Jim Boeheim's winning approach

After 37 years in a profession where the spotlight never dims and the pressure never diminishes, Jim Boeheim has learned how to walk a critical tightrope well.

He isn't afraid to let people know how he feels, but he's careful not to feel too much in public. Anger comes in quick verbal jabs or curt responses, happiness and giddy joy dispensed only on rare and deserving occasions.

To outsiders, he can come across as either indifferent or petulant, or even immune to everything that's going on around him.

To those who know him well, though, that is merely an armor of protection.

"Anything that affects this program affects his heart directly,'' his wife, Juli, said. "It gets to the core of him. He is Syracuse. He bleeds orange. If anything affects Syracuse University, it affects him in a deep, sometimes heartbreaking way."

As Boeheim prepares for his fourth Final Four and first since the 2003 national championship, there has been plenty to absorb lately, one body blow after another.

His former assistant coach Bernie Fine was fired after being accused of sexual abuse; his university opted to leave his beloved Big East for the ACC; last year's NCAA tournament run was clouded and ultimately ended due to the suspension of Fab Melo. This season? James Southerland was temporarily suspended due to academic issues; Boeheim sniped at an ESPN reporter in a postgame interview; and the NCAA is in the midst of a lengthy investigation that includes academic and drug-testing allegations as detailed a year ago in a Yahoo! Sports report.

It would be enough to bring some people to their knees or turn others visibly defiant (think Jim Calhoun on his way out the door).

Yet folks hoping to measure the width of Boeheim's grin or the amount of time that he smiles as some sort of sign that this season means more because of everything that's happened will be sorely disappointed.

Boeheim permitted himself a decent-sized smile as he snipped the nets down at the Verizon Center on Saturday. By Monday morning, back in his office, he was back to the same no-nonsense approach that has served him well for nearly four decades.

Basketball, he always has argued, isn't fun. If you want fun, he's fond of saying, you head to a golf course.

Even a Final Four run through all sorts of misery hasn't changed that.

"It's always fun to win," he said. "Winning is what we're in it for, so that's the fun part. It's fun to be satisfied to be able to get this thing together, but there's not much fun in doing it."

Stoicism mixed with stubbornness probably isn't a bad trait to have in coaching. Sports have made room for all sorts of personalities. From the crying Dick Vermeils to the restrained Tom Landrys, there's no genetic strain that works better than another.

But the most fundamental skill for success seems to be the ability to deal -- to deal with life and all its ups, downs, twists and turns.

In that, Boeheim is a master, which has served him well.

"There have been great books and great lectures and great speeches written to suggest what you do to avoid distractions," he said. "Most people can't do that. We can't do that. Life is full of situations. You either handle them or you don't. That's nothing new. There are situations every year. Some you see, some you don't, but there's always something. If you can't get through all of that, you're not in this business very long."

Even with winning -- and yes, even in a year like this where the winning seems to be an especially welcome balm to the bad -- Boeheim doesn't waffle much.

"He's so matter-of-fact -- that's my job, what I'm supposed to do. This year I was successful at it. Close the book and on to the next year," Juli said. "I'm the one who's like, 'Oh my gosh, can we just celebrate this for a little bit?' There are exceptions -- the championship in '03, the gold medal in the Olympics, but even then he's not where I go with it. I'm in orbit."

Boeheim's reticence shouldn't be construed as a lack of appreciation. He's grateful, probably more than others. He has been at this long enough to know what every coach comes to realize eventually -- success is difficult and real achievement rare.

This season, he joined a small club when he won his 900th game, but Boeheim also waited 10 years to go back to the Final Four.

"It's hard to do,'' he said of the Final Four. "So yeah, it's satisfying to get back to the Final Four."

But don't be confused. It's not the peripheral mess that has made this run enjoyable.

It's simply getting there at all.

Editor's Note: To read O'Neil's feature on Syracuse's 2-3 zone, click here. Also: Eamonn Brennan's in-depth analysis of what makes the Orange tick can be found here.