How Syracuse's Jim Boeheim would attempt to fix college basketball

NEW YORK – In the maze of tunnels beneath the Barclays Center late Tuesday night, Jim Boeheim wound back to the Syracuse locker room after the Orange’s 73-64 victory over Wake Forest. He’d removed his jacket and his tie after his postgame press conference, and a dinner table awaited at a nearby restaurant.

Boeheim, 73, is finishing up his 42nd season at Syracuse, and with his son, Buddy, playing for him starting next season, he may end up pushing 80 before he’s done coaching there.

Boeheim is the lifer’s lifer, and in the postgame locker room he couldn’t resist striking up a conversation that will serve as the backdrop to this most bizarre March. With college basketball at the heart of a federal corruption case and seemingly on the precipice of wholesale changes, Boeheim has some ideas on how to fix a broken sport.

Boeheim is the perfect conflicted character for these complicated times: a relentless winner with a tortured NCAA history, an international ambassador for a game flush with domestic problems and a millionaire coach still struggling with the notion of how to compensate players.

For all of his success and contradictions, Boehiem has always consistently spoken his mind. In an era of one-game-at-a-time cliché spitters, Boeheim has rarely minced words. And when he speaks, people at all levels of basketball – college, professional and international – do listen.

Jim Boeheim isn’t afraid to speak his mind. (Getty)
Jim Boeheim isn’t afraid to speak his mind. (Getty)

Boeheim covered an array of topics with Yahoo Sports on Tuesday night in an impromptu interview. He recommended former Big East associate commissioner Dan Gavitt as a “czar” for college basketball. He mocked former NBA players who made millions who go on TV and complain about college players not getting paid. “I don’t feel sorry for Chris Webber,” Boeheim said. “He made $150 million.” (It was actually $178 million in salary.) And he detailed specific ideas on how to fix the sport, ranging from the insightful — a summer basketball takeover by the NBA, USA Basketball and NCAA — to the far-fetched — requiring NBA agents to show all their expenditures to track whom they’re paying.

Perhaps the most eye-popping was an open endorsement of Gavitt, who is now the NCAA vice president of men’s basketball. He’s the son of Dave Gavitt, an old Boeheim mentor who helped found the Big East. He said the idea of a “czar” or commissioner of college basketball has gained some conversational traction behind the scenes. “In a perfect world,” Boeheim said, “that would be Danny Gavitt. He’d have control over what we could do [in college basketball]. Danny will listen to everyone and come up with stuff. He’d be perfect.”

A czar or commissioner is one of the ideas presumed to be kicked around by the commission headed by Condoleezza Rice, which is expected to give its findings in April. The NCAA created the commission after 10 men — including four college basketball assistant coaches — were arrested in late September in a wide-sweeping federal probe into basketball’s underbelly. It would make basketball unique under the NCAA umbrella to have one leader and is the type of landscape-shifting change expected to come from Rice’s group.

Boeheim said he’s been encouraged by the ideas he’s heard from NBA commissioner Adam Silver — to a point. Silver has been open about abolishing the so-called “one-and-done” system, which under the NBA’s collectively bargained rules essentially forces players to attend college for a year.

But Boeheim mocked the notion of the NBA’s developmental league — the G League — becoming an alternative to high-end college basketball, which was floated in an ESPN story this week. (The current maximum G League salary is $26,000.) “These kids don’t want to go the G League,” Boeheim said. “The really good players, let them go to the NBA and the next good players will go to college for a year. Where would you go: Duke or Idaho? Is there even a question? I don’t care what you’re paying ($50,000, $75,000). It doesn’t matter.”

Talking about changes and making them are two very different beasts. There’s been a need for NCAA basketball reform for decades, but the ideas rarely got past the barstools and bleachers where coaches gossip during the summer evaluation period.

Boeheim offered a few thoughts on big-picture fixes:

  • He suggested that the three organizations – USA Basketball, NCAA and NBA – could run summer basketball for around 400 players, not just elite ones.

  • He suggested that agents be allowed to contact players in 10th grade and players deal with agents openly prior to college. “I’m all for letting them get an agent, talk to an agent and do some deals,” he said. “It’ll be a mess. Let them do it and come out [to the draft] when they want to.” He also added, naively, that agents need to show the NBA or NBA Players Association their payment “books” to track potentially illicit transactions. “You have to be registered,” he said. “We want to see your books. Who are you paying?”

  • He talked about some form of an Olympic model in which players can profit off image and likeness. As he articulated the idea, he appeared conflicted. When asked if players could go to a local car dealership and sign autographs for a check, Boeheim said that would be fine. “On our team, we’d have one guy get a commercial,” he said. “It wouldn’t be much money. In some of those places, there’d be $100,000 commercials. That’s what would happen. It would really look bad.” He added later that it would have to be regulated: “The only thing I’m saying is, it’ll be abused so bad. They’ll go here and sign autographs and make $20,000. All the stuff, you have to have some control of it.”

Boeheim drew the line, much like NCAA president Mark Emmert has, at directly paying players because of budget reasons. Syracuse’s basketball program makes about $27 million annually, but Boeheim said the athletic department struggles to make money. (That’s the norm in college sports, where football programs typically prop up the whole athletic department). “We lose money,” Boeheim said of the athletic department. “If you want to stop funding all the other sports, then we’d make money. I don’t think anyone else wants to do that. Most college athletic departments break even and have to raise money to stay in business.”

He doubled down on that point later, adding that there are 4,000 players in college basketball and estimated that 100 of the supremely talented college players — especially after elite ones have gone directly to the NBA from high school — would make significant money off image and likeness. He pointed to the full scholarship — which at Syracuse just reached $70,000 a year — plus an extra $10,000 to $12,000 per year that players can access with full cost of attendance and grants. He said announcers like Charles Barkley and Jalen Rose who are clamoring for players to get paid are ignoring that just a fraction of those in college basketball command it. “The good players are going to get paid,” he said, intimating that they’d get their money professionally. “The other 3,900 players in college are going to get a great deal. They’re getting money and a free education and play in great games and some can develop into European players and maybe NBA players.”

As Boeheim kept talking and talking, theorizing and pontificating, the Syracuse locker room slowly emptied. Eventually, his wife, Juli, poked her head in and said they were holding a table for him at the restaurant. Points made all across the spectrum, Boeheim left the maze of college basketball’s future for the tunnels under the Barclays Center. The conversation and complications underscore just how thorny the future will be to navigate.

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