Item: The latest verbal sparring in now 41 seasons of periodically taking umbrage with what the local media has written or broadcast about his program in a postgame setting, occurred, most coincidently enough, following the latest victory in Boeheim’s career, No. 995 unofficially (officially), last weekend’s sweet domination of recent pest Pittsburgh. In directing his disagreement to longtime Syracuse Media Group columnist Bud Poliquin (full disclosure – a 30 plus year acquaintance of our own) over how to define a particular season’s accomplishments if it doesn’t include at a minimum a trip to the Final Four, the coach, with his right hand producing a pronounced five fingers to mark the number of Final Fours he’s achieved, labeled last spring’s out-of-nowhere run to the national semifinals in Houston as “the fifth best year I’ve ever had here,” in staking his ground over what constitutes annual success (a national championship, playing for the title, or reaching the semifinals) in his mind for Orange basketball.
Last Saturday in the Dome media work room was simply the latest display of Boeheim repeating his often heard mantra going back to the late 1980s, “all that matters is what you do in the NCAA Tournament,” in downplaying if a particular season’s record finished at 30-1 or 18-13 if it did not include a trip to the third weekend of March Madness.
For as successful a career as anyone would want to achieve in any profession, for a Hall of Fame and championship-winning coach of Boeheim’s elite stature, it wasn’t always the case.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine now with all the achievements spanning five decades what true annual frustration felt like for Orange Nation when the program, coming off an even more remarkable out-of-nowhere Final Four trip in 1975 under Roy Danforth, then a one-and-done NCAA appearance a year later in Danforth’s final season, couldn’t get over the NCAA hump of winning two games in a single tournament under Boeheim for 11 long seasons.
The streak began at the end of Boeheim’s rookie campaign in 1977 (there was one fewer NCAA game in that era), and shortly prior to the tournament exploding as a national sporting event, when the underdog Orangemen faced Tennessee’s well-known “Bernie and Ernie Show,” the senior All American duo of Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld, who were led by that season’s SEC coach of the year Ray Mears, in a Midwest Region first-round game at Baton Rouge.
In a tense comeback, Syracuse shocked the Vols with a stirring 93-88 OT win led by senior guards Jim “(Don’t Call Me) Bug” Williams (Boeheim made the comparison between the end-to-end court speed of John Gillon and Williams following Gillion’s explosive all around play against Holy Cross in game two of the season on Nov. 15) and Larry Kelley and the nation watching the Sunday afternoon national telecast on NBC, with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer introducing the coach’s name pronounced “Bay-hime” to their audience.
However, four days later SU fell to unknown UNC-Charlotte (only a 12 year old program at the time) 81-59 at Rupp Arena in the regional semifinals, ending Boeheim’s first season at 26-4.
Here’s how the rest of that under-achieving first decade of the Boeheim era played out:
1978 –At the old Stokely Athletic Center in Knoxville, the first round NCAA Midwest Region game against a 15-13 Western Kentucky team also went into overtime and ended in controversy. With the Orange down by one, the officials first ruled a close-in basket by SU’s Marty Brynes to be good with 0:03 to play then reversed course and put Brynes on the foul line instead for a 1 and 1 opportunity. His first free throw glanced off the rim to WKU, and the Orangemen were shocking 87-86 losers and Boeheim finished with a 22-6 record.
1979-After a first round win over Connecticut as the No. 4 seed in the East Region, and with the top three seeds upset, simply needing a win over Ivy League champion Pennsylvania followed by projecting another victory over lower seeds either Rutgers or St. John’s, two teams SU defeated during the regular season, then Syracuse would be Final Four bound to Salt Lake City for the program’s second time in five seasons. Only problem though was No. 9 seed Penn (Penn?) frustratingly ruined the party 84-76 in the Sweet 16, and the Orangemen missed seeing Magic Johnson and Larry Bird play in person for the title a week later.
1980-The first season of the new Big East produced the first No. 1 seed for a Syracuse team in the tournament, a controversial choice in the East Region over No. 3 seed Georgetown who had knocked off SU in the first Big East championship game, with Maryland the second seed. After first beating Villanova (not a Big East team that season), a late Boeheim technical foul crimped any comeback attempt against Iowa in the Sweet 16, falling 88-77 at Philadelphia’s Spectrum in the final game of the “Louie and Bouie” show.
1981-1982 – NIT seasons.
1983-After disposing of Morehead State in Hartford, Syracuse, seeded sixth, eyed returning home for the East Regional at the Dome, but alas couldn’t get there falling to No. 3 seed Ohio State 79-74.
1984-The first of three NCAA tournaments with the late, great Pearl Washington running the show included a strong win over Virginia Commonwealth as the No. 3 seed in the East Region, followed by a frustrating 63-55 loss to 7-seeded Virginia.
1985-In a year in which three Big East teams went to the Final Four, SU as the No. 7 seed in the East bowed out again in the round of 32 after defeating DePaul easily, but losing decisively to hometown and No. 2 seed Georgia Tech by 17 in Atlanta.
1986-The most disappointing finish of all, especially with the gift-wrapping of opening up the first two NCAA rounds on its own home floor, ended Boeheim’s first decade, and Washington’s ‘Cuse career. As the No. 2 seed in the East, SU first demolished Brown by 49 points then looked to sweep seven seed Navy for a second time after beating the Middies in the Carrier Classic final three months earlier. But David Robinson was on a hard court mission leading to a 97-85 crushing upset win, stunning the Dome crowd who chanted “one more year” in a failed attempt to sway Washington from putting his name into the NBA Draft.
1987-With the luxury of opening up play in the first two rounds at home for a second consecutive year again as the East’s No. 2 seed, the streak mercifully came to an end, along with the eventual cherry on top with the regional final win over No. 1 seed North Carolina to advance to Boeheim’s first Final Four. After first ousting Georgia Southern by only six, SU blasted Western Kentucky 104-86 to end the NCAA drought. As the final buzzer sounded, the crazy scene of Rony Seikaly rushing down the sideline with a bucket of water in hand attempting to douse his evading head coach in the handshake line was hysterical. It also produced one of the more colorful all time quotes of that era and plenty of laughs in the postgame press conference.
“To get the monkey off his (Boeheim’s) back,” said Seikaly, “we washed it off.”