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.
“I can’t imagine if they were 10-10 or something. The feeling would probably be a lot different.”
Boeheim told his players before the season that they had the pedigree of a national champion.
The team doesn’t have a likely NBA lottery pick on the roster and only three players are scoring in double figures, none averaging better than 13.7 points.
“He’s been terrific,” senior forward Kris Joseph said. “He did a great job of keeping us levelheaded and it was probably even harder for him to do that for himself with everything going on and all the adversity that he’s faced off the court. He did a great job of not letting it get to him as far as making sure this team was supposed to do what they were supposed to do.
“He let us know that we’re not going to let this affect our season,” Joseph said. “He did a great job of making sure that never happened. He kept us together as a team and we won basketball games.”
Added fifth-year senior Scoop Jardine: “This year, he’s just a little more focused on our team. The way he’s handled it has really made us handle our situation better. He’s always been a great leader for us.”
Those who know Boeheim best aren’t surprised.
“He has turned all the attention, as well I knew he would, knowing Jim, into his basketball team,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “Quite frankly, for a lot of coaches, myself included, the rest that you get from the storm outside is right in that gym working with the kids.”
Fans can only marvel at what they see on the court: a rotation of 10 players, and — unlike the bickering on Boeheim’s only national championship team in 2003 — not a single frown.
“He’s got my vote for national coach of the year right now,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Obviously, there was off-the-court stuff, but away from that, he has managed a lot of guys that want to play more than they’re playing. He’s done a fabulous job getting everybody involved and having them buy into winning and chasing a team goal. In this era, it is really a challenge to do that.”
At the Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub in downtown Syracuse, fan Sharon Bowes said Boeheim has been doing “the best job he’s ever done.”
“It’s the most unselfish team I’ve seen. That’s what makes champions,” Bowes said.
On Monday night, Syracuse beat nemesis Pittsburgh 71-63 to snap a five-game losing streak against the Panthers and set the school record for most wins at the start of a season.
“Nothing he does surprises me because he’s done it for so long,” said Bill Raftery, who called the game for ESPN. “I think he just coaches. He doesn’t worry. He’s got a singular responsibility once he’s in the gym, and that’s what he does. And they respond to him.”
The triumph was Boeheim’s 876th, tying him for fourth all-time in men’s Division I with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and only three behind Dean Smith of North Carolina. Most now expect that total to rise well beyond 900 before Boeheim retires, a milestone reached only by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and his mentor, Bob Knight.
“He’s earned our respect,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said of Boeheim. “He’s earned everybody in the business’ respect. It’s amazing what he’s done.”
Last year’s team started 18-0, then lost four straight before rebounding. Nobody expects that this year, and Boeheim is hopeful it won’t.
“It’s always easier to win than lose. When you’re losing, it seems like a long season,” he said.
“I’ve been there. When you’re struggling, it seems like it will never get over,” he said. “These guys have played well and it’s a good team to coach. We know we have a long way to go yet. That’s something we are very aware of.”
AP Basketball Writer Jim O’Connell in New York City contributed to this report.