It wasn’t easy to become a college sports fan growing up in the heart of New York City. By the time I came of age, there was no truly significant major football program within a 75-mile radius, and if you happened to go to Columbia games at the tip of upper Manhattan at what was then little more than a chicken wire-enclosed playground called Baker Field, what little interest you might have had would have been quickly extinguished. College basketball was plentiful, but the storied histories of their true glory days which I learned directly from my dentist, one Irwin Dambrot of the double-champion 1950 CCNY five, and the doubleheaders they’d stage at Madison Square Garden had faded into the past by that point. CCNY and NYU played on much smaller scales, and the explosion in Division I and regional TV that eventually gave national relevance to the likes of Wagner, Fordham, LIU and a whole bunch of New Jersey schools was still years away.
But the one link to that past and national relevance was a mere 10 minutes from my apartment, the sprawling urban campus of St. John’s University. And during the emerging days of the original Big East, under its determined and sweater-loving coach Lou Carnesseca, was as big a reason for that conference’s emergence into national zeitgeist. With what Looie considered to be his greatest talent Chris Mullin as their quarterback, they reached a Final Four in 1985 along with fellow conference mates Georgetown and eventual upstart champion Villanova. During that particularly troubled era of lousy NBA play by the Knicks, St. John’s games were a much more exciting value proposition. And the guy behind the bench for those struggling Knicks teams of the late 80s knew that truth all too well.
But that Knicks coach did coax a division title out of his 1988-89 team, and, more importantly, he had quite a bit of success on the college level subsequent to that. And he grew up on Long Island as a fan of those St. John’s teams, and remains as passionate about the game and the potential of New York college basketball as anyone alive or willing to work.
Which is why the fascination with Rick Pitino is perhaps one of the biggest storylines of this year, and why Pitino is determined to prove that he’s still got both the chops and the appetite to use new weapons which many of his peers have revolted against to restore the luster to a school and a conference that have both seen better days.
This year’s St. John’s team isn’t the same as the Redmen of that Final Four era; they’ve been the Red Storm for decades. This isn’t even the same Big East conference; that one folded under the pressure of trying to compete in football, a sport SJU has never embraced nor could it afford. This iteration of the Big East conference is basketball-only and revolves around schools in major Northeastern cities like rivals Villanova and Georgetown and now has expanded to include similarly Catholic-oriented schools like Butler, Creighton and DePaul to give it relevance beyond the Acela corridor.
And Pitino is hell-bent on being the Beast of this East. As FanNation’s Noah Henderson recently wrote:
At 71 years old, Pitino has a pioneering outlook on how to take on the new college sports ecosystem. While many coaches, both in basketball and football, have openly criticized NCAA policies regarding NIL, Pitino is excited about coaching in an era where “all the kids are getting paid.” –– a less than subtle insinuation to his previous indictments at the University of Louisville and the unspoken realities of player inducements before NIL.
Going against the grain of most of his contemporaries, Pitino shows a desire to embrace the new era of college sports rather than fight it. Other coaching legends neighboring his age retired in quick succession as NIL collectives and the transfer portal proved to be institutions in collegiate athletics that are here to stay.
Since the implementation of NIL in 2021, coaching legends Jay Wright, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bob Huggins, and Jim Boeheim have all retired.
When courted by St. John’s, promises to revitalize the outdated facilities were made, but Pitino dismissed these talks and opted instead to request support in his NIL operation. Conference affiliation, facilities, and program legacy still matter when evaluating an opportunity at a program as either a recruit or a coach; however, in Pitino’s eyes, NIL potential is rapidly becoming the primary factor.
He has already attended over thirty NIL fundraisers on his quest to bring St. John’s atop the Big East in what he views as the most critical aspect of recruiting.
Soliciting money from friends and connections with little to no affiliation with St. John’s, Pitino has once again revolutionized the NIL game. While most schools and programs focus on boosters, he is leveraging his expansive list of connections from his celebrity status as part of his own NIL experiment.
