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100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Scott Pitoniak
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Scott Pitoniak
All rights reserved.
His father had mailed in the non-refundable $100 deposit check after Jim Boeheim had been accepted to Colgate University in the spring of 1962. But the elder Boeheim might as well have taken a match to the money because his son, over his old man's vehement objections, had designs on playing basketball at Syracuse University. And that was that, as far as Jim was concerned. His mind was made up. And when his mind was made up, you could forget about it, because he could be as stubborn as the mule that tugged the Erie Canal boat that brought his German-born ancestors to upstate New York in 1853.
Like one of his early sports idols, Jim Brown, Boeheim was determined to become an Orange man. So he showed up on the SU campus that September, and more than a half-century and 1,100 victories later (as a player, assistant, and head coach), he's still stubbornly churning out 25-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances. "When I think of Syracuse basketball, two words come immediately to mind — Jimmy Boeheim," said longtime ESPN basketball guru Dick Vitale. "The 'Cuse and Boeheim are inseparable. They go together perfectly, like spaghetti and meatballs."
Through the years, larger schools and the NBA courted Boeheim with financial offers that dwarfed what he was making at SU. But the guy who grew up in the small canal town of Lyons, just 45 minutes west of campus, was never drawn to the big-city lights. By deciding, in the words of his former assistant Rick Pitino, "to become a nester rather than a nomad," Boeheim was able to build a hoops juggernaut in his own backyard. After racking up the second-most wins in men's college basketball history, he has become to Syracuse what Bear Bryant was to Alabama, what John Wooden was to UCLA, and what Mike Krzyzewski is to Duke — a legend in his adopted hometown, the face of not only a program but a university.
And it could be argued quite cogently that Boeheim's ties to his school run even deeper than the aforementioned because he played at SU, too. He's been around for 52 of the 114 years the school has been dribbling, passing, and shooting basketballs on Piety Hill and he has had a hand in more than 60 percent of the Orangemen's wins.
"I guess I've always viewed things a little differently than most people," Boeheim said, when asked about his longevity at his school. "Most people believe the grass is greener on the other side. But I guess I was fortunate enough early on to appreciate the greenness of the grass on my side of the fence."
The funny thing is that few expected Boeheim to last a semester, let alone 52 years. Even head SU coach Fred Lewis had his doubts about the scrawny, bespectacled, physically underwhelming kid, which is why Boeheim arrived on campus sans scholarship. Lewis promised Boeheim the opportunity to walk on and earn one. But it was a similar promise, Boeheim later came to find out, that the smooth-talking Lewis had made to at least three other freshmen who had been star high school players.
Boeheim would eventually win over Lewis and his teammates with his toughness, smarts, and scoring ability. Not only would he receive his scholarship, he would receive Lewis' undying appreciation for teaming with All-American Dave Bing to help revive a program that had lost 27 games in a row the two seasons before their arrival.
"If you play the game, sometimes you go against somebody who doesn't look like they can do it," Lewis said of Boeheim, who converted 57 percent of his shots and averaged 14.6 points per game his senior year. "You think, This will be an easy game. I'll kill this guy. And by the end of the game, he's beaten your brains out. That was Jim. He had a tremendous advantage. People looked at him and thought every step would be his last, but that last step never came."
Boeheim tried out for the NBA, and he was one of the final players cut by the Chicago Bulls at their training camp in 1966. He then returned to Syracuse to work on his master's degree. Though he continued playing professionally on weekends for Scranton in the old Eastern League, he began his coaching career at his alma mater, first as a graduate assistant and then as a full-time assistant. Under head coach Roy Danforth, Boeheim helped the 1974–75 Orangemen make the school's first trip to the Final Four. When Danforth left the following season, Boeheim applied for the head coaching vacancy. A search committee, headed by athletics director Les Dye, dragged its feet before finally offering the job to Boeheim, who was about to accept a similar position with the University of Rochester.
Thanks to the recruitment of center Roosevelt Bouie and forward Louis Orr, the Orangemen got off to a fast start, going 26–4 in Boeheim's first season. The "Louie and Bouie Show" went 100–18 with four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. "Those two launched the ship," Boeheim said. "They laid the foundation for all the success we've enjoyed since."
