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Boeheim’s Chance for Calhoun-Like Swan Song

By Chris Mahr

There was something familiar about the ups and downs that Jim Boeheim went through at Syracuse during the 2012-2013 season.

As the Orange endured a 5-6 funk following an 18-1 start to the year, Boeheim looked like a man in over his head. His team was underperforming. His already testy relationship with the media became even more tenuous (video above). At 68 years old, with over 900 wins and a national title to his name in nearly 40 years at Syracuse, it seemed like high time that Boeheim call it quits.

Then, just when we thought he was done and the Orange were headed for another early exit from the Big Dance, both Boeheim and his team righted the ship just when they had to. They reached the finals of the Big East tournament before falling to eventual national champion Louisville. They made a surprise run to the Final Four, highlighted by a Sweet Sixteen domination of top-seeded Indiana and an Elite Eight squashing of conference rival Marquette.

Why did Boeheim’s ups and downs feel so familiar? Because UConn counterpart Jim Calhoun went through almost the exact same thing two years before in leading the Huskies to an unlikely national title.

Granted, Boeheim didn’t get that national title last year. But with his Syracuse team undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country, he could very well capture his second this year - and trump Calhoun’s swan song of a title in the process.

It’s uncanny how similar Boeheim and Calhoun are as people and as coaches. Both spent the better part of their adult lives as head coaches at schools to which they have deep regional ties; Boeheim having grown up in upstate New York and attended Syracuse, Calhoun having grown up in Massachusetts and coached throughout the region before arriving in Storrs.

Moreover, both were/have been highly successful despite the fact that they appear(ed) to be perpetually miserable. Indeed, Boeheim often said that if he hadn’t gone into coaching, he would’ve gone into the family funeral home business. Calhoun, meanwhile, likely reminds anyone who grew up in New England of that scary, Irish Catholic middle school social studies teacher who didn’t take crap from anybody. (Having grown up outside of Boston, I mean that as a high compliment).

A part of me would like to hope that whenever they weren’t going toe-to-toe on the court, Boeheim and Calhoun were good friends. Ones who would shoot the breeze about college hoops in the northeast, certain members of the media they couldn’t stand, how to light fires under the butts of players who appeared unmotivated and so on and so forth.

Even if they weren’t/aren’t good friends, you can still be sure that Boeheim took notice of how Calhoun guided UConn to that 2011 national title as well as the circumstances under which he did so.

For much of that season, Calhoun appeared as Boeheim did last year: At the end of his rope. Since winning it all in ’04, his Huskies had made it past the first weekend of the Big Dance just twice. After a 4-7 finish to the 2010-2011 regular season, many were speculating that UConn would miss the tourney altogether and that Calhoun was finished in Storrs.

Everyone remembers what happened next: Star guard Kemba Walker led a Huskies rampage through a loaded Big East and NCAA tournament field, and Calhoun celebrated his third (and most unlikely) national championship a month before his 69th birthday. More telling is how happy he appeared that spring, showing more joy than at any previous point of his tenure at UConn.

Many folks figured that Calhoun would ride off into the sunset after that title. Instead, he came back for one more year. Why? I think he purposefully wanted to serve that three-game Big East suspension levied against him by the NCAA in February 2011 for “failing to create an atmosphere of compliance,” just so no one could criticize him for taking the easy way out and retiring instead. Had there been no suspension to serve, I think that Calhoun would have called it quits the moment the clock ran out in the Huskies’ title game win over Butler.

Fast-forward to this season, with Boeheim’s undefeated Orange team sitting atop the national rankings. He too has displayed a happiness and contentment that we’ve rarely (if ever) seen or heard from him before. Are we sure this is the real Boeheim proclaiming that college basketball is in “the best place it’s ever been”? The same Boeheim who hasn’t verbally attacked a single reporter or story or the like?

He too is 69 years old. But unlike Calhoun three years ago, his Syracuse team isn’t fighting furiously just to get in to the Big Dance. If anything, their play over the first three months of the season suggests that they’ll be one of the favorites come March, just one year after their 2-3 zone nearly carried them to the national title game.

And should Syracuse maintain its high level of play all the way through the Final Four? Boeheim will have that long-awaited, follow-up national title to his 2003 championship. He’ll have everything he wanted out of his seemingly interminable coaching career. He’ll see no more mountains to conquer in advance of his 70th birthday and possibly walk away.

In short, he’ll have everything that Jim Calhoun got three years ago. And more.

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.

Top Photo Credit: David Butler II/USA Today Sports

 
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