|A contrite Jim Boeheim apologizes for his comments regarding the Bernie Fine scandal. (US Presswire)|
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It took Jim Boeheim 15 days to say he was sorry.
After taking as big of a PR hit as any college coach ever has without getting fired, Syracuse head coach of 35 seasons (and still counting, to the annoyance of some) slowly walked to the podium, slowly said his words of contrition and quickly changed a lot of people's perceptions of him, back to what they used to be -- or something close to it.
That's because, ironically, people have wanted to root for Boeheim, to shake him and say, "Jim, you can't possibly believe the things you're saying right now. Listen to yourself." Boeheim's been the frumpy, whiny, media-savvy coach who was loved because he built a once-tiny program in the middle of New York into a perennial collegiate basketball power. And he did it as a lifer there. Easy to admire that. Boeheim's professional career is endearing; it speaks to values a lot of Americans love. It's also made him as synonymous with his basketball program as John Wooden was with UCLA, as Mike Krzyzewski is with Duke.
Most recently, though, Boeheim was a man whose ego and ignorance got the best of him. He was incidentally putting his job on the line not for what he did or didn't know, but for how he was reacting to that very circumstance -- claiming to not know anything, but speaking out of turn, anyway.
"What I said last week was out of loyalty. I reacted without thinking. I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Boeheim said. "I'm trying to learn from my mistake, and this has been a hard time. That's all I can say. There's an investigation going on that I fully support, because we all need to know, as much as we can, what happened."
He's still not out of this. He doesn't protect his job status because someone clearly, finally, got into his ear and implored him to say the two toughest words we all fight the urge to say from the time we're children. Him apologizing for his egregiously irresponsible and offense remarks doesn't mean he won't still receive criticism (the "too little, too late" birds will chirp through the weekend), and it's important to remember we don't know what the next day, week, month and beyond will bring. The investigation into what Bernie Fine did or did not do continues to evolve.
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But if you needed evidence Boeheim was truly sorry, just look at his face in that picture. That's the face of a man who just beat a top-10 team (72-68 over No. 10 Florida) in his building, unquestionably the biggest out-of-conference win Syracuse will have this year prior to March. And he didn't much care about that. He said he wanted to talk about it, but his passion and emphasis was saved for the questions and statements related to his missteps, the ongoing investigation and all victims of child molestation.
Boeheim was sullen, slow-speaking and genuinely contrite. This was the reaction most wanted out of him initially, when instead he used his power and megaphone of a mouth to publicly doubt Bobby Davis and Mike Lang, the two primary accusers of Bernie Fine. This was the reaction most wanted out of Boeheim Tuesday, when instead he was smarmy and sarcastic with the media, never once saying the word "sorry" and looking more nervous in front of a camera than a first-year Syracuse broadcast major.
"No one said, 'This is what you should say.' No one indicated that I had to say something," Boeheim said Friday night. "This is what I feel ... I believe I misspoke very badly in my response to the allegations that have been made. I shouldn't have questioned what the accusers expressed or their motives. I am really sorry that I did that and I regret any harm that I caused. It was insensitive to the individuals involved, and especially to the overall issue of child abuse."
By this point, Boeheim's face was getting close to doing something I'd never seen before: emit tears. It didn't happen, but on a couple of instances, he was close. I could tell because I was sitting five feet from him.
"It's been everything," he said when asked about the past two weeks." I haven't really thought about the game. I didn't worry about my players being focused. The people who are abused are who it's hard on. There's no question in my mind the issue of the abuse is the number one thing we all should be concerned about in this community, and that's what I'm going to try to do."
And that's the biggest quote of the night, because it signals action. Those were in his opening apology, but it was as true and critical as anything else he said. And it was the biggest thing that needed to be said, outside of "I'm sorry." Boeheim shifted the situation from himself, how hard this has been on him and his family, and he directed it toward the victims, whose claims have still not been proven, but remain the primary focus of federal authorities' ongoing investigations.
Boeheim said he spent Thursday at Syracuse's McMahon/Ryan House, a child advocacy center, and he's now going to make it a point, a primary objective in his life, to raise awareness about preventing child abuse and child molestation. In doing this, Boeheim extended the conversation beyond himself and indicated actions will come beyond his words on this night.
"I think it's important that we, and I, get involved more in terms of raising awareness," he said, adding, "I'm going to do much more in future in terms of the kids in this area. I'm not trying to do something to change somebody's opinion of me."
In his last chance within a reasonable and forgiving timeline, he made good. Opinions of him were certainly changed, some reverted back, because of his sincere apology. Others will doubt him and vilify him forever because he initially doubted the claims of alleged victims of sex abuse.
"Everything else has been about basketball. This is not about basketball," he said when asked if this has been the toughest and most stressful time of his professional career.
Of course it's not about basketball. But it became about Jim Boeheim when it should have been about the victims from the start. A simple "I'm sorry" three nights ago, one week ago, two weeks ago, and this column isn't getting written. Boeheim's legacy isn't tarnished now, but it's been changed forever because in the biggest off-court moment of his career, he made the wrong call.
He's now officially sorry for that. Most of us were sorry it ever got to this point.