Syracuse Jim Boeheim will survive, but at a price

By Tim Dahlberg

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30 2011 6:00 p.m. MST

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has a laugh during the first half against Eastern Michigan in an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011. Syracuse won 84-48.

Kevin Rivoli, Associated Press

The standing ovations Jim Boeheim got on the court that bears his name were evidence enough that Syracuse fans believe their coach has done no wrong. So was the statement of support from his top boss, though Boeheim insists he never worried about his job in 36 years and isn't about to start now.

Joe Paterno couldn't hang on when the child sex abuse scandal exploded at Penn State, but this seems different. If you believe Boeheim — and right now there's no reason not to — he had no inkling that longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine might someday be the subject of sexual abuse allegations by two former Syracuse ball boys.

That doesn't mean Boeheim isn't responsible for things that happened on his watch over the last 36 years. He is, and he said so himself Tuesday night in a postgame news conference that had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with saving his suddenly tattered image.

The news conference was a disaster, and for that Boeheim is responsible. Ignoring his own advice, he spent 20 minutes responding to questions for which he really had no answers.

Given a chance to be publicly contrite, he came across as smug and condescending. Given a chance to explain why he was so quick to come to Fine's defense, he was almost patronizing.

"That's what my reaction was," Boeheim said. "So be it."

Anyone tuning in for a word of sympathy for those who leveled accusations was out of luck. Anyone who thought Boeheim might use his time before the cameras to call attention to the tragedy of sexual abuse was thinking wrong.

Perhaps Boeheim thought that was already taken care of when he issued a statement a few days earlier expressing his regret for basically calling Fine's accusers liars and extortionists. Boeheim said he didn't mean to appear "insensitive to victims of abuse."

Unfortunately for Boeheim, he did seem insensitive. He has seemed insensitive since he first reacted to the allegations against Fine by inferring that his friend and right-hand man was the real victim.

He took a stand out of loyalty and friendship, qualities most coaches find admirable. But he took it before knowing all the facts, and before ESPN played a bombshell recording of a woman, purported to be Fine's wife, talking to one of the accusers about her husband.

Had Boeheim known, surely he wouldn't have declared his undying support for Fine. And surely he never would have left Fine's customary courtside seat vacant in a show of support during a home game against Colgate just after the allegations surfaced.

To be fair, there is no easy way to talk about sexual abuse or discovering things about people you thought you knew.

Still, all Boeheim had to do from the get-go was distance himself from Fine, acknowledge the gravity of a sexual abuse accusation and vow to cooperate with any investigation authorities might undertake.

He would have still taken a hit because the Syracuse program is, after all, his program. There still would have been calls for him to resign simply because, ultimately, the head man must be held accountable.

But he made it worse from the very start. And it didn't get any better when his team blew out Eastern Michigan on Tuesday night and, during the postgame news conference, some of his answers seemed flippant.

That he is still loved in Syracuse was clear from the response he got from fans. They're not about to abandon a coach who took them to three Final Fours and won a national championship in 2003.

Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor seemed to be in his corner, too, declaring, "Coach Boeheim is our coach."

Boeheim likely will survive in his job, barring any evidence that he knew about the allegations against Fine and didn't do anything. There's really no reason he shouldn't remain a coach, despite his inept and, yes, insensitive handling of the whole mess.

That's not to say Boeheim won't pay a price. He already has, to both his personal reputation and the reputation of a program he has run since he was a young man.

In the end, that may be punishment enough.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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