SYRACUSE, N.Y. | Jim Boeheim is slowly making his way into the sunset. After 37 seasons at Syracuse, he's just not sure how long it's going to be before he decides to do something else besides coach the Orange, a team he's elevated to the top rung of college basketball over the past four decades.
So far that's been OK for assistant coach Mike Hopkins, the man in waiting, as the university prepares to switch its affiliation from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference in July. His on-the-job training has been as good as it gets, even if it's lasted so long.
"I dream about being a head coach all the time," said the 43-year-old Hopkins, who joined Boeheim's staff in 1995. "I try to put myself in game situations and what you would do. When you've been doing it as long as I have as an assistant, I think you've got to stay sharp whatever which way possible. I'm a big learner. I watch coach all the time. I study like a student."
It's been just over a half century since Boeheim enrolled at Syracuse as a freshman, and the team's media guide devotes 12 pages to his legacy, which includes 920 victories, second all-time to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski among Division I men's coaches. Hopkins came aboard in 1989 as a freshman and became an assistant coach after briefly playing professionally, just as Boeheim did a little more than two decades earlier.
The California-born Hopkins has a good measure of stability — he's been the designated coach-in-waiting since 2007.
"He told me that one day he would want me to be the next guy," Hopkins said. "Coach is one of those guys — this is his, he built this thing and wants it to be a family member-type of deal.
"People start saying I stand like him with my arms hanging. You become a product of your own environment, and what better environment could you be in under one of the greatest coaches. I listen. I watch."
Still, Hopkins has had chances to go elsewhere and nearly did so, though perhaps torn between two notions — to remain and try to continue the legacy of his mentor or strike off to create a legacy of his own.
"I was an inch away (from leaving), but one of the reasons we do certain things is because we get more pleasure than the pain that you're going to have to face," said Hopkins, who interviewed at Southern California near the end of the regular season and received a ringing endorsement from Boeheim after Florida Gulf Coast's Andy Enfield was picked as the new head coach of the Trojans. "I think anytime you have your blood, sweat, tears, heart and soul in a place, it is extremely difficult. How will I tell him?
"On the other hand, you have to be smart. I think the decisions that I've made on the other opportunities — I've made the right decision. I think the biggest thing is if I felt like I wasn't growing anymore, that's when it's time. They always say it's like meeting your wife. You're just going to know."
The decision to remain at his alma mater has come perhaps with a little urging from the big guy, and Hopkins recently moved into a new home in the Syracuse suburbs with wife Tricia and their three children.
"I think he's in a good position," said Boeheim, who will be 69 in November. "I think he knows what he wants to do, and I think he's comfortable in that position."
It's been a love affair with Syracuse for Hopkins since he was a kid.
"When I really got into basketball, I became obsessed with Syracuse basketball," said Hopkins, who met Boeheim in the early 1980s at the coach's Big Orange Basketball Camp. "It was ESPN, it was Dick Vitale, it was Pearl Washington. You get home from school at 3:30, and at 4 o'clock you're watching Syracuse vs. St. John's. Then when you're done, you're going down to the park to shoot. Many times I was Pearl Washington. Every game was on television."
Ever the dreamer, Hopkins had visions of playing at that level but never thought it would happen. Playing high school ball at powerhouse Mater Dei in Laguna Hills, Calif., where wins have come with amazing regularity under coach Gary McKnight, boosted his chances.
"He was a strict disciplinarian, but you always knew how much he cared," Hopkins said of McKnight. "I wouldn't be the basketball player I was and have the opportunity to go to Syracuse. When Syracuse was recruiting me, he oversold me. He kept on them about taking me because he knew what my dream was."
A hard-nosed player, Hopkins became a crowd favorite at Syracuse with his hustle and ended up a two-year starter at guard and team captain, just like Boeheim.
"He was a very competitive kid, a skinny little runt," McKnight recalled. "He was one of those guys that just willed himself to be compared to the best. He's always been a fighter, and regardless of his skinny body, he was a tough guy — and he loved to win. He was a special kid."
Five years after he joined Boeheim's staff, Hopkins was given the chance to recruit and has since helped lure Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, Demetris Nichols, Paul Harris, Jonny Flynn, and Michael Carter-Williams, among others, to Syracuse.
"Mike has such a personality that it opens him up for recruiting," McKnight said. "He is amazing how he communicates with kids."
A statistics junkie, Hopkins still has John Hollinger's original Pro Basketball Prospectus, released just over a decade ago by the statistical guru.
What Hopkins brings to the team is evident, his booming voice usually echoing off the walls of the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center where the team practices. When 6-foot-9, 275-pound freshman Dajuan Coleman strolled into a session near the end of the regular season, Hopkins reached up and wrapped an arm around Coleman's neck and asked him to tell him one thing he had learned that day in class.
"He's been crucial. He's created a different energy level here over the last decade," said McNamara, now an assistant coach with the Orange. "His passion and energy are infectious. I think that's pretty obvious. If you're around him, he gets the most out of you every day."
If Hopkins could be better prepared, it's difficult to imagine. He's also been a part of Boeheim's USA Basketball staff and was a court coach for the U.S. Olympic team — coached by Krzyzewski with Boeheim as an assistant —that won the gold medal in London last year. He's also spent hours in clinics learning from Tim Grgurich, a longtime NBA assistant.
"Coach Boeheim has always treated me like I'm his son and put me in situations to become better each and every year," Hopkins said. "I think the toughest thing is going to be to be able to even come close to doing what this guy's done."
Just as important, Hopkins has learned all about crisis management on the job. Where he used to coach the Orange guards, he now schools the team's big men, a job that was held by former associate head coach Bernie Fine, who was fired in November 2011 after two ballboys accused him of molesting them in the 1980s.
Fine was never charged, but the fallout in the immediate aftermath of the sex abuse case at Penn State was severe. Still, Boeheim somehow managed to guide the team to a school-record 34 wins in 2011-12, falling one victory shy of the Final Four.
"That was 10 years of education in one, managing and motivating," Hopkins said. "Every year you think you've seen it all, and that year you saw a whole new chapter just in terms of what a great leader.
"Every meeting, everything that we went through, I would write down notes and I came up with a 250-page book on what we were doing, how decisions were being made, everything," Hopkins said. "It's kind of like my bible."
What remains going forward is Boeheim's decision. He emphatically stated after his Orange were eliminated by Michigan in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament that he would be back in the fall to coach Syracuse's first season in the ACC.
The man in waiting is more than ready — if and when that time comes.
"To be good at anything, you have to have talent and skill," Hopkins said. "To develop the skill of coaching is to constantly be watching it, constantly be challenging your mind and how you would do it, especially if you're not sitting in that seat. I've got to visualize myself as being over-prepared.
"Coach is so humble. Everything is about the team. When he can have such a deep focus on what needs to be accomplished today — every day — I think that's what separates the elite."