The last three decades have turned the St. John’s men’s basketball program from one of the most sacred brands in collegiate sports to an indifferent sigh. The Red Storm try to label themselves as New York’s college basketball team — the only non-low-major program inside America’s most populous urban area. Purists wouldn’t want Manhattan to adopt the Queens school, but any pathetic attempt from Syracuse (which is four hours from Madison Square Garden) or Rutgers (which might as well be four hours away with having to cross the Hudson River to get to the swamps of New Jersey) to draw in new fans by calling itself the “true team” of the Empire State will fall short. It’s still and will always be St. John’s mantle and the Red Storm are soiling their history in an attempt to resurrect the dormant program.
Both Rick Pitino and St. John’s public flirtation has led the former Iona coach to announce his move from the suburbs to New York City on a 6-year deal. The Red Storm didn’t have a secondary candidate, and Pitino had no problem speaking to the press about St. John’s while coaching the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament. Imagine what he did behind closed doors to get back to a relevant conference, where he hasn’t been since being fired with cause from Louisville in 2017. This couple eloping to provide what the other needs is exactly the seedy underbelly of college basketball showing itself. The worst part is, I’m not sure if the Red Storm and Pitino care, or have a level of self-awareness so low that these actions are deemed by both parties to be honorable.
Pitino’s history of scandals
Pitino’s first time under the ire of the NCAA for wrongdoing was in 1977, three years before Ronald Reagan was elected President and when Rocky won best picture. Seven Presidents and eight films in the Rocky film franchise later, controversy has surrounded the 70-year-old coach at nearly every step of his career. At Hawaii, Pitino was implicated in eight infractions that led the Rainbow Warriors to be placed on probation. Allegations included providing airfare for student-athletes and arranging for his players to have the use of cars during their time with the program. (Pitino denied any wrongdoing.)
He took over at Kentucky for Eddie Sutton when the Wildcats were under NCAA probation and somehow returned Rupp Arena into one of the sport’s most intimidating home court atmospheres. After a quick trip to the NBA, Pitino returned to the college ranks to take over at Louisville. After a decade of smooth sailing with the Cardinals, Pitino helped them win a national championship in 2013. Well, a stripped national championship. Due to an escort sex scandal involving recruits from 2010-14, Louisville’s championship and 2012 Final Four appearance were both vacated by the NCAA. The Cardinals also self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season because of the investigation into the program paying for sex for prospective players. And that’s far from the end of Pitino’s troubles at the school.
In September 2017, federal prosecutors announced an investigation into the school for an alleged “pay for play” recruiting scandal. The allegations involved an Adidas executive conspiring to pay the family of a top recruit to play for Pitino and then represent Adidas after turning pro. While the criminal complaint doesn’t specifically name the player involved in the scandal, Brian Bowen, who committed to Louisville in June 2017, has been identified by a federal judge as the recruit targeted. Pitino was placed on administrative leave and eventually fired, while Bowen now plays for the Iowa Wolves in the NBA G League. (After a lawsuit, Pitino’s termination was changed to a resignation.)
There was also an affair with one of his staffer’s wives, Pitino paying for her abortion, and then his attempts to turn himself into a victim by claiming he was being extorted. He admitted to the affair after meeting at an Italian restaurant but denied raping Karen Cunagin, who later married one of his assistants. Pitino avoided the ax in that 2003 situation, with Cunagin being found guilty of extortion and lying to federal agents in Aug. 2010. Pitino later said he used “extremely poor judgment” and that he “paid the price” for it in an interview with ESPN. The brief history lesson should be a reminder as to who the man St. John’s has solely focused on to lead it back to glory really is. Winning is the only thing that’s important, not having a standup coach to go alongside any of those wins, which might get vacated soon!
The NCAA spared Pitino of any punishment when the findings of its investigation into Louisville were announced last November. Pitino openly talked about it when flirting with the Red Storm after Iona’s loss to UConn in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. “I had to wait five years for them to basically stall my career out to finally get exonerated,” Pitino said Saturday. “I was exonerated by an impartial committee made up of legal people, legal people, not ADs and not people ... they handpick. So for five years, they put me in the outhouse because they couldn’t get their stuff together. So it’s just the breaks of the game. You can’t look back. The past, it’s always cherished. You learn from it, you cherish the past. I’ve been to seven Final Fours, two championships, and I cherish that. I also learn from the mistakes that were made.”
St. John’s desperately needs a comeback
The rap sheet for St. John’s isn’t nearly as bad, with the major offenses being the drooling over Pitino and sucking for long portions of the last 30 years. Ever since Lou Carnesecca’s retirement in 1992, the Red Storm have been a shell of their former selves. Brian Mahoney led St. John’s to the second round of the tournament the next season. Since 1994, the Red Storm have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances, with only three coming over the last two decades. Mike Jarvis led St. John’s to the Elite Eight in 1999 and it hasn’t been beyond the second round since.
Let’s not pretend this hardwood marriage is a combination of using one another. Pitino’s itch to get back to the top levels of college basketball is scratched by a program that needs an accomplished coach, no matter how tarnished his legacy is. The sweetheart hire of Chris Mullin didn’t work out and after the failed tenure of Mike Anderson, who plans to file a lawsuit against the school after he was fired for cause, selling out to bring Pitino into the fold in the age of name, image, and likeness and the ever-evolving transfer is a massive risk.
Pitino likely will be around for a fun time, not a long time, as he enters his eighth decade on this planet. It’s time to put up or shut up for Pitino, who will either plunge the Red Storm further into basketball purgatory or help them regain some semblance of respectability and relevancy. Regaining public trust in the basketball industry should be a personal goal for Pitino too.