When Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski broke Bobby Knight’s record of 902 wins early last season, I began to think about not only the record itself, but also the context which it was achieved. The record was impressive, no doubt. But in a sport where you buy nearly every win for the first two months of the season and have a handful of gimme games scattered throughout the rest of the schedule, was it really an achievement to win that many games? Or was it just a mark of consistency, a result of being at the same job for so long that wins simply came as a byproduct because of it.
At the time I wasn’t sure which it was... until I began to take a look at Coach K’s resume. And when I did, well, it once again proved my theory that yes, I am in fact an idiot.
Since Coach K got to Duke in the fall of 1980, the man’s resume is simply jaw-dropping. In addition to the 900+ wins (and counting) I mentioned above, he also has 12 30-win seasons, has made 11 trips to the Final Four, eight trips to the title game and has four championships overall, numbers which I’m pretty sure we will never see any college basketball coach accomplish again. In other words, please excuse me while I remove my foot from my mouth. I might not like Coach K personally (because really, outside of Duke fans, who does?). But the man certainly knows how to coach basketball.
Still, as time has passed I could never shake my theory that somehow, winning a lot of college basketball games is a tiny bit overrated. I still believe it is, and I’m not sure there’s a better example of that than Jim Boeheim, who won his 900th game on Monday night. What Boeheim did is an accomplishment, yes. But in his particular case, I’m also convinced it has more to do with a tried-and-true, put-your-pants-on-one-leg-at-a-time consistency, than anything basketball related.
Now before I go any further, please understand that this column isn’t intended as a pot-shot at Boeheim. You don’t stay at any job for 37 years like Boeheim has at Syracuse if you’re not remarkably good at what you do.
Boeheim is that. The man knows more about the sport than most people have ever forgotten, and I’ll be the first to admit that he’s better at coaching basketball than I’ll ever be at any career path I choose. Boeheim is a legend, and to his credit is aging like a fine wine. Of the five 30+ win seasons Boeheim has had at Syracuse, two have come in the last three years. And despite hitting 900 wins last night, the man is far from done.
So really, this article isn’t about Boeheim himself, so much as the record he accomplished Monday night. And if anything, what a record like that is about is longevity and consistency, much more than anything to do with the nuances of basketball. That’s especially true in college basketball, where winning games and winning them in bunches is easier to do than in any other sport.
That might sound crazy, but think about that for a second.
The NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball are all professional sports, where everyone is basically competing on the same footing. Sure there are plenty of other variables that go into wins in those sports, but at the end of the day, the difference between the “best” player or “best” team in the NBA, NFL or MLB isn’t really all that much different than the “worst.” Meaning, it isn’t nearly as easy to win, and win big as it is in college sports.
Speaking of college sports, it’s certainly easier to win consistently there than it is in the pro ranks, simply because the talent is dispersed less evenly. We all know that if Alabama plays Louisiana-Monroe 10 times in football, at worst, the Crimson Tide are going to win nine of those games. And most times that number is going to be 10 out of 10.
The thing is though Alabama doesn’t play Louisiana-Monroe 10 times, or anywhere close. Most major college football teams play at least eight, and in many cases nine of their 12 regular season games against similarly talented, similarly resourced (wait, is that a word?) conference opponents. Add in a conference championship game and/or bowl game, and that’s two more games against very evenly matched competition as well. In essence, if a team plays 14 games in a season, no less than 10 (and usually more) are against teams competing on a very similar playing field.
Then there’s college basketball, where nearly half of a team’s games are against inferior competition, many of which are brought into their home arena with the express understanding that they’re being paid by you to get their brains beat in. Those games are called an “out of conference schedule” and in most cases its 13 contests a year, or roughly 40 percent of a team’s schedule. Which means that before conference play even gets going, most good teams have (at the very least) 10 guaranteed, no doubt about it, the hay is already in the barn wins handed to them.
That’s not too shabby. And that doesn’t even take into consideration that no program has taken college basketball’s imbalanced scheduling to the extremes that Syracuse has.
