The challenges of Jim Boeheim's inevitable retirement from Syracuse college basketball

After a 46-year tenure, Jim Boeheim and Syracuse have become synonymous with each other. What happens when he retires? Rich Barnes/Getty Images

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When Jim Boeheim gets hungry after home games, he picks up the phone and calls his favorite restaurant, Saint Urban, which always agrees to stay open late until he arrives.

If the Syracuse Orange are on a hot streak, Boeheim will delay his arrival, to enjoy the festive moment and mingle with fans who still treat the veteran coach with five Final Four appearances and 10 Big East titles like he's a king in this city of approximately 142,000 people. But last season, there were a number of more subdued and stoic late nights, as the program wrestled through the first losing record of Boeheim's 46-year tenure.

"If they win, it's a great dinner," Adam Weitsman, Boeheim's best friend and a program booster who oftens tags along, said. "If it's a loss, it's the worst dinner ever because we just sit there, quiet. He doesn't say a thing, you know?"

While the rumblings of the 77-year-old Syracuse men's basketball coach's retirement have lingered for years, they have never seemed stronger than now, as the 2022-23 season -- the 20th anniversary of Boeheim's 2003 national championship run with Carmelo Anthony & Co. -- approaches. However, the more pressing question for a program that has been led by the Hall of Fame coach since 1976 is this: How will Syracuse move forward in a new chapter for men's college basketball without Boeheim?

It begins with Boeheim, who will have to convince recruits that Syracuse basketball will maintain the fervor of a fan base that has consistently filled all 35,000-plus seats at the JMA Wireless Dome (formerly the Carrier Dome), the largest on-campus basketball arena in the country.

"Before he moves on, he's going to make sure Syracuse is in a good place, where it can continue to have success," said Eric Devendorf, a standout guard under Boeheim from 2005 to '09 and former assistant. "Is it going to be the same? No. My man's been doing it for 45 years. So it's going to be a little bit different."

Boeheim has promised to retire in the past -- see: 2015, when he announced his decision to retire by March 2018, later changing his mind. Just last year, he told Forbes he would coach until he turned 80. You never know with Boeheim.

Sitting in his office in July, Boeheim says he's approaching the day he leaves, but will only make the move when he's confident Syracuse can handle the change -- which he has already conveyed to those close to him.

"I think he almost loves it now more than ever," Jimmy Boeheim, one of his sons and a starter on last season's squad, said. "I know he won't coach a day longer than he doesn't feel that. He wouldn't shortchange his players or his fans."

But the retirements of Jay Wright (Villanova), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and Roy Williams (North Carolina) in the past two years have left Boeheim without many peers in college basketball. All three coaches suggested they had limited interest in adapting to a new era of college sports, which now includes NIL and the transfer portal.

Boeheim has said he won't let any changes force him to retire. But he also admits he won't try to attract elite transfers with major NIL deals.

He does not talk like someone who intends to stick around too long to watch as this new climate evolves.

"People have been asking me that for 15 years," he said. "Well, 15 years ago, if I'd said it'd be pretty soon, I would have been a liar. I think, realistically, I'm pretty close. But I would never quit because of this or that."

Don't be fooled by North Carolina's success in Hubert Davis' first season at the helm after Williams' retirement, when he led the team to the 2022 national title game.

Schools often struggle in the years that follow the replacement of a longtime coach. When Guy Lewis retired in 1986 after 30 years at Houston, the Cougars earned just one conference championship until 2019. Arkansas fired Nolan Richardson, who led the team to the 1994 national title, in 2002 -- and failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for nearly 20 years. Mike Woodson is the fifth head coach Indiana has hired since firing Bob Knight in 2000. Some would argue UCLA is still searching for the right successor to John Wooden, who won 10 national titles in 12 seasons: The Bruins produced just two Final Four appearances in the two decades following his retirement in 1975.

For Syracuse, the impact of the high-profile program -- and the weight of a job held by Boeheim since 1976 -- extends far beyond the campus.

At The Basketball Tournament regional hosted at SRC Arena in Syracuse in July, the parking lots and the stands were flooded with orange-and-white-clad Syracuse fans. When Boeheim entered the building to watch the aptly named Boeheim's Army, a team anchored by former Syracuse players, the arena roared with applause and cheers.

