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January 28, 2014

DeCock: Never mind his poor first impression; Jim Boeheim has friends in ACC places

Boeheim, the Syracuse coach, brings his team to the state of North Carolina for the first time since joining the ACC to play Wake Forest. His comments about the league and its environs ruffled feathers, but those who know him take it in stride.

Jim Boeheim, living down to all the perceptions many ACC fans had of the Syracuse coach as a sour-faced, grumpy, upstate New Yorker, barely had a foot into his new conference home before he started taking shots at the ACC.

He most notably disparaged Greensboro as the site of the conference tournament, most recently declared a win against Pittsburgh earlier this month to be a “Big East game, forget about ACC,” and most memorably compared, unfavorably, the dining options in Clemson to those in Providence.

“I’m sure there’s a couple of Denny’s down there,” Boeheim said last year. “They’ll like me a lot now in Clemson. I like to make friends before I get down there.”

He visits the state of North Carolina for the first time as an ACC coach this week, with Syracuse playing at Wake Forest on Wednesday night just ahead of the most anticipated game of Syracuse’s ACC tenure on Saturday against Duke at the Carrier Dome. At this point, if he isn’t interested in making friends among his new neighbors in the ACC, perhaps he just has enough already?

In the Triangle alone, he has some very close friends, and not just his fellow coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Doug Pearce, an N.C. State fan who lives in Wake Forest, has played golf with Boeheim, both around Pinehurst and in New York, for almost 20 years. He knows how Boeheim, 69, is perceived in these parts, because he once saw him the same way.

“I had an opinion of coach Jim Boeheim,” Pearce said. “He was very difficult. He was a whiner. You see him on the sidelines, he’s got all these gyrations going on against the referees. But we don’t see as a public – what we see on TV, is really not who they are.”

Now, to Pearce, Boeheim is a man of unfailing loyalty to Syracuse and to his friends and family; a father who coaches his son’s baseball team in the summer; a one-time, single-digit handicap golfer whose sharp sense of humor makes him an entertaining partner and opponent.

So Pearce wasn’t surprised by Boeheim’s comments about the ACC. It wasn’t in Boeheim’s nature to let go of the Big East easily.

“Jim is loyal to that conference he’s in. He’s a company guy,” Pearce said. “I understood he wasn’t saying, ‘I don’t want to be in the ACC.’ He was saying, ‘I’m happy where I’m at.’ ”

Many of Boeheim’s new ACC peers had similar shoulder-shrugging reactions. Krzyzewski calls him his best friend in coaching and insisted Boeheim join all three of his Olympic coaching staffs. Boeheim at one point was one of the few coaches in Williams’ league on the golf course, and the two have played countless rounds – and hands of poker – over the years.

“There’s a much different Jimmy Boeheim now, even publicly and openly, than there was,” Williams said. “Sportswriters and even his friends that liked to kid him used to call him a whiner and stuff, and he’d make those faces. … He has developed a little bit more of a warm touch. You do this thing for such a long time and it wears on you and you either fight battles with everybody or you just try to roll with the punches. And he’s done that.”

As far as his arrival in the ACC goes, the first impression was made, and there’s no undoing it, but maybe the ACC will come around to that perception of Boeheim someday. And maybe Boeheim doesn’t care whether anyone does or not.

“I don’t think unless you got to know him on a personal level you could change your perception of any coach, not just coach Boeheim,” Pearce said. “I think he even relishes the fact he’s perceived that way.”

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