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Chasing Ghosts: When will St. John’s revisit past glory?

Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the “Chasing Ghosts” series continues with St. John’s, where Lou Carnesecca picked up the mantle from legendary predecessors like Joe Lapchick and Frank McGuire, establishing a formidable program just as the Big East Conference and college basketball itself exploded in tandem.

History | Roundtable: How St. John’s lost its way
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana


St. John’s Red Storm

Icon: Lou Carnesecca

Seasons coached: 1966-1970, 1973-1992
Key accomplishments: 526-200 (.725) record, 18 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four (1985), 7 Big East championships (5 regular season, 2 tournament)

“When St. John’s is doing good, it gives everyone in the city a lift, because if you’re a player it says something about you, because you’re part of it. When St. John’s is going bad, everyone’s depressed.” — Former St. John’s guard Mark Jackson, to New York Magazine, in 2005

“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes things about coaching at St. John’s that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.” — Fran Fraschilla to the New York Post in 2001

“This is St. John’s. We have Madison Square Garden. Pay $3-4 million and get yourself a coach that’s going to win.” — Vitaminwater founder and St. John’s alumnus and booster Mike Repole, on WFAN Radio in April


Ranking the Carnesecca chasers

8. Kevin Clark (interim), 4-17 in part of 2003-04 season — Clark inherited the program when Mike Jarvis was fired six games into the 2003-04 season. Clark didn’t win, and also did little to evade the dark cloud that had begun to follow the program. The nadir of the Clark era came after a Feb. 4 loss at Pittsburgh, when six players reportedly broke curfew, visited a strip club and brought a woman back to the team hotel for sex. She was later charged with prostitution, attempted extortion and filing fictitious reports for accusations made about the players. All six players were disciplined for the incident, and the team finished what would become a 6-21 season with only eight players, including four walk-ons.

7. Mike Dunlap (interim), 11-17 in part of 2011-12 season* — Dunlap was pressed into service for the majority of the 2011-12 season, as head coach Steve Lavin missed all but four games while he recovered from prostate cancer. Despite the efforts of Big East Rookie of the Year and subsequent first-round NBA draft pick Maurice Harkless, St. John’s ended the season with just six scholarship players and was not a factor in the Big East race. Dunlap was subsequently hired as head coach of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, and is set to begin his sixth season as the head coach at Loyola Marymount in 2019-20.

*All of St. John’s results during the 2011-12 season are officially credited to Lavin.

6. Norm Roberts (2004-10), 81-101 (.445) — Roberts, a Queens native and longtime assistant under Bill Self, was brought in to stabilize the program following the turbulent end of the Jarvis era. Roberts succeeded on that level, but he simply didn’t win enough, with an NIT appearance in his final year standing as the high-water mark of his six-season tenure. “Norm has restored integrity to our basketball program,” then-AD Chris Monasch said upon Roberts’ firing. It should be noted that the senior-laden core of the team that returned to the NCAA tournament in 2010-11 under Steve Lavin was recruited and had been developed by Roberts. “I was just really happy for those kids,” Roberts later reflected. “Those kids came to St. John’s when it wasn’t fashionable and those kids stuck together.”

5. Brian Mahoney (1992-96), 56-58 (.491), 1 NCAA tournament — Mahoney had been serving as Carnesecca’s top assistant when the boss stepped down at the end of the 1991-92 season; Mahoney was handed the reins after reported targets like Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins and Vanderbilt’s Eddie Fogler declined interest. Mahoney’s first team reached the NCAA tournament but things went south from there, as the program finished in the bottom half of a loaded Big East in each of his final three years, despite the presence of future pros like Felipe Lopez, Zendon Hamilton and Roshown McLeod. Mahoney was asked to resign following the 1995-96 season, and subsequently worked in the university’s alumni relations office.

4. Chris Mullin (2015-19), 59-73 (.447), 1 NCAA tournament — If the face of the St. John’s program isn’t Carnesecca, then it’s Mullin, the Hall of Famer who starred in the team’s run to the 1985 Final Four. Although he didn’t restore the program to its previous heights in what was his first coaching job at any level, Mullin helped reestablish the brand, guiding the Red Storm to the 2019 NCAA tournament (they fell to Arizona State in the First Four) and attracting high-level recruits and impact transfers to Jamaica. While the Mullin coaching era was a bit of a mixed bag, he arguably left the program in better shape than he found it.

