“This is Jim Boeheim, can I get on Brent’s show?”
“On The Block With Brent Axe” airs every weekday afternoon from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on ESPN Syracuse in Central New York. A fairly common topic for the show is the state of the Syracuse Orange basketball program, treated by locals with a reverence usually reserved for pro franchises in larger markets. Most often found at the center of that conversation is SU men’s basketball head coach and regional demi-god, Jim Boeheim.
Boeheim appears on this and other radio programs routinely during the season, so it’s not uncommon for him to call in for a regularly scheduled interview. What is surprising, however, is when Jim suddenly appears on line one when he wasn’t expected to, following a conversation that revolved around him.
That’s the situation Brent Axe and producer Seth Goldberg found themselves in on June 30 following a segment regarding Syracuse basketball recruiting. Just like that, Boeheim was on the phone and a day’s worth of pre-planning was out the window.
So, what, exactly, does that look like behind the scenes?
Before we get to that, we need to set the scene. Syracuse basketball may seem like a constant given Boeheim’s long reign but these are curious days for the program. A year removed from a surprise Final Four run, the Orange sputtered to a 19-15 finish in 2016-2017, culminating in an early exit from the NIT. Not surprisingly, stud sophomore Tyler Lydon announced his plans to go pro.
What was surprising, however, was the news that longtime assistant and head-coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins was bolting for the University of Washington. All of a sudden, the future of the storied program was in doubt (until 72-year-old Boeheim re-upped his contract) and SU found itself without its top recruiter. By the time Syracuse lost out on a handful of recruiting battles in May and June, the message boards and comment sections were already filling up with Orange fans wondering if the program was in freefall and whether or not Jimmy B still had it.
Specifically, failed recruiting battles was a big topic of the day on June 30 as Syracuse had just been spurned by 2018 recruit Cole Swider, who committed to Villanova. As Axe took to the airwaves, he knew that with the kettle boiling over, this was going to be something to discuss. Goldberg leaves most of the show gameplan to Axe, “because [he] has been doing radio in the area for nearly 20 years and has his routine down.” Meanwhile, Axe was busy boning up on the recruiting talk. What was happening on social media? How were Syracuse fans feeling? What were their gripes and fears? From there, the plan was set. However, when it comes to sports talk radio, plans are merely jumping-off points.
“There is really room in any show for tangents and surprises because realistically that’s what sports radio is about,” says Goldberg “You can’t go in and read from a script or have sentences written before the show begins. You need wiggle room and we have that because the only guidelines on most of our shows are that we need to fit four breaks in each hour. Nothing is too set in stone because there is always a chance something happens — trade, major commitment, firing/hiring — while we are on the air.”
With that in mind, Axe got to work attempting to calm down Orange Nation. He talked about the fickle nature of recruiting, how Syracuse’s system often didn’t align with recruiting service star-ratings, and how SU always seemed to find a way to attract quality talent in the end.
Axe and Goldberg knew a lot of people invested in Syracuse basketball were listening. But did they think the person most invested would be listening too?
“I know he listens,” says Axe. “It doesn’t change the way I do it other than to be prepared Jim will hear about it or even call in. Disagreements will happen. That’s fine. What I want Jim and any other coach or big sports figure listening to know is my opinion will be informed and they always have a chance to respond to it.”
When Axe finished his recruiting screed, the show cut to commercial. Moments before this, Goldberg had picked up the phone to hear Boeheim asking if he can go on the air. “Saying I was surprised is an understatement,” said Goldberg. “I just answered ‘of course you can go on Brent’s show’ and I put him on hold.”
Before approaching Axe, Goldberg took a moment to confirm with himself that the voice on the line was indeed Boeheim’s. “I was a little concerned we were being played at first. How many times does a clip go viral because a host thinks he’s got a guest on the line? But I knew the voice and made sure that Brent picked up in-studio during the break and he had the opportunity to check before we went on the air with it.”
Before that double-check, Goldberg entered the studio and told Axe, “I have a caller for you” and pointed at the call screener reading “Jim Boeheim.”
Axe’s first thought? “Uh-oh, what did I do?”
Axe’s second thought? “The rest of the show rests on this interview now. Chances are when Jim Boeheim speaks, especially in a surprise appearance, it’s going to be good.”
The show was coming out of commercial break and the moment of truth neared. Was Axe ready?
“Getting even just a four-minute head start with Jim was huge. You better know your stuff if you are going to go toe-to-toe with Jim. I felt confident the subject we were on was one I presented fairly.”
Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” faded in. The announcer welcomed listeners back to the show. Axe reminded everyone what they were listening to and what stations they were listening on before starting his intro. “You know, you never know who’s out there in radio land listening and who wants to call in. It’s always a pleasure to welcome on the program, ladies and gentlemen, Syracuse basketball head coach Jim Boeheim.”
The moment of truth was here. Was Brent in for an afternoon of playing verbal defense? Would Boeheim add him to the list of people he’s called an idiot over the years?
“You know, I was riding home listening and, I’ll tell ya, I had to call and tell you how really right on you were with your analysis of what recruiting’s about.”
— Brent Axe (@BrentAxeMedia) July 5, 2017
From there, Boeheim detailed his thoughts on basketball recruiting, how it’s not always about “name players,” and how it’s something of a crapshoot in the end. Knowing that Jim was here to play ball, Axe could not only give Boeheim his platform but also start thinking about where to steer the conversation now that he had the person his audience most wanted to hear from.
“People like to hear about the lighter side of Jim Boeheim,” says Axe. “During the season, he’s locked in and we don’t hear or see much of that. When I realized the tone of the interview was going to be a good one, it allows it to become more of a conversation versus a list of solicited opinions.”
For a radio host in Central New York, this opportunity is like Christmas in July. After they were done talking recruiting, Axe got Jim to open up about his thoughts on next year’s SU squad (“I think we’ll be better defensively.”), Tyler Lydon getting drafted to the Denver Nuggets (“A tough nut to crack cause Denver has a lot of forwards.”), Tom Crean’s comments about how Lydon can’t shoot (“I don’t think Tommy Crean did his homework.”) and Carmelo Anthony’s status with the Knicks (“It’s not Carmelo’s fault they’re not winning…I’d love to see him get to a good team.”).
Meanwhile, Goldberg was on the other side of the glass thinking about how this impromptu segment is going to affect the rest of the show from here on out, not only for his host but for himself.
“Brent typically schedules his show to have interviews at 20 after the hour. In the 4:00 hour, he usually does the same segment each day following the interview, called “Hot Takes,” where he’ll run through three or four shorter topics. The day Boeheim called was a bit different, we had an interview off the top of the show, then a monologue at 4:20, then Boeheim calls. “Hot Takes” goes out the window.”
“I’m always most worried about the clock,” added Goldberg. “If we run over early in the hour, then it messes up the timing for the hard out at the end, and it’s all connected and all influenced by what you do from the start.”
As for where the show would end up going after the call, Axe summed it up by saying, “Jim Boeheim calling out of the blue to say I was right about something. You beat that dead horse with a stick! Especially on a Friday before a holiday weekend.”
All was well that ended well. Boeheim got to speak his mind about something that was clearly bothering him. Axe got a memorable segment during the summer doldrums. Goldberg got a smooth call-in that improved the show. Of course, it doesn’t always go that way and Brent remembers at least one time when he took a call on-air from Boeheim that ended up going in a different direction.
“There was a game during the 2010-2011 season where Syracuse got blown out by Seton Hall. I said on the radio the next day that the Orange quit in that game. So, the next day I get a call from Jim’s secretary about 10 minutes before I hit the air saying he wants to come on with me. I ask her what he wants to talk about and she replies ‘something you discussed on the air.’ While I had my suspicion of what the subject matter was, I had to check. So I get Jim on the phone and I’ll never forget how this went.
“Hey, Jim. You are welcome to come on. Just curious, what is it you want to address?”
“Brent, do I ask you what the questions are before you come to one of my press conferences?”
“Okay, great. Talk to you in 10 minutes.”
“The on-air conversation turned out fine. Jim disagreed with my stance. I didn’t back down but at least he told his side.”
The two have gone head-to-head on numerous occasions, perhaps never more famously than when Boeheim came into the studio with Brent to take him to task over his reaction to Syracuse football coach Paul Pasqualoni’s firing in 2004. “What I learned that day and always keep in the back of my head is that Jim loves a good fight. His competitiveness and press conference confrontations have been well-documented, but you have to be in one of those fight to know what it’s like.”
As for the fact that Boeheim not only listens to what the media has to say about him but knows he can call in to critique the conversation, both Axe and Goldberg agree that it goes to show that when a coach or athlete says they don’t care what the media thinks, they’re probably lying.
“I think that’s Jim,” says Axe. “He’s always been sensitive to what is said and written about his team and I think that’s refreshing. All these coaches that say they don’t pay attention to media? That’s nonsense. At least Jim is upfront about it.”
Adds Goldberg, “I can’t say I’m surprised that he listened, but I am surprised he’d actually call.”
That’s Jim Boeheim for you, always keeping media folks on their toes.