Pitino: St. John’s basketball ‘will be back’
New York — Rick Pitino promised a St. John's return to prominence during his introduction Tuesday as men's basketball coach, saying a turnaround will happen “in a big way” at a program beleaguered by mediocrity the past two decades.
“St. John's is one of the legendary names in all of college basketball,” Pitino said during a press conference at Madison Square Garden. “Has it fallen on tough times? Yes it has. But now we're ready to fall on great times. We're ready to raise it up, raise this roof up, because St. John's is going to be back. I guarantee that.”
The New York native, 70, is tasked with revamping a St. John's team that has only qualified for the NCAA tournament three times since 2002. He replaces Mike Anderson, whom St. John's fired this month after four seasons without a tournament appearance.
Pitino, who confirmed he has a six-year contract with St. John's, comes over from Iona, where he posted a 64-22 record and two NCAA tournament appearances in three seasons.
The hiring marks a return to the Big East Conference for Pitino, who led Providence to the Final Four in 1987. St. John's splits its home games between Carnesecca Arena in Queens and the Garden, where Pitino worked as an assistant and head coach of the Knicks during separate stints in the 1980s.
Pitino won NCAA championships with Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013, the latter of which was vacated due to a sex scandal involving recruits. Pitino was fired from Louisville in 2017 amid a federal probe into fraud and corruption in college basketball.
He coached for more than a year in Greece after his firing until he was hired by Iona in 2020.
Pitino believes he deserves the opportunity to coach St. John's but never expected it after his Louisville exit, he said Tuesday.
“I did not think it's possible,” Pitino said. “I wasn't exiled ... but nobody really wanted to deal with hiring me at that point. The NCAA unfortunately moves at a snail's pace. Took five years for the case to come up. I wasn't hit real hard with violations like other people were but I was very, very proud of the things we've accomplished . ... I look back on Greece and it sort of, for me, gave me a new life. A new basketball life.”
St. John's has not reached 20 wins since the 2018-19 season, which was Chris Mullin's final year as head coach. That season ended with a loss in the First Four round of the tournament.
Pitino acknowledged there's work to be done, saying he likely needs to add between six and eight players with an emphasis on shooting, durability and defense.
He named center Joel Soriano the team captain Tuesday but said many other current players will not be back.
He didn't rule out an immediate turnaround and stressed the importance of finding players committed to winning.
“It's not gonna be difficult. It really is not,” Pitino said of recruiting. “There's no difference from St. John's to Connecticut, St. John's to Marquette, St. John's to Xavier.”
Pitino and John Calipari are the only coaches to lead three different schools to the Final Four. In 2013, Pitino was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“The one thing all my players have said, because they all wrote letters for me, I've never cheated the game,” Pitino said Tuesday. “I never gave a player anything that he didn't deserve in life.”
Pitino grew up on Long Island and played high school basketball at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay. He described Tuesday's introduction at the Garden as “one of the most special moments of my life.”
“I've been to the Garden as a Knicks coach,” Pitino said. “I've been to the Garden as the Providence coach. And now I get to represent something really, really special.”