Carnesecca has seen it all, but this team's a suprise

January 30, 1991|By Don Markus

Not much has changed for Lou Carnesecca over the past 40 years, give or take a decade. His one-liners, delivered in his often-imitated Noo Yawk rasp, still are funny. His hair, hanging sheep-doggishly over the forehead rather than crew-cut, still is brown.

One more thing: His St. John's team, though not nearly as deep nor talented as in the past, still is winning. The Redmen are one of the biggest surprises in college basketball this season, and no one seems more shocked than their 66-year-old coach.

"School is still out on us," said Carnesecca. "I don't have a feel yet."

Maybe he will get that tonight, when he goes for the 500th victory of his 23-year, two-term career at St. John's. His fifth-ranked Redmen go for their 16th win in 18 games this season when they play No. 18 Georgetown (12-5, 4-3 in the Big East) at the Capital Centre in Landover.

The biggest change is that St. John's (15-2, 6-2) has been doing it this year more with blue-collars than blue-chippers. Except for junior forward Malik Sealy, who is making a strong bid for Big East player of the year, these Redmen might not rank among Carnesecca's top 10 teams.

"A lot of people would agree," said Carnesecca. "We've had teams that were more athletic. But I like these kids. I like to come to practice every day. Don't wake me up."

There's another reason that Carnesecca doesn't want be roused from this pleasant dream. He might have to deal with his own longevity, with the fact that most coaches his age have long been ex-coaches. Among Division I head coaches, only Hofstra's Butch van Breda Kolff (68) is older.

Carnesecca has been at St. John's going on forever, first as a baseball player, leaving once to start his head coaching career ,, at St. Ann's Academy in Queens, N.Y., returning to work under the legendary Joe Lapchick, leaving again in 1970 for three seasons in the pros, and coming back for good 17 years ago.

"I'm going to take it a day at a time," said Carnesecca, who, except for being a little deaf in one ear, is in pretty good physical shape. "At my age, anything can happen. I know the day is coming. I hope I'll be smart enough that, when the time comes, I'll put the ball away. I know it can't go on forever."

Those who know him well say that Carnesecca hasn't changed much since they first met him. In Al LoBalbo's case, that was 38 years ago, when both were high school coaches caravanning to clinics, sharing their dreams as well as a little Chianti.

Ten years ago, LoBalbo had retired from Fairleigh-Dickinson and Carnesecca was looking for someone to work with his defense, a little part-time coaching job. LoBalbo, once the defensive guru for a young Army coach named Bobby Knight, is now half of college basketball's Sunshine Boys.

"I don't think Lou is so set in his ways that he can't change the handwriting on the wall," said LoBalbo, 70, who remains a part-time assistant in name only. "But, in a lot of ways, he's the same guy he was back then. He still wakes up worrying about the fact that he's not worrying enough."

Carnesecca could be the first coach who had a piece of clothing inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame before he was. You remember "The Sweater," which he wore during St. John's run to the Final Four in 1985.

"It's funny, even today, when I meet a group of people, they ask me, Where's the sweater?' " Carnesecca said.

The original is encased in Springfield, Mass., and Carnesecca has received "70 or 80" more from around the world. He wore one given to him by some St. John's students through a nine-game winning streak earlier this season, but took it off after the Redmen dropped a couple of games. The one he's wearing now is remarkably similar to that ugly Hall-of-Famer.

"But it's got nicer colors," he said.

Some of his team's success this season has been inexplicable, especially a recent victory over then-No. 9 Connecticut in which St. John's committed a school-record 33 turnovers. "The last time my team won a game turning the ball over that much was in 1947 at the CYO," he said.

St. John's has won five of its last seven meetings with Georgetown at the Capital Centre, including four straight in one stretch from 1982 to 1986. The success the Redmen have had against Georgetown is unmatched in the Big East.

"Shhhhhhhhhh. . .don't tell them," said Carnesecca, who is 12-9 against the Hoyas in the league's first 10 seasons.

Carnesecca isn't making a big deal about No. 500 at St. John's, because there have been many more than that if he counted count games in high school and with the New York Nets of the old American Basketball Association. "I can't believe I've been coaching 40 years," he said. "But, in some areas, that might be disputed."

Though he apparently hasn't given much thought to what he would do if he retired, it has crossed his mind. Many who figured Carnesecca as the kind of guy whose avocation is also his profession are surprised to learn that he has a couple of hobbies, among them fly-fishing and trap-shooting.

What kind of shot is he?

"Put it this way," Carnesecca said. "The birds have a chance."

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