St. John’s decided to move on from Mike Anderson after four years and announced the head-coaching news on Friday. It now must find a replacement. A decision on who will hold the university’s most important, highest-profile position is a critical one, especially now.
The men’s basketball program has been on a fairly steady decline for nearly a quarter-century since it reached the 1999 NCAA Elite Eight and won the 2000 Big East Tournament championship. It hasn’t been a straight-line nosedive — Steve Lavin’s 2011 and 2015 NCAA Tournament teams attracted national interest with Dwight Hardy and then D’Angelo Harrison leading the way — but the school now has a number of issues it could address with this upcoming decision.
The Red Storm have faded from the national stage. They haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game in more than two decades. Top players — especially from New York City — rarely choose St. John’s. The fan base is desperate for something to cheer about. And an entire generation has grown up with only stories about what St. John’s used to be.
If only there were a magic bullet, an elixir to cure all of the Red Storm’s ills.
Well, there is: Rick Pitino.
The third-year Iona coach is one of the best ever to come out of the New York area and is in the hunt to take his second Gaels team to The Big Dance. St. John’s, with a reputation for thinking first and foremost about winning the introductory news conference, needs to hire him.
Pitino, who was born in Manhattan and grew up on Long Island, is a remedy for so much. Right out of the gate, the Hall of Famer would make St. John’s a program of national interest.
St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg has wanted the Red Storm to play more games at the Garden. That they’ve been playing only a handful speaks to the interest not being returned. But a Pitino-coached team — with the relentless and entertaining style his teams play — would make a St. John’s game an event people would want to attend. There’d be no more Garden crowds of 9,000 and no more big turnouts in which as many cheer for the opponent as for the Red Storm.
A Pitino hire would bring the school many streams of much-needed revenue. Before he ever coached a game at Iona — where he signed a six-year contract extension in 2021 — he raised the funds to do a complete makeover of the athletics offices. There not only would be greater ticket sales and more invitations to play big television games, but an enthusiastic fan base would lend more support.
And the most important thing: Pitino’s arrival virtually ensures that the program will win. He’s taken three different college programs to the Final Four, including another Catholic school from the Big East, Providence. He won national championships at Kentucky and Louisville.
For any recruit, the chance to play for Pitino has to be tempting. Aside from the way his teams win, he has developed a slew of NBA players and has an astute understanding of what it takes to make it in the NBA from his time coaching the Knicks and Celtics.
St. John’s also would be doing the Big East and all of its members an enormous favor by hiring Pitino. The conference recently began negotiations with Fox on a new TV deal, and his presence on the Red Storm sideline would make Big East basketball an even bigger attraction across the country.
Pitino, 70, also is “of the Big East.” He was a young coach in its early years at original member Providence and was back in it again when Louisville was invited in from 2005-13. His teams won three of the last five Big East Tournament championships the Cardinals played in.
In assessing Pitino as a candidate, there may be a few things St. John’s would have to consider. There reportedly was a 2009 tryst that resulted in a pregnancy and abortion — revealed after the Kentucky woman was found guilty in 2010 of three counts of extortion (Pitino testified it was consensual). The end of his tenure at Louisville came after a scandal involving escorts and recruits; the NCAA faulted his staffers, not him, but did vacate the 2013 national title.
This may be the most important hire that St. John’s has made. The school is seeking to raise its profile under president Rev. Brian J. Shanley. One need only walk through Penn Station and see that from all the billboards.
Shanley was the president at Providence when it hired Ed Cooley, and he was the right coach for that moment in time.
For St. John’s, Pitino is the right person for this moment in time.