At once-mighty St. John's, a winter of discontent

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - Wearing a throwback jersey with the name and number of his favorite team and its most prolific scorer, Chris Martyn is too young to remember when St. John's was one of college basketball's top programs and Chris Mullin was the crown prince of this city.

Martyn is 19, meaning he had just been born when the Redmen, as they were called in those politically incorrect days, made the 1985 Final Four along with two other Big East teams. But he has heard all the stories from the past and has a suggestion for the future.

"They have to bring back Louie," Martyn said last Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, sitting in his courtside seat nearly an hour before St. John's was to play Georgetown. "They need help. The organization has gone downhill, basically, since he left."

That was 12 years and four coaching changes ago, but many say Lou Carnesecca's retirement after 24 seasons and 524 victories is when the free fall began. Another change is imminent, as the school undertakes what might be its most difficult coaching search after the most trying season in the program's 97 years.

A 2-5 start that included embarrassing losses to Fairfield and Hofstra led to the December firing of coach Mike Jarvis - the first in-season dismissal in the Big East since the league began in 1979. That was merely a prelude to other troubles.

Two starters were kicked off the team and a third left the program after it was disclosed they had gone to a strip club after a Feb. 4 game at Pittsburgh, then brought a woman back to their hotel for sex. It turned scandalous when the woman claimed rape when the players refused to give her money. A player had recorded the incident on his cell phone, and the woman later was charged with lying to police. Two others who had been involved were suspended for the rest of the season.

The incident came a couple of months after another starter, Willie Shaw, was kicked off the team after being charged with possession of marijuana.

In an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, the Rev. Donald Harrington, the university's president, said he would consider recommending to the school's Board of Regents that the program be shut down if any other players had problems with the law.

With the return of Tyler Jones, who was suspended for two games for going to the club, the team is left with five scholarship players and four walk-ons. And it has left Carnesecca, who had been quietly enjoying his retirement, witnessing the wreckage of a program he helped build.

"We never had anything like this," Carnesecca, who last month celebrated his 79th birthday, said as he watched St. John's defeat the Hoyas - its first Big East win of the season - before an appreciative crowd of 6,192. "But we'll be back."

A tough climb up

How long it will take for St. John's to regain its status as one of the Big East's elite teams - a task that will be made more arduous once the league adds Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette beginning in 2005 - depends largely on who replaces interim coach Kevin Clark, an assistant under Jarvis.

"When we go out looking, we'll make sure the coach we hire is consistent with what we believe at the university," Harrington told the Daily News editorial board. He hasn't commented publicly since.

While fans were given a glimmer of hope when a New York Times columnist suggested Rick Pitino might be interested in returning to his New York roots, that fantasy was quickly dashed when Pitino announced he planned to finish his career as coach at Louisville.

"We need the right fit for our university. We need someone who is dedicated to rebuilding the program, who understands New York City and all the resources it brings and understands the Big East Conference and what's it's going to take to be competitive," said St. John's athletic director David Wegrzyn.

Among the college coaches who have been mentioned are Manhattan's Bobby Gonzales, Ohio State's Jim O'Brien and Memphis' John Calipari, as well as former Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo (now an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs), former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty and former St. John's star Mark Jackson, who is finishing his NBA career with the Houston Rockets.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, who has monitored the culture of sports for more than four decades, holds a special interest in what is happening at St. John's. His late father, Joe, was a giant in the game as a player and coach of the New York Knicks and St. John's. The younger Lapchick played on the freshman team and graduated in 1967.

"I think it's going to be critical, somebody who has a stellar name, not just a long coaching career, but a great name from the sport who has stood for intelligence and integrity," said Lapchick, who runs the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Like other alumni, Lapchick received a letter from Harrington voicing concerns.

"It would be hard for me to imagine them shutting down the St. John's basketball program. It's just too much a part of the tradition of the university," Lapchick said.

Lapchick remembered when he was 11 and saw his legendary father cry for the first time, crying because he found out a majority of his players weren't going to class but were being given passing grades. Lapchick said that his father was disengaged with what his players did academically, but after this revelation established the first mandatory study hall. He'd like to see something positive again be derived from a negative situation.

""Nobody wants to see a program that has that kind of history and that kind of storied series of coaches devolve into what it appeared it had become this year."

Downward trends

Even before the incident in Pittsburgh, the St. John's program was in turmoil. After going to the NCAA tournament in three of Jarvis' first four years - including an Elite Eight berth after beating Maryland in 1999, his first season - the Red Storm appeared headed in the wrong direction.

Last season's National Invitation Tournament championship was considered a hollow victory, and the fans and the media slowly soured on Jarvis. His decision to publicly negotiate with Harrington for a contract extension turned into a six-month soap opera played out in the city's tabloids and hastened the coach's demise.

Sam Albano, a 1975 graduate who runs Redmen.com, a Web site not affiliated with the university, said St. John's got away from its roots under Fran Fraschilla, who replaced longtime Carnesecca assistant Brian Mahoney in 1996 and was fired after two seasons for some objectionable behavior in practice.

"We kind of lost sight that we were a New York school with the tradition of having basically New York-New Jersey kids," Albano said. "Once we started to expand our horizons recruiting, it was basically a sign that things were going to change, but not for the better."

The Red Storm lost out on many big-time New York players, the most celebrated recently being Brooklyn point guard Sebastian Telfair, who committed to Louisville. Even before that, the talent level had fallen off considerably.

Though St. John's has had losing years before - three out of five under Mahoney and in Fraschilla's first season - this season has been particularly disturbing. The incident in Pittsburgh came after college basketball was hit last season by scandals at St. Bonaventure, Georgia and Baylor.

Marching onward

For now, the Red Storm will try to finish out the season with the kind of resilience it showed last Wednesday. A 65-58 victory over Georgetown brought the small crowd to its feet just like 10 days before when, with only eight players, the team received a standing ovation for its scrappiness despite a 28-point defeat to Boston College in its first game after the incident.

The games, including one tonight here against Connecticut, have become a refuge for the players on this 6-17 team.

"It's like us going back in the playgrounds, playing with just us, no fans. We love it," said Phil Missere, a junior walk-on who has a prominent role for the first time in his career. "We're never going to lose our pride. We think we're going to win every game."

Missere perhaps understands the history of the program a little better than his teammates. He grew up near the campus and started going to games when he was a toddler. One of his cousins, Robert Werdann, was a third-team All-Big East selection at St. John's in 1991.

"When you come to St. John's, it's always about St. John's, it's not about the [individual] team," Missere said. "As a team, that's how we think. When we put on that jersey, that's our employer. We have to show them good stuff. I love St. John's."

A lot of other people do, too, particularly the fellow affectionately known as Louie. As Carnesecca sat and watched the final seconds tick off against Georgetown and the crowd rise to its feet to celebrate a rare victory, the old coach got up and was applauding with everyone else.

He politely declined an interview, not wanting to appear anything but supportive. Before he rushed off to the locker room to congratulate Clark and his players, Carnesecca turned to a friend who was around when St. John's was one of the top teams in the country.

"We'll be OK," Carnesecca said.

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