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St. John’s: a short history of coaching changes since Lou Carnesecca

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Or, “Break The Wheel”

Tartarus Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

St. John’s is still in the throes of a coaching search, one that seems to have culminated in an offer to Loyola-Chicago head coach Porter Moser [Read the Rumble profile]. Moser may seem like an odd fit, but he has had well-coached teams at Loyola, a Final Four (last season) and is well-regarded for his coaching acumen.

If chosen, would Moser be looked at in terms of the coaches that St. John’s could have hired? Can he “break the wheel”, as in, can he be the coach that builds something strong up at St. John’s, where the Red Storm have cycled through coaches every 4-6 years since Lou Carnesecca stepped down?

In that time, the St. John’s program has paid a lot of money to make coaches go away.

From Brian Mahoney (got a job in the Athletic Department), Mike Jarvis ($725K?) to Norm Roberts ($800K?) to Steve Lavin ($2M?) to assistant Barry Rohrssen ($400K?) and now to whatever is owed to Chris Mullin ($4M?), the Redmen/ Red Storm have chased many of the same names (and same concepts) to varying degrees of success.

For younger fans/ those who have not been around St. John’s coaching searches, there’s a long history of moves made, which often relate to the previous choice.

Keep in mind this, a short, incomplete history of coaching searches, working backwards, with each new coach’s selection in context of what St. John’s tried to change about the previous hire.

The New Era (unknown)

Travel Images Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Chris Mullin stepped down from the Red Storm after four seasons and one NCAA Tournament appearance. It was said that Mullin and St. John’s were discussing a contract extension, but that conversation ended with the two parties deciding to part ways; others say he simply stepped down.

The recruiting was decent, but St. John’s relied on transfers — the team never had the full allotment of 13 players eligible to play in any season. The team lost a number of players and gained a number of players through the transfer market, but few players had eligibility issues.

Mullin did not connect with some of the New York coaches, though he brought in commitments from a few NYC-area players (Shamorie Ponds, Nate Tabor). Insiders felt that the staff was not active in connecting with New York coaches, and were not as active as they could have been in pursuit of players in summer.

Bobby Hurley’s name was prominent in early conversations; Rick Pitino’s name was floated. Tim Cluess emerged as a possibility, and Porter Moser was a candidate late...

The Chris Mullin era (2015-2019)

Chris Mullin answering question
Chris Mullin answers a question at St. John’s Media Day in the preseason
Wendell Cruz

St. John’s let Steve Lavin go after five seasons & two NCAA Tournament appearances, both (uncompetitve) losses.

The recruiting was the big issue [we went into detail back then]; his teams were a little too close to newsworthy player issues (suspensions, players who did not qualify such as Adonis De La Rosa and Keith Thomastranscript issue).

Lavin did not connect with the New York coaches, but brought in nationally-touted talent in the beginning. At times, he was criticized for not being as active in pursuit of players in the summer, who decided St. John’s was a second choice (Isaiah Briscoe, Malik-Abdul Abu).

It was a way to accelerate the talent in the program, and it worked in the senior year of D`Angelo Harrison, Sir`Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene. But it didn’t work quite enough, and it took three years of stumbles, drama and a pair of NIT trips (one a bit embarrassing) to get there; pundits felt that the Red Storm often underachieved.

Lavin and St. John’s were discussing a contract extension, but that conversation ended with the two parties deciding to part ways. Or perhaps they were discussing the exit package, there are different stories. (Since then, Steve Lavin has excelled in broadcasting.)

Danny Hurley’s name came up, along with Steve Masiello (supposedly Tim Cluess’ name was floated as well). Rick Pitino’s name was floated; his son Richard Pitino was not interested, unknown if he was even asked. St. John’s swiftly chose Chris Mullin.

Mullin, though a high-risk pick because he had never coached before, was thought to be a unifier of the fanbase, a Hail Mary, an appeal to the hometown guy who was going to right the ship. He was going to hire a hardworking staff and be seen in all the gyms.

The Steve Lavin Era (2010-2015)

St John’s v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

St. John’s let Norm Roberts go after six seasons at the helm with two NIT appearances. The Red Storm played hard, but the results were not great; decent players were still a class below much of the stacked Big East.

Most people felt that Roberts did a lot of the job he needed to do — represent St. John’s well, not cut corners or bend the rules, which was characterized as being “too laid back”. Some of the New York coaches thought Roberts did not connect with the local AAU coaches. Roberts was active in pursuit of players who ultimately decided St. John’s was a second choice (Sylven Landesberg, Kemba Walker).

Allowed to recruit two JUCOs (for a total of eight players in the graduating class), Roberts couldn’t get over the hump, hanging on before falling in the NIT. The decision was swift. (Roberts has been an assistant at Florida and Kansas, since.)

Paul Hewitt interviewed; Billy Donovan was floated with a salary less than what he was making at Florida; Rick Pitino’s name came up in media conversation; Seth Greenberg’s name came up among others. St. John’s chose Steve Lavin ten days later, after a reported rejection from Paul Hewitt, who was said to be a “done deal”.

Steve Lavin was high-risk, given some of the tales that had dogged him, and high-reward. His first year was successful; Lavin was thought to be the coach who could step up the recruiting and being some higher-level basketball to St. John’s.

The Norm Roberts Era (2004-2010)

Big East Tournament: St. John’s Red Storm v Marquette Golden Eagles Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Interim coach Kevin Clark was quickly let go at the end of an awful season, playing walk-ons to finish the season. Many of the scholarship players were suspended after an incident where a stripper tried to extort them for money after the players went out after a loss at Pittsburgh.

