Before the teams last met — in an NCAA Tournament Round of 32 game two years ago the Dayton Flyers won — Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim took special aim at one particular UD coach.
“You mean when he said something about me (wearing) orange underwear?” Flyers assistant Allen Griffin asked with a laugh.
Boeheim’s exact words were: “I know some place on him he’s got something orange. It’s not going to be in view, but his heart will be (orange) for sure.”
Griffin played 133 games for Syracuse, went to four straight NCAA Tournaments, started two years and was the team captain as a senior.
Later, he returned to the program for two seasons as an administrative assistant and over the years his ‘Cuse connections helped him get three other coaching jobs. That includes his current position at UD after Boeheim made a special call to Archie Miller back in 2011.
That’s why Boeheim took some pregame delight in teasing Griffin about wearing orange under that sharp suit he sported in what ended up a 55-53 Flyers victory.
“That was classic Boeheim,” Griffin said with a smile as he sat in his UD office the other day. “But naaah, it was all blue and red that day.”
So is there still orange in his wardrobe?
“I’ve just got a sweater or two,” he shrugged.
But after a couple of moments of silence — a time when truth took evasion to the hoop — he fessed up:
“I remember when Syracuse played at Cincinnati about three years ago. I was going to the game, but I didn’t want any of the coaches here to see me put on my sweater — it was blue with an orange SU on the front — so I put it on in the car.
“But Coach Ostrom (fellow UD assistant Tom Ostrom) had a friend at the game. And he says (to Ostrom), ‘Hey, I saw Griff at the game and he had on a Syracuse sweater and everything!’
“So the next day I’m coming to work and Coach Ostrom says, ‘Griff, what did you wear to the game?’ I said, ‘Ah nothin’…I just wore what I had on at work.’
“But he goes, ‘Tell me the truth, Griff. Did you have a Syracuse sweater on?’
“And I’m like, ‘How did you know?’… I get my chops busted here all the time.”
This week, though, they’re also picking his brain.
After all, who better to help ready the Flyers for their NCAA Tournament opener against Syracuse today in St Louis?
Griffin has been charged to prepare the scouting report on 19-13 Syracuse and he’s fully embracing the task, in part because of something he learned from his old Hall of Fame coach.
Over the years, Boeheim has become “almost like a father figure,” he said. “There was a lot of tough love with him in our relationship.
“And for this game I just know Coach Boeheim. He’s a feisty competitor and he’ll do anything to win against us. And I’m competitive, too. I won’t cut him any kind of break either. I learned that playing for him.
“I’ll do everything I can to help us win.”
Griffin grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
He said his mother died “of drug abuse and HIV” when he was in first grade. After that, he and his three sisters were raised by their grandmother, Martha Valdez, whom he calls “the strongest woman I’ve ever known.”
He first began playing basketball on a hoop fashioned from playground monkey bars.
“You know how you can reach from one bar to the next?” he said, “Well, we made the middle ones into our hoop. We had no backboard, nothing.”
He started to chuckle: “That’s probably why I couldn’t shoot!”
Playing there, he’d pretend to be Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who grew up in the same neighborhood and was such a bigger-than-life hoops hero to everyone that Griffin said “he was like a myth.”
Playing at Boys and Girls High School in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Washington averaged 35 points a game as a senior and was the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation before choosing Syracuse.
Using his trademark shake-and-bake move that froze defenders and allowed him to drive to the rim, he became one of the most electrifying players in SU history, drew record crowds to the Carrier Dome, had his No. 31 retired and became a first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets.
“He was like a super hero to me,” said Griffin, who is 14 years younger. “His older brother Beetle lived right across the street from me on Howard Avenue and he took a liking to me because he knew I was a pretty good young ballplayer in the neighborhood.
“He’d tell me stories how he’d go watch Pearl play in the Dome in front of 30,000 people. … And through it all I fell in love with Syracuse basketball.”
Playing at Paul Robeson High School, Griffin became an All-American and was recruited by all the Big East schools, but initially committed to UNLV.
“But I still felt empty and realized I had to take a visit to Syracuse to make sure I was making the right decision,” he said.
