Where does Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim rank among coaches?

Boeheim won his 897th game

As Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim draws ever closer to his milestone 900th victory, there’s been widespread discussion about where he ranks amongst the all-time great college basketball coaches.

During the telecast of the Long Beach State game, his 897th victory, ESPN commentators Bob Wischusen and Seth Greenberg, suggested that if there were a Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches, Boeheim would surely have his face on the peak, along with the only other Division I men’s basketball coaches to win more than 900 games, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski.

Where does Boeheim rank all time?

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My gut reaction to the statement was that they were being wildly hyperbolic and the other Syracuse fans I spoke with all seemed to agree. As Brian Higgins, of the Syracuse IMG Sports Network suggested to me, if there really were a college basketball equivalent of Mount Rushmore, and the coaches on it paralleled the presidents on the real Mount Rushmore, it would probably break down something like this:

  • James Naismith = George Washington (founder)
  • Adolph Rupp = Thomas Jefferson (early great)
  • John Wooden = Abraham Lincoln (all-time legend)
  • Mike Krzyzewski = Teddy Roosevelt (modern great)

It’s hard to argue with that, but perhaps Naismith, and his career 55-60 record at Kansas, gets knocked off the coaching mountain despite inventing the sport. If that happened, Boeheim still doesn’t make the cut. Bobby Knight and his 902 career wins, 5 Final Fours, and 3 National Championships slides into the fourth spot.

But what if they added a fifth head to the mountain—would it belong to Boeheim who currently has 898 wins, has been to 3 Final Fours, and has won 1 National Championship? Well, he’d certainly be in the conversation, along with Lute Olsen, Eddie Sutton, Jim Calhoun, and perhaps even Rick Pitino, but that fifth spot would have to go to Dean Smith, with his 879 career wins, 11 Final Fours, and 2 National Championships. Or perhaps Smith would get the fourth spot and Knight would get the fifth spot, but in either case, Boeheim wouldn’t.

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So how many heads on this hypothetical mountain would there have to be for Boeheim to find his likeness carved into the granite? In my personal opinion: seven. Boeheim gets his beautiful scowl etched into stone before the likes of Olsen (781 wins, 5 Final Fours, 1 National Championship) and Sutton (804 wins, 3 Final Fours), and Pitino (629 wins, 6 Final Fours, 1 National Championship), at least for now, but, and this makes me very sad to write, Jim Calhoun gets the nod before Boeheim.

Calhoun over Boeheim? Blasphemy you say? Well, a head-to-head comparison between the two shows that Calhoun deserves the nod and frankly it’s not really close. Boeheim gets the edge in career victories as Calhoun “only” has 866. Both Boeheim and Calhoun have 9 regular season Big East Championships, but Calhoun has 2 more Big East Tournament Championships (7 to 5). Calhoun has developed more NBA players, who have had better NBA careers than the guys Boeheim has produced. Calhoun only has one more Final Four than Boeheim, but he’s won 3 National Championships, two more than Boeheim has.

Boeheim has sort of been the Karl Malone of college coaches. Much like Malone did, Boeheim puts up very good numbers every season (he has more 20 win seasons than any other coach) and much like Malone, there have been a lot of seasons (Malone played 19 seasons in the NBA, Boeheim is in his 36th season as head coach at Syracuse). While Boeheim has consistently been very very good, he’s never really had a stretch where he established himself as truly dominant coach, just like Malone never established himself as a truly dominant player. Boeheim elevated an already established program. Calhoun on the other hand, turned Connecticut basketball from nothing into something special. And once he turned UCONN into a powerhouse program, he had one of the more impressive runs in modern NCAA history, winning 3 championships in 12 years. So it suffices to say, advantage Calhoun. At least for now…

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Calhoun is gone, retired, done. Boeheim is not. So discussing his legacy at this point is a little like guessing the ending of an M Night Shyamalan movie, 60 minutes in. Boeheim is at the top of his game, winning more games over the past three seasons than during any three-year stretch in his career. And if there’s one thing we know about Boeheim, it’s that for all his talk about not worrying about his legacy, he does care. A lot. He wants to go down as one of the greats. He wants to distinguish himself from Calhoun and from Knight (perhaps as a little payback for what happened in the ’87 championship game).

He wants to be on the Mount Rushmore of coaches. And that’s very good news for Syracuse fans, because I get the sense that Boeheim won’t be satisfied with 900 wins. He’ll coach for at least another four years in order to become the second coach ever to amass 1000 wins (I’m assuming Coach K will get there first). He wants to prove he can win in the ACC. And he wants another national championship, or at the very least another Final Four, a trip he’s made in every decade since the 80’s. So when it’s all said and done and James Arthur Boeheim finally steps down, you can bet that if it’s to him, there won’t be any discussion about his legacy, everyone will agree his face belongs on that mountain.

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