The fall of St. John's (cont.)
The grainy, black-and-white picture Carnesecca depicts is a far cry from today's high-definition college basketball world, where coaches must recruit not only on a national scale but also an international one to stay competitive. St. John's fans tend to remember the good old days as better than they actually were -- the school is ranked No. 7 on the NCAA's all-time wins list, but it has only been to two Final Fours and has never won a national championship (it has won six NITs). But the program has clearly suffered a dizzying free-fall over the last decade. Though many factors have contributed to the plunge, four in particular converged to create this perfect (Red) storm:
The demise of the Riverside Hawks. For four decades, Ernie Lorch, the founder of the powerhouse summer basketball program based out of Riverside Church in Harlem, loomed large for St. John's, since many of the school's best players, from Chris Mullin to Mark Jackson to Malik Sealy, were all former Riverside Hawks. In 1998, four of the Hawks' starters from a team that went 55-1 signed with then St. John's coach Fran Fraschilla. That quartet, which included Ron Artest and Erick Barkley, formed the nucleus of the school's last great team, the 1998-99 squad that reached the Elite Eight. Not for nothing was Lorch given a coveted seat behind the St. John's bench for every game.
In 2002, however, Lorch had to sever his ties with Riverside Church after the Manhattan District Attorney's office launched an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by three of his former players. (Lorch was never charged with a crime.) Riverside's program has diminished considerably since then, and though Lorch helped launch a new program called the Metro Hawks, it has yet to attain Riverside's prominence, leaving St. John's without the pipeline that sustained it for so long.
Moreover, the collapse of the Riverside Hawks coincided with an explosion of summertime basketball that has dramatically altered the scene in New York City. "It's ridiculous now. There are easily 50 or more programs in New York," said Gary Charles, who runs the Long Island Panthers. Besides diluting the city's talent, the expansion has provided extensive travel opportunities for youngsters, allowing them to see the world beyond the Hudson River. Roberts marvels that his 11-year-old son has already played in tournaments in Boston, North Carolina and Virginia. "It used to be a real shock for a kid to leave New York," Roberts said. "But now, by the time he's 17 or 18, he's already been all over the country. So for a kid to leave the city to go to school is no big deal."
The building of the dorms. Carnesecca is understandably quick to try to dispel the notion that the cost-of-living stipend was a big reason so many local players opted to come to St. John's. Chris Monasch, the current athletic director, points out that the lack of on-campus dorms probably drove away just as many students who desired a more traditional campus life.
Yet, to many who have closely observed St. John's basketball over the years, this piece of progress has come with a heavy price. "I think that was one of the worst things that ever happened to the basketball program," said Jim O'Connell, the longtime Associated Press college basketball writer and St. John's grad who authored a book last year commemorating the program's 100-year anniversary.
Now that St. John's is unable to offer a benefit that no other school is providing, it must compete on the basis of its campus, its facilities and the recent history of its program -- all areas in which it hasn't measured up. "They're comparing apples to apples now," said Carmine Calzonetti, who played for St. John's from 1966-69 and worked as an assistant under Carnesecca for three years. "When I played we got like $200 a month, which at that time was a lot. The stipend was important for the local kids because they were able to live at home, keep the money and buy a car or help the family out. So losing that was huge."
The Mike Jarvis debacle. St. John's might have weathered the kind of cyclical downturn that many programs endure, but it has had a harder time recovering from the total cratering that occurred in 2004 at the end of Jarvis' six-year tenure as coach. After leading the Red Storm to the 1999 Elite Eight in his first season, Jarvis was unable to forge strong relationships with most of the high school and amateur coaches around New York. That caused him to miss out on many of the tri-state area's most prized recruiting targets, allowing schools such as Villanova and Pittsburgh to step into the breach.
"Diplomatically, let's just say that St. John's could have done a better job under Jarvis cultivating the coaches in the city of New York," said Ray Nash, the president of New York's Catholic High School Athletic Association. Less diplomatically, O'Connell says that Jarvis's chilly relations around town "did irreparable damage to this program."
Jarvis took the team back to the NCAA tournament in 2000 and '02, and the Red Storm won the postseason NIT championship in '03. But then things quickly bottomed. Two players had scrapes with the law before the 2003-04 season began, and after the team got off to a 2-4 start, Jarvis was fired on Dec. 19.
Later that season, six players were suspended after they broke curfew to go to a strip club following a game at Pittsburgh. One of those players, Abe Keita, later revealed that a member of Jarvis' staff had been paying him $300 a month in illicit extra benefits. The university found those charges to be true and issued self-imposed penalties that included a ban from the 2005 postseason, a reduction of two scholarships and two years of probation.
With the program in such dire straits, St. John's was unable to attract (or afford) a big-name coach with a long résumé to replace Jarvis. It eventually settled on Roberts, who had no head coaching experience (he worked for nine years as an assistant under Bill Self at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas) but who won over the interviewing committee with his passion and charisma. Roberts' strongest selling point was that he was a neighborhood guy; he was born in Queens and had been a star guard at Queens College. For his first season at St. John's, Roberts had just five returning players. The looming NCAA investigation into Keita's allegations, which culminated two years later with the NCAA basically accepting the school's findings, further hampered his recruiting efforts.
The expansion of the Big East. As if the old Big East hadn't been tough enough, in 2005 the league added Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida to replace three schools that had defected to the ACC. That has further escalated a facilities arms race in which urban private schools without successful football programs will always be at a disadvantage.
Despite the best efforts of Roberts and his staff, St. John's has so far been unable to beat the competition on the recruiting trail. For example, Roberts doggedly pursued Samardo Samuels, a 6-foot-8 forward who played for the Metro Hawks as well as St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J. Like many of the best local products, Samuels kept St. John's on his list right until the end, only to go somewhere else -- in this case, to Louisville, where he is starting as a freshman. "Nobody recruited Samardo harder than St. John's. They were the first ones there at every one of his games," said Karriem Memminger, the Metro Hawks coach. "Norm's a good guy, but with all due respect we're talking about Rick Pitino here. It's very hard to beat that."
St. John's was also a finalist for Sylven Landesberg, a 6-6 guard from Queens who opted for Virginia. Landesberg's parents told Roberts he chose Virginia, where he has averaged 23.7 points in his first three games, because it was a superior academic school. "They said if he went to school there, he'd be sitting in class with future congressmen and presidents. How can you argue with that?" Roberts said. It also didn't hurt that three years ago Virginia opened a spectacular new $130 million arena, which makes St. Johns's $30 million investment in Carnesecca Arena seem paltry by comparison.