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Syracuse's Mike Hopkins never stops learning

Saturday - 5/4/2013, 3:04am  ET

JOHN KEKIS
AP Sports Writer

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) -- 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.

And 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."

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