It must be life's failures and the nagging criticism that comes with them that keep Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim going strong at the age of 68. Boeheim has had his share of critics, real and imagined, but his ornery streak and determination to prove them all wrong has manifested itself in 920 career wins, second only to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski on the all-time Division I list.
Even now, as Boeheim finds himself somewhat unexpectedly at his fourth Final Four, the man just can't let a slight pass. Discussing this moment of fulfillment on Thursday prompted Boeheim to recollect one of his most disappointing losses when Richmond became the first 15th seed ever to win a first-round game, in 1991 against his Orange.
"As a coach, you hate it when, every time they mention your name, they say, 'They lost to Richmond,' " Boeheim said. "Well, yeah. That was 30 years ago or whatever . . . I still get mad. That's why I'm still coaching. When I stop getting mad about this stuff, then I won't matter and I won't be coaching."
Let the record show Boeheim was smiling when he made that statement. That doesn't mean he's mellowed. It means that he has gained the perspective that comes with 920 career wins, including 52 NCAA Tournament wins, fourth-best all-time.
At a certain point, he learned how to laugh at himself in public and poke fun at his cantankerous persona. It doesn't mean that it's not real or that it doesn't flare from time to time. It means he recognizes it better.
Of Boeheim's 37 seasons as coach, this one in particular has been an emotional one. It began knowing it was the last for Syracuse in the Big East, a league Boeheim helped make into the best basketball conference in the country. He made it clear that while he understood the move to the ACC for football revenue, he sure wasn't happy about the ultimate breakup of the Big East.
So whether this is his last hurrah at the Final Four, the timing couldn't have been better. This Syracuse team is far from his best, but his players have executed his trademark 2-3 defense to perfection to reach the Final Four after losing the Big East Tournament title to Louisville.
"It's a little bit of a surprise," Boeheim said of the Final Four berth. "I felt after New York we were playing pretty well, and I would have been disappointed if we didn't win our first two games. I wouldn't have expected going into the tournament that we were going to be here.
"That satisfaction level, whenever you get here, it's great. But this team's a good team. It's hard to beat a team like Indiana convincingly."
That's exactly what the Orange did in the Sweet 16, and then they held Marquette to 39 points to reach the Georgia Dome, where they face Michigan on Saturday night. The Wolverines are coached by John Beilein, whose relationship with Boeheim goes back to the 1970s, when Beilein was taking clinics run by Boeheim in the 2-3 zone as a high school coach in the Syracuse area.
Beilein said Boeheim helped him get his first Division I job at Canisius and later influenced his hiring at West Virginia in the Big East. "I followed him and respected him very much," Beilein said of Boeheim. "He's one of the greatest minds in basketball. The guy is smart. You ask him about college football, he'll tell you. You ask him about North Korea right now, he probably knows all about that. He is a smart guy. I think the Syracuse people already know that."
Yes, whatever else Boeheim's critics might have said about him over the years, they know Syracuse has a smart coach. But that doesn't mean Boeheim believes he's outrun his critics. At the moment, he has no plans of retiring.
"But every once in a while, I say it's not that far away, and people get excited," Boeheim said. "People really used to get excited when I said that because we didn't go to the Final Four that year, and they didn't want me back. Now the majority still probably wants me back next year. Right now. After Saturday, who knows?"