Rick Pitino and St. John’s can save one another

Do not be swayed by the one-sided way this has all been narrated the last few weeks. Rick Pitino is a terrific coach, by far the best available for the task of rehabilitating St. John’s once-indisputable place among college basketball’s signature programs. He will win there, and win big. He will restore prominence to Union Turnpike. 

But do not call him a savior. 

Because in this case, it is a marriage and a merger of mutual salvation. 

Pitino saving St. John’s from an even longer string of basketball irrelevance than it has already suffered through, going back almost 30 years. And St. John’s offering Pitino a denouement to a career that already includes two national championships and seven Final Fours spread around three schools but one that only four years ago seemed destined for a legacy loused by derision and contempt. 

It’s a huge win for St. John’s, which is now coached by one of the handful of greatest practitioners and tacticians the college game has ever seen, someone already in the Hall of Fame. All due respect to Lou Carnesecca and Frank McGuire and Joe Lapchick, he is the most accomplished coach to ever agree to work the Johnnies’ sidelines. 

But it’s an equally important victory for Pitino. However you choose to interpret how things ended for him at Louisville, it is problematic when the best-case scenario — a song Pitino has sung more often than Elton John has “Rocket Man” — is that he hadn’t the slightest idea how terribly things had gone off the rails there, inside a residence hall he’d named after his beloved brother-in-law, after a coaching life in which he’d often delighted about just how detail-obsessed he was. 

Rick Pitino becomes the most accomplished coach in St. John’s history and his arrival offers him a second chance.
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Four years ago, Pitino was coaching in Greece and it actually seemed he would fade away slowly and completely, like Marty in the McFly family photos in “Back to the Future.” But then Iona took a shot on him, ahead of the NCAA giving him a clean bill of professional health. Whatever other off-court issues Pitino carried, the Christian Brothers in New Rochelle offered absolution and were rewarded with two NCAA Tournaments and 52 wins the last two seasons. 

Now, he gets what so few are ever afforded: a chance to rewrite his own final chapter. And you are fooling yourself if you believe he will not have St. John’s sniffing the NCAA by this time next year, and probably making a deep run or three within the six-year confines of the contract he signed Monday. Whatever issues you may have with Pitino, this was always a sacrosanct truth: He does this job extraordinarily well. 

And has from the time he showed up as a 26-year-old at Boston U in October 1978. And even before that. 

“If you think Ricky is driven now,” Pat McGunnigle told me over the telephone 11 years ago, as Pitino prepared for his first Final Four trip 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. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay, and he saw it from the moment he first watched Pitino playing pickup on the beachside courts in Bayville. 

“You knew he was going to be a coach,” McGunnigle said, “because he already was.” 

Iona Gaels head coach Rick Pitino talks to his team while playing the Vermont University Catamounts
Pitino’s arrival brings the brightest of lights back on the Red Storm program.
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Now that journey takes him to Queens, and surely to an expanse of games at Madison Square Garden where he had a quick and successful run with the Knicks 35 years ago. For St. John’s, which has enjoyed only modest spasms of success since Carnesecca retired in 1992, it was an easy choice. 

But also a bold one. St. John’s agreed to hire Pitino at top dollar on the same day it was announced that Mike Anderson was going to be forced to sue to get money owed him after his dismissal earlier this month. This continues a shameful nickel-and-dime small-time pattern St. John’s has exhibited recently with ex-assistants Barry Rohrssen and Steve DeMeo, to name two, and it certainly runs counter to what Pitino is going to expect, and command. It isn’t just Pitino’s résumé that’s first class, after all. 

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.