Sunday, August 24, 2008

Winning the Big Games

There are a lot of ‘knee jerk’ comments by fans and commentators that tend to irk me over time, and more often than not they are just extensions of an unfounded myth, as opposed to fact. One comment that always irks me is a label applied to coaches with impressive records but a label the ‘coach can’t win the big games’, and the comment is meant to imply the coach chokes in the big games.

Marv Levy, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, wears such a label unjustly. You’ll hear the comment that Levy cannot win the big games based purely on the fact that his teams went 0-4 in the Super Bowl. But those aren’t the only ‘big’ games that Levy coached. What about the four AFC Championship games in each of those seasons? He went 4-0 in those games, and I’d say those were pretty big games. And there were several regular season games of significance that Levy’s teams had to win in order to position themselves for the playoffs. There were a lot of big games a coach has to win in order to get to that ultimate championship.

Now, the phrase that Levy ‘cannot win the biggest game or the Super Bowl’ would be a more accurate statement. That phrase would factually be correct, but also has different implications.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has often been a victim of the “he can’t win the big game’ comment. The facts indicate otherwise.

As all Syracuse fans know, the Orangemen won the National Championship in 2003, the biggest game for college basketball. Boeheim did not need to win that game to remove that label, though it did quiet a lot of detractors. The fact he had made it to three National Championship games in itself means he won a lot of ‘big games’ along the way.

The two losses Boeheim suffered in the championship games were highly competitive. Syracuse was both a Keith Smart missed basket or a Derrick Coleman made free throw of winning the 1987 championship. In 1996, Kentucky was heavily favored, and Syracuse was within four points of the game with just over two minutes to play. John Wallace fouled out at that point, and Kentucky pulled away, but the game was highly competitive despite predictions otherwise.

Jim Boeheim is 3-0 in Final Four games. Those are very high pressured games, with huge implications. They do not get much bigger, and he is 3-0 in those games. And those games were not even close, winning 77-63 over Providence in 1987, 77-69 over Mississippi State in 1996, and 95-84 over Texas in 2003.

Boeheim was won 5 Big East tournament championships, and has appeared in 13 of them overall. He has lost 8 tournament championships, but clearly he had to win some big games to get to the finals. His Syracuse teams have gone 42-24 in the Big East tournament, winning 64% of their games.

He does not win all his games against cupcake teams. Syracuse is 300-168 in Big East regular season play, winning 64% of his games. That’s his record year-in year-out against one of the most competitive conferences in the country.

He is 49-20 in national post season play, going 39-24 in the NCAA, and 10-6 in the NIT. He’s had his heartbreakers with losses to Richmond and Vermont in the first round. But those don’t count as big games; and if they do, then you have to count all the first round wins he has had as big game too, and he’s had far more first round victories than losses.

Boeheim is 380-66 in non-conference play. This includes championships and strong showings in tournaments like the pre-season NIT, Coaches vs. Cancer, Great Alaska Shootout and Maui Invitational.

Now Jim Boeheim gets to add an Olympic Gold Medal to his resume, for his participation as an assistant coach in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the ‘Redeem Team’.

Boeheim does win his share of easy non-conference games (as any respectable coach should win), and he has had his share of upsets and disappointing finishes. When you coach 1,049 games you are going to have memorable upsets and losses. And when you are favored more often than not, you will have more opportunities for upset losses than upset wins. But, to be favored that often, you have to have won a lot of big games, and Boeheim has done that.

He’s not a flawless coach. He does make mistakes, and some losses occur we would rather not see. But to say he cannot win the ‘big games’ is a fallacy.