No quick fix for Johnnies

The changing climate of college basketball will make St. John's job of restoring its program tougher.

Updated: February 8, 2004, 11:48 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

St. John's has fallen into a basketball abyss. The Red Storm are coming off maybe the worst basketball scandal in its history, with players breaking curfew, heading to a strip club on a road trip to Pittsburgh and taping sexual escapades on a cell phone -- all of which led to the dismissal of one player, and likely two others.

St. John's may have history on its side, but just because the Red Storm is a proud program with great memories, it doesn't mean recent woes will automatically be erased.

Earlier this season Willie Shaw was busted for marijuana possession while hanging out with former Johnnie Marcus Hatten. Shaw was dismissed. And then former coach Mike Jarvis was fired six games into the season. Even before these events, apathy reigned supreme in Madison Square Garden when only a few thousand St. John's faithful showed up for the season opener against Marquette.

So, to catch up, you've got a sex scandal at New York's most famous athletic Catholic school, a coach fired before the Big East season -- the first time that has ever happened in the 25-year history of the conference -- poor on-campus facilities, a bad team, and a feeling in the city and beyond that the program is now irrelevant.

Now 0-9 and on its way to 0-16 in the Big East, St. John's will take several more hits as it plays out the season with just eight players.

Yes, even without the fallout that's sure to follow the sex scandal that resulted in the expulsion and suspension of five players, St. John's (5-15) was in for an uphill fight.

And, come the 2005-06 season, the Johnnies will be among the teams likely buried in the new Big East expansion. With Marquette, Louisville, Cincinnati and DePaul among the five teams joining the Big East in two seasons, St. John's will find itself pushed even further down the conference's food chain.

Finishing in the top half of a 16-team conference, two seasons removed from what may turn into an 0-16 Big East campaign, is highly unlikely.

Clearly, the Red Storm is facing a critical time in its basketball history. But while the past week's events won't be easily forgotten and will impact the program on the court this season and in seasons to come, the misdeeds by St. John's players will ultimately have less of an impact than who will be hired to guide the next group of Johnnies out of the storm the old Johnnies created.

Simply put, the Red Storm is irrelevant nationally. No one outside the city would have noticed what the Johnnies were doing had it not been for the firing of Mike Jarvis in December and the off-court events in Pittsburgh last week. Both stories made headlines, while the Storm's season spiraled downward. St. John's may still get national television games (vs. Duke or UCLA), but that's because of New York's population, not the ranking or popularity of the team.

This means that the St. John's coaching vacancy had become less than desirable even before the program was rocked by the sex scandal. Add to that the fact that the university's on-campus facilities still rank as one of the worst in the conference. Sure, the Johnnies play a number of games at Madison Square Garden, but that's about the only lure for local players or those from out of the area. And these days, playing in what's become a cavernous Garden isn't so special.

For whoever is hired, the dismissals will just make the scholarship situation another tough sell. Let's assume the Red Storm bring back the five scholarship players still on the roster -- sophomore Daryll Hill, freshman Lamont Hamilton and freshman Tyler Jones, as well as Mohamed Diakite and Curtis Johnson (each are listed as seniors, but have a medical redshirt season remaining). Well, under the 5/8 scholarship rule, the Red Storm would be allowed to sign five players in this recruiting class. One problem, St. John's already has signed two junior college players. And with the spring pickings slim, the new coach might not want to waste the scholarships if he has to rush to recruit in the spring.

If that's the case, the Red Storm can't expect the 2004-05 season to be much better than this season. Apathy will run even more rampant in New York as the Storm takes up to three seasons simply to get its roster back up to the maximum 13 scholarships.

St. John's administration has already proven that it is going to be hands-on, and is quick to fire coaches (see: Brian Mahoney, Fran Fraschilla and now Jarvis). You could argue the naming of coaches, or the firing of them, is its prerogative. Either way, the administration is certainly going to have even more control over the coaching staff in the wake of the embarrassing events in Pittsburgh.

Just who would want this gig? Any coach already at an established program would be foolish to leave. So, don't expect a coach in good standing with his current employer to bolt for St. John's.

Sure, St. John's fans have a few names on their wish list. The faithful would love to see Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt on the St. John's bench. But the Red Storm missed its chance to get Hewitt when he was at Siena. They hired Jarvis instead, and Hewitt went on to Georgia Tech where he has one of the top programs in the country's toughest conference.

Providence's Tim Welsh has one of the toughest jobs in the Big East, but he loves his athletic director and is extremely comfortable at the school. He has turned around the Friars and made them one of the top five programs in the Big East. Taking a lateral move, at best, wouldn't make sense for him at this point in his career.

Coaches like Rhode Island's Jim Baron, who has proven to be one of the best at rebuilding programs, Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez, Boston University's Dennis Wolff and Davidson's Bob McKillop would all be making a move up, so taking a chance by going to St. John's if offered the chance wouldn't be a stretch.

Baron is in his first of a 10-year deal at Rhode Island and might have a hard time leaving the Rams in the middle of his latest rebuilding job. But all four of these coaches have strong ties to the New York area, which is a must for the next coach. This job has to be built from the inside out with a commitment to New York players first, and then sprinkling in outside talent. For that reason, we'll likely continue to hear the names of former coaches Matt Doherty (UNC and Notre Dame), P.J. Carlesimo (Seton Hall, Golden State and Portland) and Bobby Cremins (Georgia Tech), each of whom have New York roots.

As for tabbing a former alumnus like Mark Jackson? It would certainly make for a great news conference and cause plenty of buzz in NYC, but Jackson's lack of coaching experience would be too big a gamble for St. John's to take at this point. Naming a current Division I assistant, however, wouldn't be a bad move. Kansas assistant Norm Roberts has New York ties and proved he can consistently recruit the area by getting a commitment from Charlie Villanueva when Roberts was still at Illinois. (After giving the Illini a verbal commitment, Villanueva withdrew it and signed with UConn when Bill Self moved to Kansas.)This year, Roberts signed Russell Robinson out of New York for the Jayhawks.

St. John's might think it's above naming an assistant as its next head coach. That would be a mistake. Just look at Tom Crean's success at Marquette or Jamie Dixon's at Pittsburgh. Brian Gregory at Dayton and Mark Few at Gonzaga are also recent examples of assistants doing well in their first year as a head coach.

Whatever the Red Storm does, it must take its time. This season went wrong long ago, so making the right choice for the future and then backing the new man with all the resources he needs is a must. There is a new practice facility in the works, which will help. But the image of St. John's will only change if the character of the players and the staff are impeccable.

Oh, and the Johnnies must win. Or else see its history become more dated than it already seems.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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