The fall of once-mighty St. John's
Once a power, St. John's has become one of the worst teams in the Big East
When it could no longer give a housing stipend, St. John's lost a major advantage
Coach Norm Roberts has worked hard to repair relationships with NYC coaches
QUEENS, N.Y. -- Now this is what college should look like.
It's a spectacular fall day, with nary a cloud in the sky, and undergraduates are blissfully milling about campus. They're sprawled on blankets across a vast lawn, chatting around tables while ignoring opened textbooks, ambling in and out of picturesque brick buildings. You'd expect this to be the scene at most colleges in America, but probably not this one. That's because this is St. John's University, the urban Catholic school located in the heart of Queens.
A New York City borough usually doesn't conjure such idyllic images, but this is a St. John's for a new millennium. "If we get recruits on campus, especially if they're from out of town, they go, 'Oh my God. There's green grass here. There's trees,'" said Norm Roberts, who is entering his fifth year as coach of the Red Storm. As Roberts, 43, conducts a guided tour, he apologizes for all the construction that's sullying the views. Yet he also beams with pride at the progress that work represents.
Over the last 15 years, St. John's has undergone a dramatic physical transformation. Just since 2000, baseball, softball and soccer stadiums have all been built. Carnesecca Arena, the on-campus basketball facility formerly known as Alumni Hall (capacity: 6,008), recently underwent a $5 million renovation, with more upgrades to come that will cost another $25 million. Taffner Fieldhouse, a $16 million, 43,000-square- foot practice facility, was completed in 2005. The progress extends well beyond athletics: St. Thomas More Church, which sits in the center of campus, was opened in 2004, and the school is currently finishing up a 127,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art student center that cost $75 million and will open next August.
Roberts takes particular pleasure in showing off the on-campus residential village that was built on campus beginning in 1999. "There's six dorms here, and another two behind the church," he says. Nodding over to an outdoor basketball court surrounded by benches, Roberts smiles and adds, "At night it's really happenin' out here."
Though St. John's is still commonly referred to as a "commuter school," this year more than 3,000 of the 15,000-plus undergraduates are living on campus. The new housing has enabled the university to attract students from all over the world, yet many aficionados of St. John's basketball will tell you that the construction of these dorms has damaged the hoops program in a fundamental way.
Here's why: NCAA rules permit schools to give their scholarship athletes a cash stipend to cover living expenses. If a school doesn't have dormitories, the amount of the stipend is calculated according to the cost of living in that school's neighborhood. Best of all, the NCAA allows schools to dispense the full amount regardless of what an athlete's actual living expenses are. That means a local player attending St. John's could either live at home and pocket the entire amount of the stipend, or he could bunk up with several of his teammates, pay well under the stipend amount in rent, and pocket the difference. For decades, this was St. Johns's dirty little secret -- only it wasn't really dirty because it was fully sanctioned by the NCAA.
Certainly there were many, many reasons for local kids to play for St. John's -- the chance to stay near home, play in Madison Square Garden and be taught by Hall of Fame-bound coaches like Joe Lapchick and Lou Carnesecca, for starters. But the promise of extra spending money was a very nice little plum. However, once St. John's built dormitories, those rooms became the standard of living, dropping the amount of the stipend so much that it was no longer worth it for players to live off campus. This season, all but two members of the Red Storm are living either in the dorms or in university-owned apartments.
This perk is just one of the advantages, now lost, that St. John's once wielded over the rest of the college basketball world. That world has not only caught up to St. John's, but it also has passed it by with blazing speed. That is the unpleasant reality Roberts is facing as the 2008-09 season gets under way. Pick up any college basketball preseason magazine, turn to the list of coaches on the proverbial "hot seat," and you'll see Roberts' name right at the top. During his four years here, the Red Storm went 48-67 and never finished higher than 11th in the 16-team Big East. Last February, the speculation that Roberts was on the verge of getting fired was so pitched that the school had to issue a press release simply to announce that it was giving him a standard rollover extension on his contract. This year's team is off to a 4-1 start, but the Red Storm suffered a devastating setback last week when their best player, 6-foot-7 senior forward Anthony Mason Jr., was lost for the season with a foot injury.
Roberts, who in 2004 took over a program that had just gone 6-21 during a season marred by scandal, knows full well the precariousness of his situation, but he also has reason to believe the worst is behind him. Last year, his team had to rely heavily on eight freshmen. All eight of those players have returned, and Roberts has added two promising newcomers to the mix.
"This will be the most talented team that we've had," Roberts said. "When I first got here, everybody in the administration understood it was not going to be a quick fix. We've got a good foundation. Now we need to show that we're moving in the right direction."
It will not be easy. The Big East is by far the toughest conference in the country this season, and the league's coaches picked the Red Storm to finish 14th in the Big East's preseason poll -- and that was assuming Mason would be healthy. But the questions Roberts is confronting are dwarfed by the ones the program is facing as a whole. Suppose the school does change coaches next spring. Will it even matter? Can this program ever be the dominant force it once was, the pride of basketball-mad New York City? Or, as the university continues to push into the future, will its basketball fans have to resign themselves to living in the storied past?
If you could fit the entire history of St. John's basketball into one room, it would probably look like the tiny corner office located on the first floor of the Chin Ying Asia Library. Pictures and mementos cover every nook and cranny, but the most important relic is the one sitting behind the desk. "I do very little," Lou Carnesecca said with a smile. Carnesecca, who will turn 84 on Jan. 5, spends much of his time in that office helping to raise money, but unofficially his main job is to stay in touch with the players he coached during his 24 seasons (in two stints) on the sidelines, a career that ended in 1992.
"I'm very fortunate since we had guys who mostly were from the city. A lot of them still live here," he said. "I rarely went out of town to recruit. It was tougher [outside New York] because they didn't know who I was. I knew the high school coaches here. I was a known quantity. So I stayed local."