He ended up calling Orange assistant Louis Orr and was brought in for a game against Georgetown. There was a packed house, he sat between former SU stars Lawrence Moten and Derrick Coleman and watched guys on the court like Syracuse’s John Wallace and the Hoyas’ Allen Iverson.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I was hooked.”
As a sophomore, the 6-foot-2 Griffin started all 33 games for the Orange, but then junior year he was benched in favor of a bigger shooting guard.
“It was hard, really hard,” he said. “I remember walking around campus with a hooded sweater on for about a week. I was embarrassed … angry. I didn’t understand what was going on. I worked hard, I didn’t get in trouble off the court. I didn’t understand that sometimes you get caught up in numbers.”
He considered transferring until a longtime mentor in his life from back home — Sherman Edmiston — made him understand that if he adjusted and worked harder he could cope.
The following senior season, Griffin became Syracuse’s starting point guard and had his best year. The shining moment was a return home to New York City and a double-overtime victory against St John’s in Madison Square Garden. He played all 50 minutes, made 18 of 22 free throws and finished with 31 points.
“I had so many life lessons at Syracuse and that all helped me develop into manhood,” he said “That’s why it will always be a special place for me.”
After a year of pro ball in Slovenia, Griffin returned to the States and a Syracuse connection helped him get a teaching and coaching job at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. Then, after working two years on Boeheim’s staff, he went to St. Francis (N.Y.) as an assistant, went on to Providence — under former SU assistant Tim Welch — and finally to Hofstra with former UD assistant Mo Cassara.
And then came Boeheim’s call to Archie Miller.
Dayton ‘where he wanted to be’
Miller had just gotten the job — his first as a head coach — but had a last-minute defection on his newly formed staff when Adrian Autry, the former Syracuse player who had been coaching at Virginia Tech, decided to return to his alma mater when a job opened.
Boeheim, though, didn’t leave Miller in the lurch. He called to trumpet Griffin.
“When I heard there was an opening, I called Arch and said, ‘This is a guy who would be an absolute great coach for you,’ ” Boeheim said Thursday just before his team practiced here at the Scottrade Center for today’s game against the Flyers.
“I love Allen Griffin. He’s the best. The most unique thing (about him) is that he started as a sophomore and he had a pretty good year for us. But junior year I sat him and started somebody else and that normally (means) transfer or ‘I hate you! I’m not doing anything for you.’ But he worked right through it and ended up making big contributions.
“He is one of the best I ever had.”
Griffin said Miller brought him in for an interview thanks to Boeheim:
“I came out here and me and Arch kind of hit it off. Right then I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
The 37-year old Griffin has been at UD five seasons, which is longer than he’s been anywhere.
“The reason for that is that dude right down the hall from me here,” he said. “The reason is Arch. He’s a special, special dude to work for. He gets it.”
He said Miller — who has the Flyers in their third straight NCAA Tournament — succeeds because “he has blinders on. It’s all basketball with him. It’s about competing every day and getting better and that’s what our kids want.”
Griffin said he uses the lessons from his playing days and what he gleaned from Boeheim to help the players here.
And yet, he admitted it wasn’t easy the last time the Flyers and Syracuse played: “It felt a little bittersweet to me. I’ve got so many friends over there, they’re like family to me. I was going against people I love.
“But the sweet side was seeing our guys have success. We put in so much time and effort and afterward it was so joyful.”
And no one has more joy when the Flyers win than Griffin’s youngest son, Trey, who is 5 and lives with his mother in Florida, as does his oldest son A.J., a teenage football and basketball player.
“Trey though, he’s obsessed with the game of basketball and especially the Flyers,” Griffin said. “When Dayton loses he has a bad day.
“He knows everything about the team. He knows every player, from the walk-ons to the starters.
“In fact, outside of Scoochie (Smith), his favorite player is one of our walk-ons, Mike Schwieterman. When we played in Orlando, Schwieterman was dunking the ball during layup lines and Trey just fell in love with him.
“Now after every game he tells me, ‘Daddy, tell Coach Miller to put Mike Schwieterman in!’
“I’m telling you, he just loves the Dayton Flyers.”
No orange for him.
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