminish the lasting impact of nearly 40 years of sustained greatness, and the likelihood that it will continue on into the future. I don’t think that Jim Boeheim is the greatest coach to ever live, and he may not be top five, but I think that saying he is anything other than “great” is a flawed argument.