After having covered the ACC my entire career, my mind must have thought I was playing tricks on it last week when I was in Charlotte for ACC Operation Basketball, and sitting across from me at the table was Jim Boeheim.
Although I have interviewed Syracuse’s Hall of Fame coach a few times over the years, including a one-on-one the last time the Orange came to Charlottesville, it just didn’t seem rational that he was attending ACC basketball media day.
To me, Boeheim and Syracuse was the Big East. He helped create it, made it thrive. I guess the operative word is “was.”
While it was weird to me to see him, Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey at the annual ACC event, it wasn’t that strange to Boeheim.
“Same [bleep], just further south,” Boeheim cracked. “I enjoy it, I think it’s fun, but it’s a wasted day in the year.”
The transition for the legendary coach from the Big East to the ACC hasn’t been near as problematic as many guessed after the move was announced more than a year ago. Fans and media wondered if Boeheim would hang it up, go down with the Big East ship, be too tired to take on the challenge of a new league.
Not in the least bit.
“It’s really not a difficult transition because the old Big East is not there,” Boeheim said. “People don’t realize how the league changed so dramatically over the years with all the in and out, back and forth. There are seven teams in [the ACC] that played in the Big East. There weren’t seven teams in the Big East that were in it in the beginning.”
In fact, when Louisville replaces Maryland in the ACC next year, there will be more former Big East teams in the ACC than the original ACC (North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, South Carolina, Clemson, Virginia, Maryland).
“There’s a certain degree of nostalgia in the Big East because that’s where we were for 34 years, but this is a better league,” Boeheim said. “You’re closer to the teams in this league than you would have been if you stayed in [the Big East],” which added teams from the Midwest, Southwest and Far West, not to mention the South.
The Syracuse coach believes the only thing that his school’s fans will miss is the Big East tournament, which was annually held in Madison Square Garden. Other than that, Orange fans are more excited than ever. In fact, Syracuse has sold more season tickets (over 20,000) than at any time in the last 20 years. Duke’s game at Syracuse is the earliest sellout since the Orange has played in the Carrier Dome.
There are other misconceptions out there about the whole Syracuse shift to the ACC, like the one where he wisecracks about trying to find a good restaurant in Clemson after having feasted annually on some of Providence’s finest Italian cuisine.
“I make jokes about restaurants, but the best one I think I’ve eaten at was at Clemson when we played there in the NIT,” Boeheim said. “I didn’t like being in the NIT, but it was a great restaurant.”
The joint was actually in Greenville, and he couldn’t recollect the name of it … “I think it was upstairs, 57 or some number, I’ve been trying to think of the name,” Boeheim said.
And there’s the idea out there that he thinks the ACC Tournament should be in New York City because he likes it there. Wrong again.
“I don’t care if they play in Greensboro, Charlotte, Atlanta, or Washington,” Boeheim said. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t go out to dinner. I don’t go shopping. I don’t have a good time. I fly in, I go to the hotel, we get ready for the game, we play the game, we come back to the hotel, sometimes at 2:30 in the morning, and get ready for the next game. So, to me, it doesn’t matter.”
What does make sense to Boeheim is having the tournament in either New York City or Washington, D.C., because of exposure.
“There’s obviously a lot more recruits in Washington and New York than there is in Greensboro,” he pointed out.
He told a story about one of the early Big East Tournaments in the Garden and looked around and spotted the 10 top basketball recruits on the East Coast in attendance.
“We sometimes forget that the key to any basketball team and league is the players,” Boeheim said. (Perhaps Virginia football fans should take note of that statement). “What are players interested in. It’s not about what fans are interested in or coaches or commissioners are interested in. What do high school kids want?”
The late, great Bear Bryant once made a statement to this columnist about recruiting and talent.
“Tell me, son. You ever see a jackass win the Kentucky Derby?” the Bear said in his deep voice of doom.
“No sir,” I replied.
“It’s about talent. You don’t win without talent,” Bryant said.
Boeheim agrees with that theory, particularly when someone reminded him of his close friend Mike Krzyzewski’s statement that the ACC should be the most powerful basketball conference in the game’s history with the new additions.
“The most important thing is that you have good players,” Boeheim said. “The Big East came out of nowhere, not because of me or John Thompson or Lou Carneseca, but because of Patrick Ewing, Pearl Washington, Chris Mullen. That’s what made the league. If coaches don’t have good players, you’re not going to be writing about coaches.”
Same [bleep], just further south.