The excellence of the program over such a long stretch may be unparalleled in college basketball. Boeheim has never experienced a losing season, and only twice in 38 seasons have the Orangemen failed to win at least 20 games. During this era, they've made 31 NCAA tournament appearances and have reached the Final Four four times — including 2003 when they won it all. On September 9, 2005, Boeheim was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. His presenter at the ceremony was his former teammate and roommate, Dave Bing, who had been inducted 15 years earlier. "He's created a program that year-in, year-out demands excellence, and that's not easy to sustain in the dog-eat-dog world of college basketball," said former Georgetown University coach John Thompson of his longtime nemesis and friend. "Most programs hit a rut at some point, and it's tough for them to get out of it. Jim's program has never been in a rut for any prolonged period of time, and that's a tribute to him."
Inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005
Won a national championship in 2003
Coached the Orange to an NCAA-record 36 20-win seasons in 38 years
Holds record as second-winningest coach in NCAA men's basketball history
Assistant on two Olympic gold-medal teams (2008 and 2012)
Appeared in four Final Fours (1987, 1996, 2003, 2013)
Appeared in 31 NCAA tournaments
Holds a record of 1,139–398 at Syracuse, combining his won-lost record as a player (52–24), assistant (139–55), and head coach (948–319)
Holds record for most wins at one school (948)
Averaged 9.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a player for the Orange
Played six years of minor-league basketball for Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the Eastern League, averaging 17 points per game while leading his team to two titles
Earned two varsity letters in golf, going 6–6–2 in match play during his career
Coached the SU varsity golf team to an 18–13–1 record in six seasons before the sport was dropped in 1972.CHAPTER 2
In retrospect, it's difficult to fathom that the greatest all-around athlete in Syracuse University history, and perhaps American history, didn't receive a scholarship until his sophomore year.
At Manhasset High School on Long Island, Jim Brown had earned 13 varsity letters in three years in four different sports, and he had attracted dozens of offers from colleges, including several Big Ten and Ivy League schools. Fortunately for SU, a prominent alum — Manhasset-based attorney and judge Kenny Molloy — helped raise money so Brown could attend Syracuse. Brown would go on to earn All-American honors in football and lacrosse and letter in four varsity sports for the Orangemen, but his journey to stardom at Syracuse would be rocky, filled with run-ins with coaches and accusations of racial prejudice.
"I've made peace with Syracuse — I like the direction the university is heading," Brown said in a 2008 return to campus for the premiere of The Express, the film about his friend and Syracuse successor, Ernie Davis. "But it took me a long time to heal the wounds. I've now reached a point where I can look back with pride at what I did here and put the other stuff to the side."
On several occasions, Brown was ready to leave school, but thanks to the friendship and mentorship of Malloy and SU lacrosse coach and football assistant Roy Simmons Sr., Brown was convinced each time to stick it out. What he wound up accomplishing athletically remains the stuff of legend.
A chiseled 6'2", 212-lb. Adonis with sprinter's speed, Brown started the legend of No. 44 at Syracuse with his exploits on the football field, where he became an unstoppable, indestructible force. He came into his own during his senior year when he rushed for a school record 986 yards in just eight games, caught five passes, completed three passes, scored 14 touchdowns, kicked 22 extra points, and intercepted three passes on defense.
In a mid-season battle against Eastern powerhouse Army in 1956 in front of 40,053 at Archbold Stadium — the largest football crowd in upstate New York history to that point — Brown gained 125 yards on 22 carries and set up the only score of the game on a 36-yard run to the Cadets' 4-yard line. Jim Ridlon ran it in from there, and Brown kicked the PAT. Late in the fourth quarter, Brown helped preserve the 7–0 victory by making three tackles during a goal-line stand. Afterward, Army coach Earl Blaik paid Brown high praise, comparing him to former Cadets and Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. "He has the speed and power to be Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside combined," Blaik said, referring to the nicknames that sportswriters had pegged on Blanchard and Davis.
With a bowl bid on the line in the season finale, Brown ran wild in a 61–7 thrashing of overmatched Colgate. Nearly 40,000 fans looked on at Archbold as Brown scored an NCAA-record 43 points (since surpassed) on touchdown runs of one, fifteen, fifty, eight and one yards. He also kicked seven extra points and, for good measure, intercepted a pass and caused a fumble while playing defense, thwarting two Colgate scoring drives. "He probably could have scored 10 touchdowns without too much additional effort," Val Pinchbeck, the late SU sports information director, noted that day. Brown finished with 197 yards on 22 carries — a remarkable eight yards per carry — and also caught two passes for 13 yards. The record-shattering performance put an exclamation point on the Orangemen's 7–1 season and earned them an invitation to the Cotton Bowl. The Monday after the Colgate victory, Brown was named first-team All-America, the first time an SU running back was ever accorded that honor.
