March 11, 2012

MUSINGS: The Fate of the Orange

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In the short term, what lies ahead for the Syracuse Orange is clear. The team that surrendered only two losses amidst a thirty-one win campaign will face and beat No. 16 UNC-Asheville on Thursday. Then the Orange, always game for allowing inferior opponents to stay in games, will narrowly fend off an upset bid from either No. 8 Kansas State or No. 9 Southern Miss in a tight 2nd round matchup. Even if Fab Melo stays back to retake a flunked Art History exam, the deep and dangerous Syracuse Orange, No. 1 in the East Region, is nearly assured a Sweet Sixteen berth come Saturday.

Yet for this year’s squad, Coach Boeheim and the program as a whole, what lies beyond March Madness remains perilously unclear. For the regular season that began with underage sexual abuse allegations levied against then assistant coach Bernie Fine, has culminated with Yahoo Sports reporting that Syracuse knowingly played as many as 10 players since 2000 who should have been ineligible to compete due to failed drug tests. Though these alleged positive tests fall under the less sinister “recreational” category of banned substance and the failing players have all since graduated[1], Boeheim’s program could be hit with massive penalties this offseason. While the Fine scandal is more disturbing to the 1000th degree, the fallout from playing players who should have been suspended will, if true, cost the Orange much more in terms of scholarships, forfeited games and postseason eligibility. Teams violate NCAA regulations and the NCAA strikes punitive measures against said teams. It’s the major collegiate athletics circle of life. But as a native upstate New Yorker[2], raised on a steady diet of 2-3 zones, I am experiencing for the first time the moral dilemma that arises when a team you love is faced with alleged improprieties.

Having a perennial collegiate powerhouse in your backyard is special for a sports fan of any region. But for us fans in a region that’s only major league teams are the lowly Buffalo Bills and low-profile Sabres, having the consistently dominated Orange to root for is kind of like being a poor kid whose dad gets him a Cadillac for his sweet sixteen. We can’t believe we got a car, let alone one of the nicest cars around. We brag about the car at school; park it where the rich kids park their Mercedes and Jags. Orange Basketball is the one constant luxury that makes central and western New Yorkers feel significant on the national sporting stage. The Sabres are never discussed on PTI. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since Tamagotchis were in style. And Sports Illustrated doesn’t lend its cover to the minor league likes of the Buffalo Bandits, Rochester Raging Rhinos or Syracuse Sky Chiefs.

But the Orange makes us feel like the hottest kids in school for a few otherwise freezing months. In recent years, Syracuse has produced a national championship, a six-overtime thriller and the most epic conference tournament run ever orchestrated in any sport (An overrated(?!!) Gerry McNamara single handedly carrying a mediocre Orange squad to the 2006 Big East title whilst being white, scrawny and thus totally relatable). The “not ten fucking games”[3] type of loyalty Boeheim shows his players has guided him towards the pantheons of coaching greats. Through 887 wins over 36 seasons, Boeheim has outlasted the likes of Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Dominik Hasek as the region’s most prominent sports figure through his sheer commitment to his players, program and university.

Yet it was this same utter devotion that got Boeheim in trouble when the Bernie Fine accusations first arose. And while a contrite Boeheim has largely been forgiven for his initial defamation of former ball boy and current Fine-accuser Bobby Davis, the episode, along with the recent report of undisciplined recreational (read: weed) drug use, makes one wonder if the man with the third most wins in Division I history has either knowingly or unknowingly overlooked past improprieties in the name of the Orange basketball. And as a die-hard fan, I do not think I care. Obviously if the Fine situation turned out to be a Penn State 2.0, with allegations of organizational knowledge and a cover-up occurring, then I would support any level of punishment, even the firing of the head coach. But if Boeheim, fellow coaches and athletic administrators simply failed to discipline a handful of players over a 12-year span for smoking chronic, then so be it. If those 10 players being on the court meant the difference between having moments like the ’03 title, McNamara’s Big East run and the six-overtime classic, then I would hope Orange officials would look the other way again. Yes it is a violation of NCAA policy[4], but the harm of recreational drugs is very minimal, and the advantage is nonexistent.

Going further, I wouldn’t mind if Boeheim has been following the Calipari handbook of repeated NCAA violations throughout his tenure — violations more damning than undisciplined weed-smoking. Recruiting abuses, paying players, whatever. If it has kept the Orange at the pinnacle of collegiate basketball than violate away. How did Scope Jardine get that new whip? I don’t know and I don’t care. Same goes for Dion Waiter’s new gold watch. Of course, it will sting a little if (or when) the retributive hammer of the NCAA does come down on Syracuse, but none more than the typical frostbite of an otherwise dreary upstate New York winter.

[1] Mr. Devendorf and Mr. Harris, Class of 2009.

[2] For those who hail from the city, please note that the real upstate does not begin until well north of Westchester.

[3] Only press conference I ever get chills watching: here.

[4] It was a self-reported violation of an internal drug policy set by the University. NCAA can act on violations of such internal drug policies. 

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Original Author: Brian Gordon