In their defense, the Orange plays in a building where they can sell 30,000 tickets a game, meaning that it would be fiscally irresponsible of them not to play as many home games as possible. At the same time, there have been certain seasons where Boeheim’s teams haven’t left the Carrier Dome at all until conference play starts, and even in the years they do, it’s usually for a “neutral court” game at Madison Square Garden which isn’t all that neutral. As a matter of fact, let me ask you this: When was the last time you remember Syracuse playing in any preseason tournament that didn’t end at MSG? I can’t remember a single one. In other words, just about the only thing I personally have in common with Syracuse basketball players is that much like them, I never went to Maui, Atlantis or the Virgin Islands once in my college career either.
So when you do the simple math, take those 12 or 13 guaranteed wins a year, multiply them by 37 years coaching against the same second-tier competition, you realize, “Wait a second: Just about anyone can win a crap ton of games if they simply stick around long enough.” I’m no math major, but according to my Texas Instruments calculator, we’re talking in the neighborhood of nearly 500 wins just by following the scheduling practices I mentioned above.
And while we’re talking about accumulating wins, let’s not get it twisted: There are plenty of other wins to be had, even when conference play starts in January. More than any other sport basketball is the one where talent trumps all, and even in a conference as tough as the Big East there are still a handful of games where one team is going to beat the other simply because they have more pure skill than their opponent (yes, I’m looking at you, DePaul and Providence). Add in a relatively easy win in the first round of a conference tournament and another easy win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and now we’re looking at nearly 20 wins a season which are more or less guaranteed simply by showing up to the building with better basketball players than your opponent.
So while I’m not trying to take away anything from what Boeheim accomplished Monday night, I’ve also got to follow facts, and what the facts tell me is that Boeheim has accumulated hundreds of wins simply by scheduling inferior competition. That also means that even if you do lose a couple of games you’re not supposed to, that’s still a lot of wins over time. For example, let’s say Boeheim has had an average of 17 guaranteed wins on his schedule per season. That equates to 629 victories over a 37-year career. Having 18 guaranteed wins over 37 years equates to 666 wins.
And above all, that’s why I can’t help but continually think about one word in relation to Boeheim and his 900 wins. That word is “consistency.” Not “greatness.”
As a matter of fact, let me put last night in a different perspective here: If I asked you what Jim Boeheim’s greatest strength as a head basketball coach was, what would you say? I wouldn’t quite call him an “elite recruiter” like Billy Donovan or Thad Matta, but he also doesn’t squeeze every ounce of talent from his players like Jamie Dixon does now or Jim Calhoun once did in his prime. Boeheim also isn’t an unbelievable X’s and O’s guy like Bill Self, and if I had to win a tournament game tomorrow I’d gladly take Tom Izzo or Coach K over him. Unlike John Calipari, you can’t definitively say Boeheim’s teams are better in March than they were in November. If anything, Boeheim’s best trait really has been the simple act of being in one place for a maddeningly long time. The players change, the coaches’ change, the conferences change, but overall, Jim Boeheim is just kinda, sorta the same guy he’s always been.
And really, looking through Boeheim’s career resume reflects that. Do that and you’ll see a never-ending conveyor belt of 24-9 and 23-11 seasons with trips to the second round NCAA Tournament and plenty of Sweet 16’s as well. Sure there are some peaks and a few valleys, a few missed NCAA Tournaments and a trio of Final Fours, but overall, it’s all about consistency.
Heck, remember how I mentioned that Boeheim has five 30-win seasons in his career at Syracuse? To put that into some kind of context, Coach K has 12 in five less years at Duke. Calhoun had eight and spent a decade less at UConn than Boeheim has been at Syracuse. Crap, John Calipari has two 30-win seasons in three years at Kentucky, and in his third season won 29 games. Which means that, my god: Even in being great, Jim Boeheim has only been consistently good.
Still, nobody has turned being consistently good into an art-form quite like Boeheim, and if anything that’s probably what we should be celebrating with Boeheim this morning. Day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out, Boeheim puts on the same pair of slacks he’s probably worn since the 80’s, drives the same route to work he has for 40 years, and handles the act of winning the basketball games he’s supposed to about as well as anyone. When Jim Boeheim has more talent than you do, he almost always wins. When he less talented players he usually doesn’t. Like that old episode of Seinfeld, Jim Boeheim is basically “Even Steven.”
So if anything, the incredible number surrounding Boeheim this Monday morning isn’t 900, but instead 37.
For Jim Boeheim, his greatness lies in the simple fact that he’s been at Syracuse for 37 years. Not the 900 wins that have come along with it.
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