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Sunday, April 6, 2003
Updated: April 7, 1:04 AM ET

Boeheim, Williams say title won't define careers

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN The Magazine

NEW ORLEANS -- One of them is going to lose, simple as that. The Superdome scoreboard clock will sprint toward zeroes, a final horn will slice through the cheers, a season that started a 100 practices and five months ago will come to a heartbreaking conclusion. That's when either Kansas' Roy Williams or Syracuse's Jim Boeheim will have to make that long, lonely walk toward the other bench and offer a handshake, a hug, and somehow honest congratulations to the other man, to the friend.

Roy Williams
Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams have plenty in common as they prepare for title game.

This is Williams' fourth Final Four, his second national championship game. This is Boeheim's third Final Four, his third try at an NCAA title. Between the two of them they've coached 42 years, won 1,070 games, and they have exactly zero national championship banners to show for it.

Boeheim came the closest. A scant five seconds are all that separated him and his 1987 Syracuse team from hoisting that NCAA trophy. But then a junior college transfer named Keith Smart found an open baseline spot about 16 feet from the basket, flicked his right wrist and hand as if to wave goodbye, and then watched as the ball fell through the rim and the waiting nylon net. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73.

It didn't Boeheim too long to recover from that moment.

"... About 10 years probably, but it goes,'' he said.

Williams led Kansas to the 1991 championship game, but Duke didn't need any last-second shots to dispose of the Jayhawks, 72-65. If anything, Williams has despaired more about his 1995-96 team, which featured six seniors, four NBA players to be (Raef LaFrentz, Paul Pierce, Scot Pollard, Jacque Vaughn) and a lineup good enough to lose only one regular season game. And yet KU couldn't even reach the Final Four that season, losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16.

"That one hurt for a long time,'' Williams said. "It still hurts.''

It is hard not to root for both Boeheim and Williams as Monday evening's championship approaches. They have their quirks and faults, but you can't question their passion, their devotion and their commitment to their programs and players. Boeheim has spent 27 years in upstate New York, somehow making snow-drenched Syracuse into something fashionable. Once considered a bit of a humorless whiner, he rehabbed his image by simply showing the media and the public that same deodorant-dry wit that his coaching peers saw on a regular basis. He softened with time, so much so that some of his former Syracuse players have made their way to New Orleans, as well as his ex-wife.

"...My first wife, bless her heart, is here, still supporting us,'' he said.

Former Georgetown coach and Big East nemesis John Thompson, who is doing the radio color commentary, is pulling for Boeheim. Here's guessing that even some of the longtime East Coast sportswriters are quietly rooting for the lug.

Third Time's A Charm
Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams have met twice before in the NCAA Tournament. Appropriately enough, they've split.

Boeheim won the first meeting in 1996, 60-57 in the West Regional final at Denver. The Orangemen went on to play for the national title that year, losing to Kentucky.

Williams returned the favor in 2001, beating Syracuse in the second round of the Midwest Regional in Dayton, Ohio. The Jayhawks were beaten in their next game, however, by Illinois.

"After you've been to one Final Four ... maybe you think getting here, that's it,'' said Boeheim. "After you've gotten here you realize it only matters if you win.

"I think the problem I have is when all of a sudden you're a good player, a good coach because you win or don't. I mean, that's just absolute foolishness.''

But Boeheim is no dummy. A win Monday night wouldn't validate his career -- it doesn't need that -- but it would enhance it. It's the difference between wearing a tux with a clip-on bow tie or one you knot yourself.

"It's not fun when you don't win the last game,'' he said.

Win or lose, Boeheim isn't going anywhere. He was born in central New York. He played at Syracuse. He coaches at Syracuse. Give him the choice between San Franciso or Syracuse, he picks Syracuse. Athletic directors from other programs used to call, but there's never been an actual job interview. He had a "discussion'' one time at his house about another gig, "but it really didn't get past the first 15 minutes.''

His friend Williams is in an altogether different situation. Win or lose, Williams has a choice to make, the same choice the KU coach had to make three years ago: stay in Lawrence, or return to his alma mater North Carolina?

Not surprisingly, Williams isn't sharing many thoughts on the topic, though fellow coaches such as Michigan State's Tom Izzo say they expect him to accept the Tar Heels offer. Until then, Williams is in full Final Four mode. He wants this championship for his players, to be sure, but also for himself.

"The one thing I haven't learned: I'd like to see what the other half is like,'' he said. "I'd like to have that experience so I can know if it's that much better than what you have when you lose.''

He should know something by late Monday evening. A game will be decided, but not a coaching legacy. This one is for their players, for a ring, for an elusive moment and feeling. There will be a handshake and one less person without a national championship. But however it shakes out, there won't be self-pity.

"If Syracuse wins I'm going to be just crushed,'' Williams said. "But if you see somebody on top of one of these buildings, everybody standing on the pavement saying, 'That's Roy,' ... it ain't Roy. If it's Roy, it ain't me. It's an impersonator.''

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine



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