3. Fran Fraschilla (1996-98), 35-24 (.593), 1 NCAA tournament — The Fran Fraschilla era at St. John’s remains a tale of “what might have been.” Fraschilla, the ultra-successful former coach at Manhattan, had the Johnnies back in the NCAA tournament in his second year after taking over for Mahoney, and successfully recruited top talent like Ron Artest and Erick Barkley to meld with existing stars Lopez and Hamilton.

But a clash with the university administration led to Fraschilla’s firing: Fraschilla showed interest in a vacancy at Arizona State, angering school president Rev. Donald J. Harrington, who interpreted that interest as attempted contract leverage. Fraschilla, now a college basketball analyst with ESPN, subsequently served as head coach at New Mexico for three seasons.

“I wish I had been mature from the standpoint of it was never going to be a good fit for me and I should have recognized that,” Fraschilla later said of his tenure at St. John’s. “I never had a desire to be the head coach at St. John’s.”

One season after his departure, a St. John’s team largely recruited by Fraschilla reached the Elite Eight under Jarvis, still the team’s best showing of the post-Carnesecca era.

2. Steve Lavin (2010-15), 92-72 (.561)*, 2 NCAA tournaments — Lavin, the former UCLA coach who was hired away from a broadcasting role at ESPN in 2010, continues a theme among St. John’s leaders of the post-Carnesecca era: He did some good things, just not consistently. The good included Lavin molding Roberts’ players into an NCAA tournament team in his first year (can you imagine a new coach convincing a team full of seniors to stay, much less cohere into a winner, in 2019?). Lavin also guided a team full of “his own players” to the NCAA tournament in 2015.

The bad included the lack of an NCAA tournament win for a guy who was a second-weekend fixture while at UCLA, and an inability to fully deliver on the “master recruiter” tag that followed Lavin from Westwood. (In fairness, some of the recruiting momentum ground to a halt when Lavin was stricken with prostate cancer in 2011, and the coach was forced to spend time away from the program.) Ultimately, Lavin’s legacy at St. John’s appears to be that of a charismatic, well-liked coach who was a credit to the university but could not quite get the program to turn the corner.

*Record includes 28 games in which Lavin was on medical leave following his recovery from prostate cancer during the 2011-12 season. All of St. John’s games during the 2011-12 season are officially credited to Lavin.

1. Mike Jarvis (1998-2003), 110-61 (.643), 3 NCAA tournaments — The mention of Jarvis is certain to inflame passions among St. John’s fans of a certain age. The best on-court moment of the post-Carnesecca era still belongs to Jarvis, who led the Johnnies all the way to the 1999 Elite Eight, where they were upended by Ohio State. But the Jarvis era ended so badly — public squabbling between coach and university administration about program resources, off-court incidents involving players and ultimately NCAA penalties due to payments to player Abe Keita that spelled the vacating of 40-plus wins and a postseason ban — that it washed away any positive sentiment, and then some.

Jarvis’ ouster six games into the 2003-04 campaign was the first in-season firing in Big East history, and the damage from the Jarvis storm would linger for the remainder of the decade. Jarvis subsequently spent six seasons as the head coach at Florida Atlantic.

“Due diligence led us to believe Mike was the right person, and Mike had some great success in the early years, and all of you I’m sure have some insights on why it didn’t continue to be that way,” Rev. Harrington said following Jarvis’ departure.

N/A. Mike Anderson, first season at St. John’s — Less than a month after being fired as head coach at Arkansas, and after what was largely derided by outsiders as an unfocused search by St. John’s, Anderson was hired to succeed Mullin on April 19. Anderson brings a record of 369-200 (.649) with nine NCAA tournament appearances in 17 seasons at UAB, Missouri and Arkansas to Utopia Parkway.


Roundtable: How St. John’s lost its way

The thinking goes like this: You have to recruit New York City to succeed at St. John’s, and if you recruit New York City, you can win big. Let’s start here: In 2019, is either of those things even true? Which of the coaches above has best proved, or disproved, that narrative?

