Don’t be put off by the one-sided way this has all been told for the past few weeks. Rick Pitino is a formidable coach, the best available for the task of rebuilding what was once San Juan’s undisputed signature program in college basketball. He will win there, and he will win big. It will restore prominence to the Union Turnpike.
But don’t call him a savior.
In this case, it is the union of marriage and mutual salvation.
Pitino saved St. John’s from a longer string of basketball irrelevance, going back almost 30 years. And St. John’s Pitino capped a career that included two national championships and seven Final Fours at three schools, but only four years ago seemed destined for a legacy marred by ridicule and scorn.
It’s a huge win for St. John’s, now coached by one of the greatest coaches and tacticians the college game has ever seen, someone who is already in the Hall of Fame. All due respect to Lou Carnesecca and Frank McGuire and Joe Lapchick, the greatest coach ever to agree to work for the Johnnies.
But it’s an important win for Pitino. However, when you choose to interpret how things ended in Louisville, the problem is that the best-case scenario — a song Pitino has sung more often than Elton John’s “Rocket Man” — didn’t have a terrible idea. things went off the rails there, inside a residence he named after his beloved brother-in-law, after a life as a coach in which he often reveled in his obsession with detail.
Rick Pitino becomes the greatest coach in San Juan history and his arrival offers him a second chance.Getty Images
Four years ago, Pitino was training in Greece and, frankly, it looked like he was going to slowly and completely disappear, like the Marty McFly family photos in “Back to the Future.” But then Iona shot him, before the NCAA gave him a clean bill of health. Despite Pitino’s other off-court issues, New Rochelle’s Christian Brothers offered redemption and went on to win two NCAA championships and 52 wins over the past two seasons.
Now, he gets what so few offer him: the chance to rewrite his final chapter. And you’re fooling yourself next year in St. John’s won’t have the NCAA sniffing around and will likely make a deep run or three within the six-year limits of the contract he signed Monday. Whatever issues you may have with Pitino, this has always been a holy truth: He does this job incredibly well.
And in October 1978 Boston Un appeared at the age of 26. And earlier too.
“If you think Ricky is driving now,” Pat McGunnigle told me over the phone 11 years ago, as he was preparing for Pitino’s first trip to the Final Four with Louisville, “then you should have seen him when he was 13, 14, 15 years old.”
McGunnigle, who died last year, coached Pitino at St. at Dominic, and he’s seen that since watching Pitino play pickup on the beach courts in Bayville.
“I knew he was going to be a coach,” McGunnigle said, “because he was first.”
Pitino’s arrival brings back the brightest lights in the Red Storm program.Getty Images
Now that journey will take him to Queens, and surely to an expansive game at Madison Square Garden, where he had a quick and successful run with the Knicks 35 years ago. For San Juan, which has had only modest spasms of success since Carnesecca retired in 1992, it was an easy choice.
But also brave. St. John’s agreed to hire Pitino for top dollar on the same day it was announced that Mike Anderson would be suing him for the money he was owed after his firing. This is St. John’s follows an embarrassing pattern he’s shown recently with former assistants Barry Rohrssen and Steve DeMeo, to name two, and certainly goes against what Pitino expects and promises. It’s not just Pitino’s resume that’s top-notch, after all.
Still, for all this, it’s 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 suddenly feels like we’re giving away an expansion team on Monday, a local 10th team, which will involve a lot of newspaper ink spillage and an endless supply of attention. For now, however, Utopia is not just a park in Jamaica, but an opportunity.