Change in Culture at St. John’s: Will Program Icon Lead Squad to National Prominence?

St. John’s men’s basketball program can be considered a quagmire. They have a history of great success by winning three conference championships in the ultra-competitive Big East and have a history of producing several NBA players. They currently rank 7th in NCAA with total wins but have a dubious distinction of having the most wins without a national championship. Over the last two decades the Red Storm had a meager amount of success and a myriad of failures.

Steve Lavin left his cozy job as an analyst for ESPN and became head coach of St Johns in the spring of 2010 and at first reinvigorated the dormant fan base. Similar to previous coach Mike Jarvis, Lavin had success with players he did not recruit which can damage a coach’s reputation in college athletics if more success does not follow. He followed up the Red Storm’s first NCAA tournament appearance in ten seasons in 2011 while procuring a top-ranked and much heralded recruiting class.

Then issues started to arise with the Red Storm. First Lavin announced he had cancer and was unable to fully execute his job responsibilities as head coach. Lavin took a leave of absence and Mike Dunlap ran the team. Then there was a litany of academic issues with three recruits Norvele Polle, JaKarr Sampson, and Amir Garrett being ruled academically ineligible. Polle never suited up for St John’s but Sampson and Garret eventually did. The program’s record was 13-17 that season but improved the next year with a 17-16 record and won a NIT Tourney game. The 2013-14 season was the season the previously dormant fan base was focused on and anticipated the Johnnies to return to the elite. Everything was going to plan until a 0-6 start in Big East play created a mammoth hole that Lavin’s crew could not overcome to secure an NCAA birth. St. John’s did receive a number one seed in the NIT but was embarrassed by Robert Morris on their own home court Alumni Hall. Lavin does have the gift of gab but many fans of the program were becoming worn out and aggravated of the lack of success.

The 2014-2015 season there was a sense of urgency from Johnnie supporters because there could be a total of seven members from the basketball team that either exhausted their eligibility or attempt to go pro after the season. Troubles arose before the season when incoming recruit Keith Thomas was found to have a phony transcript from Westchester Community College and Adonis De La Rosa was also declared academically ineligible. Other problems arose with Rhysheed Jordan taking a leave of absence from the team and Chris Obekpa being suspended multiple times with the last time being for the NCAA tournament. St. John’s was shorthanded which was a reoccurring theme in Lavin’s tenure but did manage to make it to the NCAA tourney but were one and done.

Then a decision had to be made to determine if Steve Lavin should be given an extension of his contract. There was a schism within the fan base with Lavin having supporters who wanted him to get an extension. Dissenters would love to see Lavin go and some would help pay for his plane ticket, if not pack his bags, and give him a ride to the LaGuardia airport too. Each side had valid arguments. Lavin did bring three 20 win seasons and two NCAA tourney appearances. Dissenters felt Lavin should have accomplished more during his reign and felt St. Johns needed more post season success. During negotiations neither side could come to terms. There was again a familiar job vacancy on Utopia Parkway.

The job vacancy was given to a fellow family member Chris Mullin. While Mullin was at St. John’s he and fellow teammates Marc Jackson and Walter Berry brought St. John’s to the elite national level and take away Patrick Ewing and Georgetown could have given St. John’s the elusive NCAA title that would validate the program . The fan base was once again reinvigorated and Mullin built on success by securing ace recruiter Matt Abdelmassih and luring away Barry “Slice” Rohrssen from basketball blue blood Kentucky. Mullin then went right to work and landed multiple recruits in a short time. The recruits range from graduate transfers, transfers, JUCO players, and high school seniors which should stabilize the roster for long term success. They even had Obekpa and Jordan returning at first, but due to various reasons each member decided to leave St. Johns.

While Mullin appears to be bringing a phenomenal work ethic while rebuilding recruiting ties and holding players accountable, St. John’s fans need to still be patient. Mullin who does have a wealth of basketball knowledge and tremendous pedigree is still a first year coach. He will make mistakes but if Mullin learns from his mistakes and establishes recruiting pipelines from the New York metropolitan area to the Jamaica campus there is huge potential. Enough potential to where the Red Storm and the city of New York could rock Madison Square Garden on a yearly basis and hoist what is now unfathomable to most of the St. John’s fan base, an NCAA national title.

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