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: It’s an antiquated idea. New York City high school basketball isn’t what it once was. There certainly have been high-level prospects coming out of the city — Cole Anthony was the best guard in the 2019 class. But a number of top prospects, including Anthony, end up leaving the city for high school, whether it’s to prep schools in New England or powerhouses like Oak Hill Academy (Virginia). So it’s not mandatory to recruit New York, and a team filled with players from New York City high schools might not be a national title contender anyway. Talent certainly wasn’t the issue with St. John’s the past couple of seasons; the program had arguably the most talent in the Big East last season. And it had one kid from New York City. Granted, it was Shamorie Ponds — but still, one player.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Last year, I asked Rawle Alkins, a former New York City prospect who had an offer from St. John’s, about this and he said leaving home was appealing (he played at Arizona). He also said he didn’t want to feel pressured to “save” a local team. Also, to Jeff’s point, Alkins played high school ball at Word of God Academy in North Carolina. I think NYC, Chicago and Los Angeles are similar in that their best players, in this era, have already traveled the country as teenagers and explored the world outside their vibrant hometowns. They don’t feel any obligation to stay home. So I think the more relevant statement is this: If you think you can win big only by recruiting New York City at St. John’s, then you should probably rent a condo rather than purchase a home. You probably won’t last. It’s not a great strategy.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The best recruiting class St. John’s has signed in the one-and-done era was the one Lavin brought to Queens in 2011: Sir’Dominic Pointer, Moe Harkless, JaKarr Sampson, D’Angelo Harrison, Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett. Those players were from North Carolina, New York (Queens), Ohio, Texas, Southern California and Southern California, respectively. Not all of the freshmen played that season, of course (Pelle never did play college ball), nor did the Red Storm ever really “win big” with this group of players. Still, the geographic spread of what was, on paper, an outstanding class suggests that good recruiting in the NYC area is desirable, naturally, but not necessarily mandatory.


Looking at the list above, what do you view as the biggest missed opportunity of the post-Carnesecca era?

Borzello: I went with Lavin in the UCLA chapter of this series, as I think he had the charisma and recruiting acumen to win in Westwood (or Queens). He could also be the answer here, but I’ll go with Mullin. Mullin was who “New York” wanted as the head coach of St. John’s. He had the name, he had the background, he brought buzz to the program. And once the Red Storm got a couple recruiting classes in, he certainly had the talent. But Mullin had never coached before and he also didn’t bring in any former head coaches on his staff to help for the final few years. He had Barry “Slice” Rohrssen for one year, but the two sides parted ways. Instead of replacing Rohrssen with another former head coach, Mullin simply promoted Mitch Richmond — who also had never been a coach. On another note, one could look at hiring Mullin instead of Dan Hurley in 2015 as a missed opportunity in itself.

Medcalf: Imagine a world where Ron Artest (who’d just led St. John’s to its most recent Elite Eight appearance during his sophomore year of 1998-99) hadn’t grown up with 14 family members living in a five-bedroom apartment and perhaps had decided to stay at St. John’s, which would’ve been a top-five team in the preseason polls, for another year. How would Jarvis have been viewed then? Maybe he’d be viewed as more than the coach who peaked too soon. He never reached the second weekend at St. John’s after that. Actually, no St. John’s coach has reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since Jarvis’ magical run in his first season at the helm. Two years later, he was 14-15. Later, Keita accused Jarvis’ staff of making illegal payments. Jarvis couldn’t build on what he started and off-the-court controversy didn’t help his cause.

Gasaway: Lavin. He signed that stellar 2011 recruiting class first shot out of the box when he landed at St. John’s. Everything seemed to be in place for things to finally turn around for the Johnnies. Then Lavin encountered health difficulties which, thank goodness, proved to be no match for the coach. A brush with serious health issues does tend to quite rightly make things like recruiting and X’s and O’s pale in importance. So, yes, when you look at the recent history of St. John’s, this was a key moment. But to Lavin, personally, this same moment was far more important.


It’s fair to say that no one saw Mike Anderson being the pick at St. John’s. What does the Anderson choice say about the quality of the job? What’s your level of confidence that he can succeed there?