Game nights at Syracuse make you feel like you've stumbled into college basketball's largest family reunion. Former players often return to the city to live near campus and support their school.

Boeheim has built this community. He also hasn't left the area. Arriving from a high school just over 50 miles away, he joined the basketball team as a walk-on in 1962 and eventually became team captain. Even after graduation, when he played semi-pro basketball from 1966 to 1969, he lived in town and helped former head coaches Fred Lewis and Roy Danforth as a grad assistant.

"I've never left," Boeheim said. "I'm the only coach that's ever done that. People come back. But this is my 60th year."

The 20 years since Boeheim led the team to its only national title have been marked by highs and lows. The Orange reached the Final Four two times in that span. And until the 2021-22 finish, Boeheim had never had a losing season at Syracuse. The NCAA stripped the program of 101 wins following a 2015 academic scandal, the move unfolding in the middle of an ongoing downturn that includes seven finishes of seventh or lower in league play since Syracuse joined the ACC in 2013. As it became clear late last season Syracuse would miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years, the naysayers grew louder on social media and called for the end of Boeheim's reign.

But Boeheim's numerous supporters see him as an icon who has turned the upstate New York school into a contender -- and its namesake city into an oasis.

He has a national title, something only 12 programs have earned since 2001. He has also helped produce 12 first-round draft picks in the same stretch.

Boeheim's eventual successor will be charged with leading this program back to those fruitful waters in a new chapter for college basketball. Syracuse backers recently followed the trend and established an NIL collective, the 315 Foundation, to help raise money to distribute to the school's athletes.

"I think it's going to be really important for fans to understand that the era of NIL has changed things," said Tony DeSorbo, the collective's co-founder. "That means that, as a fan base, as a community, we need to support that and we need to support them."

On a larger scale, Boeheim's departure could signal the end of an era in which coaches reigned over a major program for decades. Schools are more comfortable rotating coaches in and out, just like players are doing through the transfer portal. Coaches themselves are more likely than ever to make multiple moves throughout their careers, and to retire earlier than before, as a result of the increasing pressures of the job.

In this post-Boeheim era, the next coach at Syracuse -- or any school, really -- might be lucky to go a few years without coming under scrutiny from their program and fan base.

During an intense summer practice, the team's first at full strength, associate head coach Adrian Autry blew his whistle and held his hands out wide.

"You got to cut him off like this," said Autry, who played for Boeheim in the early 1990s.

Boeheim has increasingly delegated to his assistants, so Autry and other staffers are the most active voices in practice. For most of this session, Boeheim walked the sideline, observing. He didn't say much until he stopped practice because he didn't like the energy from some of his players.

"You can't run down the court with your head down like that," he told them. "If you give up a basket, you have to forget about it. Have to."

Then, he walked back to the sideline and asked a few visitors, "So, you think we have something?"

There has been speculation Autry might succeed his former coach, but Boeheim remains tight-lipped about his assistant. Turning to a coach with ties to the school is a strategy that's worked for some schools and backfired for others.

"I think there are advantages to that, if the coach has been there, they've played there, they've coached there, they understand the culture of the department, culture of the community, culture of the university," John Wildhack, Syracuse's athletic director and also a graduate of the school, told ESPN. "But it's not a prerequisite, per se. It's not a requirement.

"We're blessed. We've got three really, really terrific assistant coaches."

This season will play a crucial role in the eventual transition to a new head coach. Boeheim said he likes this group of players. Joe Girard (13.3 PPG, 40% from 3 in 2021-22) and Jesse Edwards, the 6-foot-11 standout who shot 69% last season before suffering a season-ending wrist injury in early February, will anchor a Syracuse squad that resembles the athletic, bouncy Boeheim teams that have historically disrupted opposing offenses with the 2-3 zone.

With each game this year, however, the question will remain: How much longer for Boeheim?

"If you love something, you love it," Boeheim said. "Just because you get older, it doesn't go away. Just because you get older, it doesn't mean you can't do it. I just talk. I don't have to work out."

An equally important and more complicated question for a school that hasn't had to think about a world without him in a long time will follow: What's next?

"We're a strong program, a strong basketball community and a strong institution," said Tyus Battle, another former player and a second-team all-ACC standout in 2018. "I think we'll be fine."