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Syracuse coach keeps focus in tumultuous season

By John Kekis

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 20 2012 12:11 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2012 file photo, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim talks with Scoop Jardine during the second half of a college basketball game against against Marquette, Syracuse, N.Y. These have been some of the most difficult days in Boeheim's life. But the Syracuse coach has kept his focus on basketball.

Kevin Rivoli, FIle, Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When he leaves his home on a cul-de-sac in a secluded Syracuse suburb, coach Jim Boeheim has to drive past the house belonging to his former assistant, Bernie Fine, just across the street.

It's a constant reminder of the case that has shaken the Syracuse campus. Fine, an assistant for more than 35 years, was fired three games into the season after two former ball boys accused him of sexually molesting them when they were young.

When Boeheim publicly defended his longtime friend in November, disparaging the accusers, advocates for child sex abuse victims said the head coach should resign or be fired. Shaken by the outrage his comments had caused, Boeheim quickly apologized and has since been steadfast in saying he won't talk about the case until the investigation is over.

Despite what clearly have been some of the most difficult days of his life, Boeheim has kept his focus — and that of his players — on basketball. His team is off to a 20-0 start, the best in Syracuse history, and has been ranked No. 1 in the nation for six weeks.

Just past the midpoint of the season, Boeheim offered the following assessment:

"It's been pretty normal as far as basketball is concerned. That part has been normal, and as far as the basketball part is concerned we'll try to keep it that way."

For Syracuse, however, it has been anything but normal.

National media swarmed around campus, with TV trucks parked for weeks outside the basketball practice facility.

Federal agents searched Fine's home and office. Accusers Bobby Davis and stepbrother Mike Lang filed a defamation lawsuit against Boeheim and the university.

Two other men have come forward and accused Fine, but one has since said he was not telling the truth, and authorities say there is evidence that undercuts the other's allegation.

Boeheim, 67, has closed the team's practices, conducting them behind orange-and-blue curtains.

"This has obviously affected him. It certainly shook him early, and I think it's still there. He looks tired," said Jim Satalin, a national director for Coaches vs. Cancer, a charitable effort Boeheim has supported for more than a decade. "I think it's a combination of probably everything, and it's still hanging over everything."

Two months later, there's not much discussion in Syracuse about the case. A town hall meeting Thursday night on sex abuse was attended by about 100 people at a community college.

Boeheim has vowed to campaign against child abuse through the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center in Syracuse.

"It's been a combination of Jim Boeheim being contrite and apologizing and making an effort to help out the McMahon/Ryan house and a cause like that," said Brent Axe, a local sports talk radio host. "And, of course, the way this team has played has people thinking more about that. The Bernie Fine story has cooled off. There's only been a little information here and there. People don't know what to think about that story anymore."

They know what they think of the Orange, though. Syracuse has had the four largest on-campus crowds in the nation and the Carrier Dome box office has extended its hours because of surging sales. Murray State at 19-0 is the only other unbeaten team in Division I.

In November, with the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State still in the headlines, CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel said Syracuse should fire Boeheim, who took over at his alma mater in 1976. Doyel is now calling him the national coach of the year.

"Thank God they've had such a great season," Satalin said. "I think he's been able to keep his focus on that. I don't think there's any question that that's taken the focus off of a lot of different things. People are looking at this as the possibility of being a really special year.

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