The original head coach, Mike Jarvis, had been let go in December.

The Red Storm may have won some games. But each year brought more tumult, embarrassment, strife with the administration. A player got caught smoking weed on the streets in Queens; another roughed up his girlfriend, a swimmer at the school.

The feeling was that Jarvis was not in control and lacked responsibility. His comments about feeling like he was “raped” with respect to an NCAA investigation was also gross. There were a pair of incidents, speaking of that investigation, with borrowed cars. Some, to this day, will say he is arrogant.

The team was a little sloppier each season, though they did win an NIT behind the heroics of Marcus Hatten.

The recruiting was solid. Jarvis, despite being characterized as having no relationship with New York coaches, landed a number of solid New York players, including Elijah Ingram from Saint Anthony's in New Jersey, Omar Cook and Erick Barkley from Christ the King. he also landed Darius Miles, who chose to go pro instead.

Jarvis was also felt to always be looking around for other jobs, and wanted St. John’s to spend more money on things like charter flights and facilities to compete.

The decision was unprecedented and swift, fired after six games. (Mike Jarvis coached Florida Atlantic for six years with one winning season, and has since been out of coaching.)

Given months of lead time, St. John’s was searching for a coach until April.

Dave Leitao was considered. John Calipari was floated, as was Matt Doherty, who had a funder in his corner. Paul Hewitt was a sexy name. Rick Pitino quickly shot down any rumor he might come home to coach. Norm Roberts was seen as a hardworking, honest, clean candidate who could unite the various “wants” of the search committee.

Norm Roberts, considered a “young Paul Hewitt”, vowed to repair bridges with the New York AAU coaches, have high-character players, and though impossible to recruit all the NYC players, would be enough of a presence that there would not be a NYC who you couldn’t say St. John’s didn’t “bust their tail” recruiting.

Roberts was a slam dunk, despite his 24-84 Queens College record in his 20s, because he coached under Bill Self, was a grinder, and did things the right way.

The Mike Jarvis era (1998-2003)

Mike Jarvis watches the game Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Head coach Fran Fraschilla walked into a meeting. He walked out an ex-coach, despite having just lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in his second year.

The on-court product was improving, and Fraschilla recruited a squad that was the core of the Elite Eight team a year later — Ron Artest, Erick Barkley, Lavor Postell and Reggie Jessie.

Fraschilla’s intense style and, possibly, the use of interest in other programs to get a raise, led to the surprise departure. Fraschilla, who later said he never wanted to take the St. John’s job, coached at New Mexico* for three seasons until the Lobos let him go for not meeting their standards... and for nine transfers, some saying he was verbally abusive. (Fraschilla has become a fixture on ESPN, with deep knowledge about international basketball.)

Tom Penders and PJ Carlesimo were early names mentioned with the opening.

The interviewees included Paul Hewitt, Jim Baron, Bob McKillop. At the end a fellow named Mike Jarvis, who had succeeded in high school (with Patrick Ewing) and then with two colleges, shone through; he had a perennially-ranked mid-major program at George Washington.

Jarvis was an excellent hire, a star on the rise to compete with the big dogs of the Big East. Known as a teacher and winning coach, Jarvis was going to elevate St. John’s and shepherd the young talent to new heights.

The Fran Fraschilla era (1996-1998)

St. John’’s V Rutgers

Brian Mahoney, Lou Carnesecca’s longtime assistant in the glory days, was “asked to step down” in March after two seasons under .500, one season at .500, and his first season, the only winning one.

The biggest sin was the slow development of Felipe Lopez, the hometown McDonald’s All American who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school — at that time, a first for the magazine**.

After overtures to UMass coach John Calipari and Utah’s Rick Majerus, names of interest included Mike Jarvis of George Washington and Nets coach Butch Beard.

Fraschilla, a sometimes-brash coach from Brooklyn who was winning games at MAAC powerhouse Manhattan College, won 72% of his games up in the Bronx. The players were familiar with him form the recruiting trail; he knew New York and would get the good talent while playing a fun, up-tempo style.

Fran Fraschilla, though not the first choice, was a star in the making, with an NCAA Tournament upset and years of winning.

The Brian Mahoney era (1992-1996)

Brian Mahoney

The school knew the day would come when Lou Carnesecca would hang up the whistle. After a first-round loss to Tulane in the NCAA Tournament, Carnesecca chose to step away. With Malik Sealy and Robert Werdann departing, and at age 67, Carnesecca wished to pass the reins to Brian Mahoney.

The team was solid, though some commented on the conservative style of Carnesecca. The hope was that Mahoney could continue the good — keeping the job in the family, recruiting New York City — and adding some new wrinkles, pressing and trapping. Keeping players in New York was important; point guard Bobby Hurley had gone to Duke, Jamal Mashburn to Kentucky.

Mahoney was the only person to be interviewed by the search committee and was hired approximately two weeks after Coach Carnesecca stepped down. He was going to continue the deep traditions of St. John’s, getting those local players, representing New York, and keeping St. John’s relevant.


* (Fun fact! The previous New Mexico coach was Dave Bliss, who is infamous for trying to cover up the murder of a player.)

**(Fun fact! In the mid-90s, Kentucky people would hear I was from New York & immediately ask, “what’s up with St. John’s?” True story.)