The Pitino era kicked off in earnest Monday night at MSG with much fanfare but, sadly, not the desired result, as the NEW YORK POST’s exurberant Zach Braziller shared:
Shortly before 6:30 p.m, the Garden went dark. Pyrotechnics, flames and all the bells and whistles of a Knicks game followed.
It, however, was as good as it would get for St. John’s in Rick Pitino’s MSG debut.
The Johnnies were outclassed Monday night at both ends of the floor, unable to deal with Michigan point guard Dug McDaniel or the Wolverines’ deep front line. St. John’s never recovered from a poor close to the first half and suffered an ugly 89-73 loss in the annual Gavitt Games in front of 14,188.
And Pitino was candid and Noo Yawk-brutally honest about why that happened as anyone could be:
“Our defense tonight was not good, but I’m going to give all the credit to Michigan,” Pitino said. “Our offense shocked the s–t out of, shocked the hell out of me that we didn’t share the ball and move the basketball. Those are things that we have to do.”
They’ll get a chance to do that in a holiday tournament in Charleston beginning this afternoon with a tilt against North Texas State. And as THE ASSOCIATED PRESS told it earlier this week, opportunities for renewed attention are still rampant:
“He’s an ‘add water’ coach. What does that mean? He won’t need a lot of ingredients,” said Ed Cooley, the new coach at longtime rival Georgetown and like Pitino, a former Providence coach.
“He’s one of five coaches in the country, in my opinion, that come with their own NIL — they come with their own ‘likeness.’ I would say Rick could be the greatest college coach of all time. He’s an ‘add water’ guy, for sure. He doesn’t need spices.”
And his track record strongly suggests better days ahead. As THE ATHLETIC’s Brendan Quinn’s extensive profile of Pitino last week attests, the numbers speak for themselves:
(R)egardless of what you think of him, it’s hard to argue with how his system works at the college level. His first team at Boston University went 17-9. The next year, it went 21-9, winning the old Eastern College Athletic Conference. His first team at Providence won 17. The next won 25, reaching the Final Four.
His first team at Kentucky went 14-14. The next went 22-6, winning the Southeastern Conference. His first team at Louisville went 19-13. The next went 25-7, landing an NCAA Tournament bid. His first team at Iona went 12-6 in a COVID-shaped season. His next went 25-8, winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
And he’s got big plans that go hand in hand with those expectations, not to mention a hungry New York sports media on his side supporting his vision:
Pitino’s first job as a full-time head coach was at Boston University in 1978-79. He was 25. That year, he beat a 37-year-old Northeastern coach named Jim Calhoun. He lost to a rising young coach named P.J. Carlesimo and to older guys like George Blaney and Tom Davis and Dom Perno.
A few things have happened in the four decades since. The Knicks and the Celtics. National titles at Kentucky and Louisville. The Hall of Fame. Millions upon millions of dollars. A sex scandal. Extortion. Side hustles — horses, books, investments. Wins. Vacated wins. Recruiting violations. The FBI. The war with the NCAA. Lawsuits. Fame. Infamy.
Inside WFAN’s studio in Hudson Square, the new St. John’s coach was in his element. Pitino’s mic went live, and he spun some classics. How, when he coached the Knicks, he remembers “Vinny from Bensonhurst” and “Mike from Bay Ridge” calling the station to say he should be fired. How St. John’s is a sleeping giant. How he’s hatching a plan (seriously) to play Duke at Arthur Ashe Stadium next season. How he’s going to use college sports’ name, image and likeness (NIL) revolution to his advantage. “If this is the game, we’re going to play it.”
And as someone who grew up almost equidistant from the St. John’s campus and the home of tennis’ U.S. Open, that Duke game is already on my watch list. And one can only hope that Carnesseca, about to turn 99 but still very much alive and active and close by, will be able to be there, along with the storied alumni who could only dream of such an imaginative venue. To celebrate another guy and program who won’t let age or the tarnishes of it to stand in the way of any dream.
Old school with the desire to embrace a few new wrinkles. Sounds like a damn good plan to me.