HALLANDALE BEACH, March 26, 2023 — I had absolutely no interest in the Big Dance this year. Racing has a tournament of its own, playing out now, and it has its own Final Four for the Triple Crown: The Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, and Wood Memorial.
There was no rushing out for a copy of USA Today on the Monday following Selection Sunday for the sketches it provides on each team and, of course, the Sagarin ratings–speed figures for hoops. I didn’t even download a set of NCAA brackets until the Thursday the tournament started.
And I blame my alma mater for this. The landscape of college basketball had changed and St John’s didn’t change with it. Coaches don’t coach for ham sandwiches anymore, and if you want a Hall of Famer walking the sidelines, schools must think in seven-figure terms.
More than the NBA, or NFL, or any professional sports franchise, coaching is fundamental in college sports. Beyond God-given talent and endless repetitions, coaches make All-American athletes. Young players are developing players, in need of teaching, motivation, reigning in, and tough love, the kind of understanding that only a sidelines father can provide.
While at Newsday, I went back to school, back to Alumni Hall, back to Madison Square Garden, thanks to Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, Bill Wennington, Ron Rowan, Mike Moses, Willie Glass, et al, a team that wound up in the Final Four, where its 1984-85 season ended at 31-4. Thanks to a friend at the ‘World’s Most Famous Arena’, I could be found courtside that year: Hoops Heaven.
I’m no a fair weather fan but I insist on competency and relevance. For a proud alum, the program had become embarrassingly non-competitive. I suffered through a few NITs while the school went through a litany of coaches.
When they lost in the first round of the 2014 NIT to Robert Morris as the #1 seed, I turned my back on the program. The school had turned its back on what once was the fourth winningest program in college basketball, so I turned mine–until March 22, the day they hired Rick Pitino as head coach.
I had heard the rumors that Pitino was on his way to Queens–at Gulfstream Park of all places, told that the chances were excellent St John’s would hire Pitino after a little persuading from one of its most prominent alumnus, Mike Repole, who also happens to be co-owner of Forte, the current Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby favorite.
I’m no Rick-Come-Lately fan. I became aware of his talents and brand of basketball when he coached the Providence Friars after a brief stint as assistant to coach Hubie Brown of the Knicks. I sung his praises when in his first year as head coach he revived the moribund franchise, winning 55 games with his style of basketball; full court pressure defense and a 3-point shot offense, all conducted at racehorse speed.
But that wasn’t Al Bianchi’s style, then Knicks general manager, who didn’t believe the Knicks could win an NBA title with a college system, preferring traditional NBA half-court sets. He wanted Pitino out, and ultimately got his wish.
Pitino needed a job and the Kentucky Wildcats needed a coach to replace C.M. Newton. Seth Hancock and Shug McGaughey wanted Pitino in Lexington and enlisted help from another SJU alum, trainer John Parisella.
I don’t know when the Parisella-Pitino friendship began, but I know their mutual admiration probably was cemented when Parisella claimed a filly named Ruby Rubles for Pitino’s Celtic Pride Stable and won the 2000 Bed O’ Roses Handicap.
Newton visited Pitino at his home imploring him to take the job but the coach refused. McGaughey then asked Parisella what it would take to bring Pitino to Kentucky. Ultimately It was a public statement by the UK President saying he wanted Pitino to coach the team. With my classmate’s brokering, Pitino became a Wildcat and won his first national championship in 1996.
Pitino returned to the NBA where he compiled his first losing record as President and head coach of the Boston Celtics. At loggerheads with the team and the city, Pitino returned to the college ranks where he led his third team to a Final Four finish and won his second national championship with the Louisville Cardinals in 2013, becoming the first Division 1 coach to win championships for different schools.
However, that Final Four appearance and championship title were later vacated by the NCAA after an federal investigation had alleged that Louisville was involved in a pay-for-play scheme, among other violations. The program spent two years serving a self-imposed, post-season ban. Pitino eventually was fired for cause, the NCAA charging him with “failure to monitor his basketball program.”
