He was charming. He was funny. He was honest.
Above all else, though, Rick Pitino was confident bordering on cocky — certain he will lead St. John’s back to national relevance and restore pride in this program that has been stuck in the college basketball wilderness for more than two decades.
The Hall of Fame coach hit all the right notes in his introductory press conference at the Garden on Tuesday and gave this beaten-down fanbase reasons to believe that he will make the Johnnies a consistent winner even in his 70s.
“It’s not going to be difficult,” Pitino said, though the Queens school certainly has made it seem like it for two decades. “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 be back, I guarantee that.”
It’s been a long time since that was the case.
The Johnnies last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2000. They last reached the main draw of the dance in 2015.
They haven’t advanced to the Big East Tournament semifinals in 23 years. Pitino, 70, is planning to change all of that after leaving Iona for St. John’s following three successful seasons.
It was a successful first day on the job for him.
He has already convinced star center Joel Soriano to stay at St. John’s.
The legendary coach was brutally honest when it came to the roster, saying there will be major changes.
He plans to bring in up to eight new players, which means several current players leaving.
The only other player he guaranteed to return is little-used forward Drissa Traore.
Pitino didn’t receive positive reviews on many of the players.
“There’s certain players that are going to fit in with me, certain players that won’t fit in,” said Pitino, a two-time national champion who has coached in seven Final Fours and owns a lifetime .710 (711-290) winning percentage across 35 seasons. “I know Joel fits into what I’m all about, I know [Traore] fits into the style of play and the character I need. Certain players won’t fit in and should not play for me. They should go to a different place and fit in.”
Pitino is bringing his entire coaching staff from Iona to St. John’s and is planning to keep associate head coach Van Macon.
He will be speaking to everyone in the program over the next few days, and that includes recruits Brandon Gardner, Yaxel Lendeborg and Harrison Reede.
Gardner, a four-star, top-100 recruit from Christ the King in Queens, plans to remain committed to St. John’s until meeting with Pitino, his mother Tameka Gordon told The Post.
The staff will work the transfer portal, and could opt to bring in Iona stars Walter Clayton Jr. and Nelly Junior Joseph, both of whom entered the portal Tuesday.
“We’re going to hit the streets, and we’re going to hit them hard,” said Pitino, who agreed to a six-year contract worth north of $20 million in total, according to sources.
The excitement about the hire is already through the roof.
Athletic director Mike Cragg told The Post that season-ticket sales deposits were up 20 percent.
Pitino is planning to significantly up the number of games St. John’s plays at the Garden, saying Carnesecca Arena will be too small as the brand grows.
The press conference was jammed with national reporters and television cameras seldom seen covering St. John’s events.
It included 98-year-old Lou Carneseeca, the all-time winningest coach in Red Storm history.
Pitino billboards went up in Times Square.
“It’s everything,” Cragg said. “Rick is a winner at every level, and he has high aspirations. As you know, I have high aspirations. [St. John’s president Rev. Brian] Shanley has high aspirations. We’re going to do it.”
This press conference hit similar tones to Chris Mullin’s introduction eight years ago in that there was the hope of returning to the program’s glory days led by an icon.
There were some stark differences, though.
Mullin had never coached before, and the excitement over his hire was based on him learning to do so.
Pitino doesn’t have to learn anything about coaching.
He’s won everywhere and built up programs in a hurry.
He expects to do the same here.
“It’s not about when, or if, it’s going to happen for St. John’s,” Pitino said, “and it’s going to happen in a big way.”
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