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

Firing, bans, defeats fade Carnesecca's glory

February 24, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

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.

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