St. John's named Rick Pitino as their new head coach on Monday night, in a widely expected move to restore the program to its landmark status in college basketball.
Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach who has had a heralded career that includes two national championships, with Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013, and has led three teams to the Final Four. He has spent the past three seasons coaching Iona and took them to the NCAA Tournament twice.
Since St. John's calls Madison Square Garden one of their homes, in addition to Carnesecca Arena on campus, it is a homecoming for Pitino, who coached the Knicks in the late 1980s.
St. John's needed to make this move, as the program has fallen on hard times and did not sniff March Madness in the four years that former head coach Mike Anderson was at the helm.
Pitino had a lot to say about his new challenge in his introductory press conference on Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden:
On his mindset as the new head coach at St. John's:
"I think one of the keys of coaching, it's not only a strategy or motivation, it is really getting players that fit your system. I need guys that can shoot the basketball, not fatigue, get after it defensively. It's about evaluating the right players. We are probably going to have to bring in six to eight guys on this basketball team, and that's going to take a lot of work...
"The one thing that I want to be honest with is that a lot of players probably won't be back on this team, because they are probably not a good fit for me. With me, I think my players love playing for me. Even from Mark Jackson, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Oakley. I spoke with Oak last night, they loved playing for me with the Knicks. It takes a certain type of a basketball player to play for me. He's got to be a total, over-the-top in love with the game of basketball. If you're not, it's a bad fit with me...There will be a lot of players that will move on to, I hope, greener pastures. Joel [Soriano] is the type of person that I want to build around and that is why I asked him to come today. I have to meet some of the other young men, but there will be other guys that don't fit. It will be a round peg in a square hole and it won't work."
On if he thought he would ever be back coaching in the Big East (he has coached Providence and Louisville in the conference):
"No, I didn't think it was possible. I wasn't exiled away, but nobody really wanted to deal with hiring me at that point...(referring to why he was fired from Louisville due to recruiting scandals) I was very, very proud of the things we have accomplished. My first call was to [New York Islanders President of Hockey Operations and General Manager] Lou Lamoriello this morning. I looked back on Greece (where he coached from 2019-21) and it sort of gave me a new basketball life. When I went to Iona, I said that Iona was going to be my last job. The reason I said that is, who is going to hire a 70-year-old? It took [St. John's University President] Father Shanley to do it. If I wasn't a Providence Friar, he wouldn't have ever even considered it. I'm excited about it."
On what motivates him to still coach in his 70s:
"I wear a shirt called PHD, all the time. I don't have one, but it stands for Passionate, Hungry, and Driven. Been that way all my life. I get that expression from a very astute financial advisor named Mario Gabelli...I asked him, 'where he gets his talent from? What school? University of Chicago, Princeton?' He said, no I just look for PHD...I just have a passion, hunger, and drive to excellence on the basketball court, to teach my players more than just basketball, but how to excel in life. We took a three-star player from Archbishop Molloy at Louisville and made him into a two-time All-American. That's Russ Smith. I'm so proud of that young man, part of a National Championship team. I want to do the same thing at St. John's that I have done to every place that I have been. Change lives, make lives better, help the whole community get behind the team to win, and win in a big way."
On what's needed to build a winning program:
"It's what Lou [Carnesecca] said, get players...New Yorkers are a special breed. We're New York Strong. You have to understand New York and the whole culture of it. We've got to get players that are committed to winning and if you get those players, then you win. I've had them at Kentucky, Louisville, Boston University and Providence College. I've had it everywhere. I was very fortunate to get the athletes that had built a culture of winning. It's not going to be difficult. There is no difference between St. John's to Connecticut, St. John's to Marquette, St. John's to Xavier. St. John's is one of the legendary names in college basketball. Has it fallen on tough times? Yes, it has, but now we're ready to fall on great times. Raise this roof up, because St. John's is going to b back, I guarantee it."
On his vision of the basketball program:
"Father Shanley has pledged to build something really special at St. John's, and I know he will do it. My confidence is off the charts, because everyone at Providence reveres him...He'll build something special. I'm going to build something special in between the lines and in the community with all the St. John's fans. Father is going to build the facilities and the academic excellence, because he did it at Providence and there is not a doubt in my mind that he will do it again."
On the opportunity at St. John's:
"I say this to every recruit...I never ask a recruit 'who else is recruiting you?,' and they say, 'how come?' I'll never say a negative word about another coach and I'll never knock another school. I have too much respect for the people I coach against and too much respect for the people we play each and every night. The greatest, most humbled when he lost is right here in the front row [points to Lou Carnesecca]. Probably because he didn't lose much, but all of us, as young coaches, learned so much from Coach Carnesecca...Everybody loved him and everybody revered him. We all take a page out of his book. I don't worry about what people say or think, my job is to build men, build character in them, make them raise their level, make them reach their potential and that's what it's all about as a coach. Get the team to reach their potential in life and between the lines as well."