Georgetown and Syracuse reprised their roles as two of the most historic rivals in the history of college basketball Saturday afternoon, but with one key understudy performance. Just two days before the highly anticipated return of the rivalry, the NCAA revealed that the part of the Syracuse Head Coach would be played by Mike Hopkins.
Head Coach Jim Boeheim sat out Syracuse’s 79-72 loss to Georgetown to begin his nine-game suspension from coaching duties as a result of March’s NCAA ruling that also eliminated eight scholarships over four years and vacated 101 wins for the Syracuse basketball program following an investigation that found evidence of academic fraud and drug test violations. Boeheim appealed this ruling, but the NCAA’s decision after reviewing the appeal did not decrease the suspension. It did, however, move it.
While the temporary ban was originally intended to apply to conference play, Thursday’s decision announced that the suspension would be moved to non-conference matchups, beginning with the very next Syracuse game, the meeting with the Hoyas. Boeheim, the last remaining player involved in the origin of the rivalry with the beginning of the Big East in 1979, would not be present for its return.
Hoya fans at Verizon Center expectedly pounced on the suspension to attack the symbol of the program Georgetown has loathed for decades. From sprawling banners reciting the NCAA’s statement to suspend Boeheim, to damning caricatures of the coach picking his nose, to an ever-growing “Where is Boeheim?” chant, the Georgetown fan base continued to focus on its favorite target.
For most teams, the absence of a long-tenured head coach would be nothing short of disastrous, let-alone with two days’ notice. But for the Hoyas’ bitter rival, the replacement was obvious.
Soft spoken assistant coach, and now interim head coach Mike Hopkins, has been part of the Syracuse basketball program since 1989, when he joined the Orange as a shooting guard under the confident, outspoken Boeheim. Hopkins went on to return to the program only two years after graduation, this time on the coaching staff. Despite opportunities to serve as the head coach for other teams, the celebrated assistant remained loyal to Boeheim’s program, and was finally rewarded following Boeheim’s announcement that 2017-2018 would be his final campaign. The university promptly named Hopkins the head coach-elect.
Saturday afternoon marked the beginning of a sneak preview of the Hopkins era, two years earlier than scheduled. The 45-year-old had planned for this day for decades, but nobody could have prepared for a last-minute promotion in the midst of an emotionally taxing scandal just in time for Georgetown-Syracuse.
“I have been preparing myself to be a head coach for 20 years and that is always what I wanted to be,” said Hopkins. “I always visualize myself doing it. So I was excited, I was really excited and to go out there first game ever versus one of the greatest rivalries in college basketball and been a part of so many games was kind of surreal, but obviously disappointed that we lost.”
Despite the obvious excitement to sit in the big chair, Hopkins once again placed devotion over ambition, constantly restating his debt to Boeheim.
“I don’t know if you saw, we had his seat empty next to us,” said a choked-up Hopkins. “He’s always with us at the end of the day. He built us, built the program. I wanted this one for him tonight.”
Obviously for Hopkins, who was part of the national championship coaching staff in 2003, Boeheim is not just his predecessor, former coach, or work colleague, but something much more.
“Imagine someone came and said that you can’t talk to your father for a month and he lives down the street,” he explained. “That’s tough but we’ll get through it. We’ve been through a lot. But I can tell you one thing, Coach B is one of the greatest people when dealing adversity and as a coach in coaching my first game, it’s not the ideal situation but it is what it is. I would love to be able to call him and ask him what he thought as a mentor.”
The absence of Boeheim, who never shied away from vocalizing his contempt for Georgetown, and replacement with the far more placid Hopkins, has the potential to drastically alter the atmosphere of the rivalry, but Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson III doesn’t see it that way.
“Nope,” said Thompson, when asked if it was be strange to play a Boeheim-less Syracuse. “Syracuse was still on the chest. It did not feel odd at all.”
Thompson, who had faced Boeheim and Hopkins at least twice each year since taking the helm at Georgetown in 2004 until Syracuse departed from the Big East in 2013, praised the new interim head coach and emphasized his contribution to the Syracuse program over the past few decades.
“Mike has been sitting on that bench for over half his life and so it’s not like he’s going to try to reinvent the wheel,” said Thompson. “He’s going to do what he understands and what he knows how to do and what he’s learned.”
While the return of the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry experienced no hesitation in the renewal of old hostilities, it still remains to be seen whether the bitterness directed at the vocal Boeheim will ever be completely redirected to his quiet successor.
“Inevitably you guys are going to start comparing him to Jim,” said Thompson. “That comes with the territory. He’s prepared, he knows what to do. A lot of what they do he’s had input and thoughts as the time has gone on. It’s not going to be, I don’t think, a huge transition for him. I think that slide over is going to be pretty seamless.”
Even if the transition for Syracuse in terms of basketball will be “seamless,” the transition of the rivalry can only be speculated. Though if the crowd at Verizon Center on Saturday was an accurate prologue, the hostility will find a way to transition just fine.