Borzello: The St. John’s search was a mess. Bobby Hurley was the top candidate, but he elected to stay at Arizona State. It could have been a money issue; it could have been that he didn’t want to fight with his brother, now at UConn, over the same recruits every cycle. Either way, Hurley thought Arizona State was more desirable than St. John’s. Tim Cluess never gained any traction, despite his consistent success, a St. John’s playing career and status as a lifelong New Yorker. Porter Moser would have raised some eyebrows and decided to stay at Loyola-Chicago anyway. And so they landed on Anderson, who has never coached in the Northeast and was fired by Arkansas — a place he knew through and through.

As far as whether Anderson can succeed at a high level, it’s a risk. Anderson has always won games, but never won a conference title at Missouri or Arkansas, and has been past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament once since 2004. Plus, this is uncharted territory for him, literally.

Gasaway: Anderson’s hiring just three weeks after he was sacked by Arkansas tells me the St. John’s job does not currently possess the cachet that Red Storm fans would wish it to have. Now, fired coaches go on to have great second acts all the time. Look no further than Bruce Weber and Rick Barnes (and maybe Georgia’s Tom Crean someday soon). There’s also the fact that Anderson has won 65 percent of his games over a career that’s spanned 17 years. The man can coach, so the big unknown is simply whether he can maintain this same level of performance in a very different (polar opposite?) setting than the SEC footprint he has long called home.

Medcalf: I’m not sure how St. John’s approached this thing. Mullin, who by all accounts “made sense” when he was hired, didn’t work out. Maybe a move that doesn’t seem to make sense will pan out? Is that how they’re thinking? Good luck with that. I think Anderson is a solid coach who has had solid results throughout his career. But a solid stretch at St. John’s will lead to his firing in three years if he can’t go above that, I think. To me, Bobby Hurley’s rejection tells you everything you need to know about a job that seems perfect for the Arizona State coach. Lots of concerns with this gig. I’m not convinced Anderson is being set up to succeed here.


This was never a perennial Final Four program, even during the heart of the Carnesecca era. Still, zero NCAA tournament wins in 19 seasons is a pretty unhealthy drought for a program with St. John’s tradition and resources. What program or programs could St. John’s reasonably model itself after?

Gasaway: Not Villanova! National championships, plural, plus five conference titles in six years is not normal. But, as long as we’re shopping for benchmarks among Catholic schools in the Big East, how about Providence? The Friars also suffered through a 19-year drought in between NCAA tournament wins (1997 to 2016). No, those wins aren’t exactly rolling in now (PC’s one-point victory over USC in the 2016 round of 64 is the program’s lone tournament “W” this century), but Ed Cooley did take the team to five straight NCAA tournaments before the streak was snapped last season. I think St. John’s would be fine with hearing its name called on the next five Selection Sundays.

Medcalf: I’ll go to the other coast and pick Saint Mary’s. The Gaels have their own Villanova (Gonzaga) to deal with every year. And they’re positioned in a part of the country that’s full of talent, most of which picks other schools. Yet the Gaels have had their moments, with three league titles since 2011. But they also have their coach, Randy Bennett, who is entering his 19th season. Bennett, like Carnesecca, could coach for 20-plus years at one school. But St. John’s needs consistency within its leadership to duplicate those results. St. John’s has access to more talent and it plays in a tougher league, but evolving into the Saint Mary’s of the Big East, and gaining the stability that comes with that, would be an improvement from the chaos of the past 20 years.

Borzello: Villanova in its current form is a bit lofty. The Wildcats are another planet when it comes to recent success among Big East schools, and therefore hoping St. John’s gets on that level is far-fetched. With that said, Villanova went 17 years (1988-2005) without getting past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament before Jay Wright really got things going again. So is there a chance St. John’s can get there? Sure. And there also are similarities when it comes to playing in an NBA arena vs. playing on campus, not being the main attraction among the city’s sports, etc.

But what about Georgetown? The Hoyas have had more success, absolutely, but they too were at their peak in the 1980s. Georgetown is a better job right now, but there are similarities in terms of tradition, recruiting base, playing in a pro arena. Both have better programs than the likes of Providence or Seton Hall; they both should be getting to the postseason more often.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: North Carolina

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