St. John's isn't St. John's anymore

In the past five seasons, Anthony Mason Jr.

In the past five seasons, Anthony Mason Jr. and St. John's has a record of 70-78. (Mar. 10, 2010) (Credit: Getty Images)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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The pre-existing condition stalling a certain college coaching search is the fact, as local basketball insider Tom Konchalski put it, "St. John's isn't quite St. John's anymore."

Reports that marquee names Billy Donovan and Paul Hewitt turned down the job served to reinforce a creeping awareness of the program's diminished status in a viciously competitive business. Plenty of other schools pay more money and provide more exposure in the 21st Century. The unwieldy growth of the Big East Conference - "It's not the Big East anymore; it's the Big All Over America," veteran Archbishop Molloy High School coach Jack Curran said - has buried St. John's, once a perennial title contender, somewhere in the middle of 16 teams.

Recruiting is increasingly difficult work, for plenty of reasons. And, as Curran quoted the late Frank McGuire, who coached St. John's to runner-up in the 1952 NCAA tournament, "You coach and I'll recruit and I'll beat you every time."

The 17- and 18-year-old players St. John's tries to romance "don't know the glory days" at the school, Konchalski said, when New York natives Chris Mullen and Walter Berry hoisted the team to a brief No. 1 ranking and went to the 1985 Final Four. "They don't even know who won the NCAA tournament two years ago. What they've grown up with were good teams like UConn, Villanova and Syracuse in the Big East."

Basketball palaces the equal of St. John's Madison Square Garden "home" now exist throughout the nation, and by the 2008-09 season, St. John's attendance had slipped to 100th in the country - roughly one-quarter the size of average crowds at Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Lou Carnesecca, for four decades a New York institution and veritable basketball godfather, has been retired for 18 years, causing deep-rooted ties in the basketball community to dry up. The unique $1,300-per-month stipends previously allowed St. John's players - considered a recruiting plus - was discontinued with the introduction of dorm living in 1999 at the school's Queens campus. ESPN has made the likes of Texas Tech as visible to the present generation of potential recruits, through regular TV fare, as St. John's.

Konchalski, a veteran of the high school scouting scene for more than 25 years and cited by New York Magazine in 2006 as one of the "most influential people in sports," recalled how the Garden "was where you aspired to go" for college basketball during the 1950s through the '80s. "It was Broadway and everything else was Off-Broadway. And right now Madison Square Garden is Off-Broadway. The only time the magic returns is for the Big East tournament - or when Duke has a game there."

New York kids, who overwhelmingly chose to stay home to play college ball until recently, now travel more, with so-called AAU teams that really are just summer-league teams. They are exposed, before college, to such outposts as Kansas or North Carolina. "A lot of things have changed the kids' mentality," said Curran, who has coached at Molloy for 52 years, "including wanting to get away. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. And sometimes is."

Because coaches - both in the AAU system and high school - can influence players' (and their parents') college decisions, Konchalski reinforced the notion that the St. John's head coach - whoever it turns out to be - must develop relationships. "And not exclusively with AAU or high school coaches," he said.

"This isn't rocket science. You make people feel good, feel welcome, feel important. Whether a coach had a top player or not, just the fact that he was always welcome, that's how Jay Wright built his success, first at Hofstra and now at Villanova. And Tom Pecora [who just left Hofstra for Fordham], too."

General consensus is that, during his seven years at St. John's, Mike Jarvis' inattention to AAU and school coaches, unless they were associated with elite talent, created at uphill battle for Norm Roberts in re-establishing the program's standing the past six seasons.

And, once St. John's vanished from the NCAA tournament picture, young players with short memories were less tempted to sign on. "Paul Hewitt looks at St. John's and says, 'This is a tough job. I'd have to start all over,'" Konchalski said. "St. John's needs a very good coach and a very good recruiter, to have kids consider St. John's a viable option.

"But it's so much harder to make up ground now in the Big East. When [current West Virginia coach] Bob Huggins was at Cincinnati and the Big East had just assimilated all the Conference USA teams, he said, 'The league is going to be the end of a lot of coaching careers.' "

And no boost to St. John's storied basketball history.