As good as his effort was against Colgate, Brown's performance against Texas Christian University in the Cotton Bowl that followed may have been even better. Though the Horned Frogs won 28–27, Brown rushed for 132 yards and scored 21 points.
"The headlines should have read, 'TCU 28, Jim Brown U 27,'" said Ron Luciano, an All-American lineman on that Syracuse team who went on to become one of the most famous umpires in Major League Baseball history. "Jim was a one-man wrecking crew that day. The rest of us were just along for the ride."
Brown, of course, would go on to become arguably the greatest running back in National Football League history, leading the league in rushing eight of his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns and playing a role in convincing Davis, the 1961 Heisman winner, to follow in his footsteps at SU. As great as he was in football, Brown might have been even better in lacrosse, where he earned All-American honors his senior year after scoring 43 goals and leading the Orangemen to a 10–0 season. Brown was also superb in basketball where he lettered twice and averaged 13.1 points per game his junior year. Some have surmised that if Brown played hoops his senior year, SU might have upset the North Carolina Tar Heels and faced Kansas and its 7'1" superstar center, Wilt Chamberlain, in the national championship game.
Brown also ran track & field and once competed in two varsity sports in the same day at Archbold Stadium. He wound up finishing first in the high jump and discus and second in the javelin to account for 13 points in a track-and-field victory vs. Colgate. Then he put on his lacrosse gear and scored the winning goals against Army.
"That was just Jim," said Roy Simmons Jr., a teammate of Brown's who went on to coach SU's lacrosse team to six national championships. "He was just a natural at anything he did. Hard as it might be for football people to believe, I still think lacrosse might have been his best sport. He was just unstoppable. I should know because I had to go against him every day in practice. I joke that nobody has been knocked down more by Jim Brown than me."
Kevin Conwick, a former All-American lacrosse player for Colgate, recalled a game where he witnessed the scary velocity of Brown's shot. "We had just put new nets on the field for a game with Syracuse," he said. "The first time Jimmy came down the field, he fired the ball so hard that it tore right through the net. Our goalie spent the rest of the day trying to keep out of his way."
Brown concluded his college lacrosse career by scoring five goals and assisting on two others as the North upset the South 14–10 in the annual All-Star game. "He only played half the game," Roy Simmons Sr. said in the book, The Syracuse Football Story, by Ken Rappoport. "They had to take him out of the game to make a contest out of it. He was that good."
Brown retired from the Cleveland Browns at age 30 despite having, in his estimation, "at least six more good seasons of football in me." He went on to have a successful movie career, acting in more than 40 movies and numerous television dramas while establishing himself as Hollywood's first black action hero. He promoted racial economic equality through a variety of programs he founded, including the Amer-I-Can company. A former gang member himself, Brown has worked with gang members in Los Angeles in hopes of channeling their energies into more positive endeavors.
His life has not been without controversy. He has been accused several times of domestic violence, though he's never been convicted. In 1999, Brown was charged with a misdemeanor for vandalizing his wife's car, and he served several weeks in jail after refusing to participate in domestic violence counseling, community service, and probation programs.
"I think Big Jim is a complicated individual, as we all are, with some good and some bad," Simmons Sr. said in an interview in the late 1980s. "He's a fiercely proud individual with strong beliefs. He isn't going to back down. That's part of what made him a great athlete. He ran the football with conviction. He shot the lacrosse ball with conviction. I always got along with the guy. I think he respected the fact that I tried to understand what he was going through. I think he's done a lot more good than bad in his life. Whether you like him or not, there's no disputing that Big Jim left quite a legacy at Syracuse. People around here will be talking about him forever."
SU Players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Player / Year Inducted
Jim Brown / 1971
Jim Ringo / 1981
Larry Csonka / 1987
Al Davis / 1992
John Mackey / 1992
Art Monk / 2008
Floyd Little / 2010
Excerpted from 100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Scott Pitoniak. Copyright © 2014 Scott Pitoniak. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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