After that, Pitino spent three years coaching in Greece where his teams won two Greek League titles when Iona gave him a chance to return to college athletics. Three seasons as coach of the Gaels resulted in two MAAC conference titles and a return to the NCAA Tournament, including this year, but were eliminated in the first round.
Enter a shy and retiring alum, Mike Repole.
Anyone around racing for a minute knows of Repole’s love of New York sports and he wears that allegiance on his blue and orange sleeves. And he, too, was a long suffering Red Storm fan and promised St John’s to do whatever he could to lure Pitino back home to New York and make the Johnnies relevant again.
The coach has had issues, many of his own making, but he and St John’s have put transgressions real and imagined in the past. “We’re back,” Pitino announced at a Madison Square Garden press conference. “Forgiveness,” said St. John’s President Rev. Father Shanley after the hiring.
Pitino to St. John’s. or Pitino celebrating in the winners’ circle at Belmont Park or Saratoga, is more than a feel-good sports story, it’s a New York story, proving that you can always go home again where maybe not everyone knows your name, or makes eye contact, fights you for every inch, but with a helping hand when one is needed.
It was the Post’s Mike Vaccaro who put it in perfect perspective the day of the signing when he wrote: “Still, for all of this, this is a good day for St. John’s, a good day for Rick Pitino, a good day for college basketball fans. And a good day for New York sports; it feels, all of a sudden, as if we were given an expansion team Monday, a 10th local team for which there will be a lot of spilled newspaper ink and an endless supply of attention. For now, anyway, Utopia isn’t merely a parkway in Jamaica, but a possibility.
Could not have put it better. I am over the moon and excited to see SJU return to hoops relevance. The program should be able to win just by keeping some of the better local kids home. Watching this weekend, Kansas State was playing to try to get to the Final 4 with 3 kids from Harlem including their starting PG and another from Queens. The round before, they beat a Mich St. team who was starting a point guard from Westbury. These kids should be here winning games. It’s sickening to realize that SJU’s last tourney win was vs a #15 seed in 2000.
Doc, That’s all any local college would have to do, but can’t blame the kids for wanting to see a little more of the world and, of course, other germane reasons.
Playing at MSG isn’t enough of a draw to keep kids home, but a chance to win the Big East and represent the school in the Tournament should be. Pitino’s won everywhere he’s gone, except Boston. Ad if he had hired a better GM while there, things may have been different.
But that’s history, and the future is now.
BTW: I was so out of touch with college hoop I didn’t realize until an announcer mention where Markquis Noel played his high school ball–another alma mater, Bishop Loughlin. Noel and Mark Jackson, that’s a trip–the school is not that big and now it’s co-ed–and that’s progress…
As long suffering St. John’s fans, my brothers and I are very excited to have Rick Pitino on our sideline. It is a great match for coach and program and the timing is also perfect. They need each other at this time. As you’ve stated so eloquently, Pitino has won wherever he has been and this should be no different. His “culture of work” and individual workouts will help our players improve their skills and he will bring in players who can play his style. I look forward to the 2023-2024 college basketball season and can’t wait until they roll the balls out this fall.
You and me both, Stephen. The “program” we know works. The challenge is to get some of the local blue chippers to stay home. Like Louie said at the press conference: “get players.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw the coach at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. I love college hoop and now I’m re-engaged. Could be happier. Thanks for checking in…
I’m also pumped about Pitino’s hiring. As a junior high coach basketball coach in the early 1980s l heard him speak to campers and coaches at Long Island Lutheran’s summer camp and remember saying, “l want him to coach my team,” meaning the Knicks. And he did give us a couple of good years. The thing to keep in mind in 2023 is the transfer portal and NIL and how l expect him to make genius use of both. At the least St. John’s will be a solid, competitive team, likely even more, but the roster may not be dotted with NYC high school players.
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When it comes to college hoops Rich, in Rick we trust. I’m not a big fan of the “new” college portal and NIL but I have a lot to catch up to do.
Long Island Lutheran? Do believe that was alma mater of Bill Wennington who had quite the college and pro career.