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St. John's basketball: on Norm Roberts and job security

Coach Norm RobertsFrom the NY Times. They are a little late to the "questions persist" party that Dick "Hoops" Weiss of the Daily News and Lenn Robbins of the Post have already joined. Robbins has even met some fans of the team to get their perspective. Hell, even the news in South Carolina knows St. John's fans are ticked off about the lack of success. Part of the Times' article:

But beneath the veneer of support, a growing concern seemed to lurk, touching even ardent fans.

Ten days before, St. John’s lost to Georgetown by 32 points, its worst-ever Big East defeat. A broader examination of the program also reveals unsightly results. The Red Storm (10-12, 4-7) is in danger of missing the conference tournament for the fourth time in five seasons. It produced one winning record in the previous four seasons, when it finished 16-15 last year.

Kevin Kamper, a 42-year-old from East Meadow, N.Y., summed up the fans’ concern before the game.

"It’s no fun to come here anymore," he said. "I’ve been a season-ticket holder for 20 years. It’s not just the losing. It’s just getting stomped and being at the bottom of the Big East. They’ve got to get some kind of coaching here and recruit top players. I get the feeling that the administration just doesn’t care."

From the university’s perspective, there have been victories along the way.

When Roberts took over as the coach three seasons ago, St. John’s was in shambles, coming off self-imposed sanctions after cash payments to a player and a rape accusation that proved false but led to suspensions for several players. Restoring integrity was the most immediate goal.

Roberts has succeeded on this front, running what has been widely regarded as a clean program despite no previous head coaching experience at the Division I level.

But the victories have not come quickly. St. John’s, which is under N.C.A.A. probation until May, went 9-18 and 12-15 in his first two seasons. In Roberts’s fourth season, the pressure on him to produce better results on the court is mounting exponentially.

"When you’re at a program like St. John’s that has the tradition it has and plays in the Big East Conference, there’s pressure to win," Chris Monasch, the St. John’s director of athletics, said Friday. "I realize that. Norm realizes that. I don’t react to the pressures in the short term. We’ve got to look at the big picture as far as what we’re trying to accomplish."

Monasch said that he thought the program was making steady progress and noted that the team’s record had improved in each of Roberts’s first three seasons. "People have to realize how down this program was," Monasch said.

St. John’s has seven true freshmen and eight first-year players over all, including Justin Burrell, a forward from the Bronx. Roberts revamped the roster after last season as five players graduated and three transferred. Roberts was able to recruit Burrell, but other Big East teams routinely poach the city’s best talent, making a turnaround tougher for St. John’s.

The freshmen may outlast Roberts. Monasch said he expected and hoped Roberts would be the coach for the long term, but he would not discuss whether plans were in place to extend Roberts’s five-year contract, which expires next season.

How St. John’s performs next season may ultimately determine Roberts’s fate. Some fans have already rendered a verdict. During a game against Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 23, fans chanted, "Fire Norm!" St. John’s dismissed its previous three coaches: Brian Mahoney, Fran Fraschilla and Mike Jarvis.