Wednesday, April 14, 2004

St. John's taps Kansas assistant as new head coach

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

NEW YORK - Norm Roberts rose to greet the St. John's community as its new head basketball coach just one day after flying to New York for the interview. The youthful Kansas assistant with salt and pepper at his temples charmed those in attendance and made it clear why president Rev. Donald J. Harrington would take a risk on an unproven coach after a Monday night dinner at the Sky Club.

"Who can best unify this basketball community and my bottom line was Norm Roberts," said Harrington, who offered him the job at 8:30 Tuesday morning.

Roberts said all the right things Tuesday, about reconnecting with New York high school and AAU coaches, but his only head coaching experience was at Queens College in the early '90s, where he compiled a 24-84 record.

Now he is charged with turning around a 6-21 St. John's team reeling from academic, legal and on-court trouble. A sex scandal stripped the team of six players, Willie Shaw was suspended after he and former player Marcus Hatten were arrested for smoking marijuana in a car and senior Andre Stanley was suspended for academic reasons.

"I can guarantee we will do everything we can to prevent things like that from happening," said Roberts, who sat down with the Kansas players after the St. John's fiasco in Pittsburgh and used it as an object lesson.

Three scholarship players will be back, and Roberts will have to recruit from scratch to a campus fractured by the December firing of Mike Jarvis and subsequent coaching search.

"The really great thing, the selling point I have, is playing time," Roberts said.

Roberts, a 38-year-old Queens, N.Y., native, has made a reputation recruiting New York players to other Division I programs coached by Bill Self. Together at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas, Roberts went to the Elite Eight with all three programs.

He envisioned starting as a head coach in the mid-major ranks, but instead has been signed to a five-year contract for a salary described as competitive within the Big East but not as high as the $725,000 fired coach Jarvis made.

Harrington also confirmed that athletic director Dave Wegrzyn would probably not be in that position much longer. He was asked if it could be tricky to hire an athletic director who wasn't involved in the hiring process of the basketball coach.

"We considered it but with each of the candidates I was very upfront about the possibility of having a new athletic director," Harrington said.

Harrington interviewed just three candidates: Roberts, former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty and DePaul's Dave Leitao. After signing a contract extension, Leitao withdrew as a candidate at St. John's and Harrington chose between the final two Tuesday morning.

It's easy to see why kids want to play for Roberts. An engaging speaker, he told the story of being refused a basketball scholarship at Queens College because his grades were so poor. He choked up as he recalled how his father told the coach that his son would not only be the best player on the team but the best student.

"I proved my dad right," said Roberts, who had 3.2 GPA that semester. "And that was a big moment for me."

He went on to be an assistant in the city at Archbishop Molloy.

"I can pull it together because the AAU coaches, the high school coaches in this city can relate to me because I'm just like them," Roberts said.

Before he hooked up with Self, Roberts couldn't buy an assistant spot in New York. Now he returns with an improbable head coaching job at the place he considered his dream destination as a young coach. He will be a fine recruiter, but negotiating the political terrain at St. John's - he is the fourth head coach in 10 years - could prove the more difficult part of the job.

Roberts will have a mentor in former head coach and icon Lou Carnesecca, who was at Alumni Hall Tuesday.

"I don't think we're dead yet," Carnesecca said. "A lot of people have us buried, but we might pull a Lazarus."

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