The Red Storm committed to the controversial coach, giving Rick Pitino a six-year contract to lead the program back to the top.
As a program without an NCAA Tournament win since 2000, St. John’s men’s basketball needs a spark. Two-time national champion and Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Pitino was hired to deliver just that.
“It’s not about when or if. It’s going to happen for St. John’s,” the 70-year-old Pitino said at his introductory press conference Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Pitino signed a six-year deal on Monday to become the Red Storm’s newest head coach.
Pitino returns to a major conference job for the first time since 2017 when Louisville fired him following an FBI investigation into widespread corruption in college basketball. As the former head coach of the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, the New York City native has led five teams to 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, reached seven Final Fours with three different schools — only John Calipari and C. Vivian Stringer have matched that feat — and won a national championship with Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013.
In 2018, the NCAA upheld a ruling that Louisville had to vacate its national title, making the Cardinals the first men’s basketball team to do so in the Final Four era. The program also vacated 123 wins between 2011 and 2015 due to the Cardinals program “arranging striptease dances and sex acts for prospects, student-athletes and others.”
When the university introduced Pitino on Tuesday, 98-year-old coaching legend Lou Carnesecca was in attendance. Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman delivered introductory remarks, praising Carnesecca and welcoming Pitino back to the conference.
“We all know that mediocrity on the hardwood is an unacceptable outcome for you,” Ackerman said, addressing Pitino. “Successful college basketball today requires clear vision, significant resources, sustained effort, an NIL game plan, and inspired leadership at the very top.”
After Louisville fired him, Pitino wasn’t sure if another school would ever hire him. He went to Greece in 2018 to coach the Greek national team and EuroLeague power Panathinaikos. On a trip to Spain, while he prepared to coach against Real Madrid, he met with representatives from Iona. The college not only offered him a lifeline to return to coach in the NYC suburb of New Rochelle, but gave him a contract with no buyout if he wanted to leave for a bigger job. After two NCAA Tournament appearances in three seasons, St. John’s came calling.
“I deserve it because I’ve earned it,” Pitino said. “I’ve never cheated the game. I never gave a player anything he didn’t deserve in life. You don’t get anything for free in this life — you have to earn it, you have to deserve it. You have to earn the respect of your players. And I want you to judge what I do for my players and on the basketball court.”
Citing March Madness upstarts who won tournament games this month in Pittsburgh and Missouri, Pitino said that without question, you can win right away in college hoops. But in quoting Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire, who played and coached at SJU, Pitino said the biggest key is getting players.
“I was put in the Hall of Fame and I didn’t score one point, didn’t grab one rebound, didn’t have one assist,” he said. “My players put me every step along the way into that elite company. It’s not only strategy, it’s not only motivation, but it’s really getting players that fit your system. I need guys that can shoot the basketball, not fatigue, get after it defensively.”
While Pitino plans to build around 6’11 center Joel Soriano (15.2 PPG, 11.9 RPG) next season, he said he didn’t get great reports on the character of all his teammates. Pitino foresees St. John’s having six to eight new players in the fall.
“A lot of players probably won’t be back on this team because they’re probably not a good fit for me. It’ll be a round peg in a square hole,” Pitino said, taking over a team that went 18-15 last season and lost in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals. “It takes a certain type of basketball player to want to play for me. He’s got to be total, over-the-top in love with the game of basketball. And if you’re not, it’s just a bad fit with me. It doesn’t work.”
Assured that he’ll get the resources to build a top-notch facility in Queens, Pitino said he’d work hard to bring in local recruits to help bring St. John’s back to glory.
“St. John’s represents something really special to every New York kid,” he said. “We’ll hit the streets very, very hard in the near future.”
Pitino grew up on 26th Street in Manhattan between Second and Third Avenues. He later moved to Long Island, and called being introduced on Tuesday one of the most special moments of his life, returning home to lead a storied New York City program. He insisted that there’s no real difference between the Red Storm and conference rivals UConn, Marquette, and Xavier.
“We’ve got to get players who are really committed to winning. Then you win. And it’s not going to be difficult. It really is not,” Pitino said. “Has it fallen on tough times? Yes it has. But now we’re ready to fall on great times, because St. John’s is going to be back. I guarantee that.”
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