Bernie Fine has spent 30 seasons building bonds with SU players
 
 
By Zach Berman Daily Orange

Syracuse, NY (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Bernie Fine sits back in his chair and points at the top row of plaques on his office's wall -- a wall featuring as many as 110 plaques of former players, although the number is ever-changing because he keeps adding more. He points to each player along the line telling the last time he spoke with the player or saw the player.

"...Eddie passed away. That's Roosevelt. Harold is my neighbor. Kenny Davis is Josh Wright's uncle..."

He reels it off quickly, with a grin similar to a proud father telling where his sons are. Fine's a father of three and talks glowingly about his family, too, but he also has a special paternal affinity for the players who've come through Syracuse's program.

Fine is SU's associate head coach and the longest-tenured assistant coach in college basketball, coaching his 30th season at his alma mater. But his influence isn't measured in years as much as it is the plaques on his wall, most of the players Fine still keeps in touch with.

"I don't think there's anyone who keeps in touch with as many players as I do," Fine said. "It's unique because you don't have coaches or assistants who stay at a school this long."

He said spending 30 years at Syracuse wasn't the plan. Fine wanted to be a head coach, still does. There have been opportunities to run his own program but was careful not to confuse any move with the right move.

More is involved in becoming a head coach than simply a press conference and a new contract. It's often a difficult transition for the coach's family, and there are too many examples of vagabond coaches who uproot wife and kids for a steppingstone job, only to move them again in the next couple of seasons when a better job opens. The coaching ladder could be rewarding for the coach, but it takes a toll on those around him.

Fine wanted to make sure he didn't fall into the trap, but 30 years later, he wonders whether he was too selective.

"I wanted to be a head coach, and I probably should be one," Fine said. "I had opportunities to leave, but the schools I had interest in weren't interested in me and the schools that had interest in me, I wasn't interested in them. And I didn't want to have to make multiple moves. I had young kids and I didn't want to have to keep moving them from place to place."

There was also loyalty involved. Fine was a student-manager when Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim played at SU with NBA Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing. When Boeheim became head coach in 1976, he hired Fine and Rick Pitino as assistants.

Pitino's career is an intriguing juxtaposition to Fine's. Since he left Syracuse, he's achieved almost unparalleled success. But he's held six different jobs, uprooting his family on different occasions. Boston. New York. Providence, R.I. New York. Lexington, Ky. Boston. Louisville, Ky. The itinerary is extensive, a route that most coaches are willing to pay to reach a great job. But Fine was looking for a place to stay.

Plus, Syracuse is his alma mater and through the years, Fine's developed a niche at the university and in the area -- he's the president of the Central New York Kidney Foundation; a faculty adviser for a social fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu; an adviser for an honor society, Phi Kappa Alpha and involved with the Boys Club and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

And then there were the big men. Fine's not abnormally tall. He's big, and played inside when he was younger, but he said he became the "big man coach" because Pitino coached guards. He embraced the role, though, becoming innovative, trying different big-man drills and continuing to add to the repertoire. When recruiting, he likes to go to the high school practices to watch how the players practice. But he also watches how the big men learn.

Fine uses pads, gloves, oversized basketballs, heavy basketballs. Syracuse center Darryl Watkins said the peculiar tactics have made him effective with both hands. Former Syracuse player and assistant coach and current Seton Hall head coach Louis Orr also raved about Fine.

"He's a fundamentalist," Orr said. "Just in terms of the detail work, keeping the ball up, ballhanding, passing, blocking out. He builds on basics. He believes in repetition."

There are hits and misses like with any coach. But criticism is a funny thing. It's easy for an outsider to look at statistics, but it doesn't do justice to diligence of the coach and player working to improve. Fine said the key is the player has to do the work. There's only so much a coach can do and because of NCAA regulations, there's only so much time a coach can spend with a player.

One of his greatest achievements was Rony Seikaly, a center who came to Syracuse from Greece in 1985 without ever playing organized basketball. Fine was tough -- perhaps too tough by his admittance -- but he developed Seikaly into one of the NBA's more reliable big men.

"I was harder on Rony than any player we ever had here," Fine said. "I speak to him all the time. Over Christmas time, I went to see him. I said, 'Rony, the one thing I'm sorry about is I feel I was too hard on you.'

"He said, 'You know, I really appreciate what you did. And if you didn't, I probably wouldn't have played in the NBA and had the career that I did.' That makes it worthwhile."

But it's not just being tough in practice with Fine. It extends to the entire college experience. It's attending class, showing up to study table. Fine is in charge of the players off the court.

"If they miss class, they have to deal with me. If they're late to study table, they have to deal with me," Fine said. "I'm not on a power trip, I just feel it's important. I sit down the parents, I tell them, 'If your son comes to Syracuse, he's going to graduate with a degree.' I feel strongly about that."

Orr learned from Fine how to deal with players and how to communicate a message. He said Fine still writes Orr's mother letters, filling her in on what's happening in Syracuse.

"Bernie is a true Syracuse patriot," Orr said. "He's been faithful to alums, employees, coaches. He's done a tremendous thing at the school. He cares about the players and the program and has always been faithful to me."

And that's what it comes back to. Once you're in the circle, you're in to stay. He's faithful to the Syracuse program.

But he still yearns for his own shot. Fine's 60 years old, but still thinks he can find a good job. Boeheim agreed. Fine said there was a school interested last season -- he didn't specifically mention any school, but published reports linked Fine to the Florida Atlantic job which eventually went to former Notre Dame and North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty -- and he said he'll look again. And wherever he ends up -- if anywhere -- you can expect a tough, experienced coach who has a sense of the full experience of college basketball. If you need any proof, just look at his office's walls.

"It's not just the basketball. I feel when they come here, I'm their mother and their father," Fine said. "I'm either going to need a bigger office or retire because I'm running out of rooms to put pictures up."

(C) 2006 Daily Orange via CSTV U-WIRE


 
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