At least once a week, Lou Carnesecca '50C, '60GEd, '00HON drives
to the Queens campus and walks into his corner office in Sun Yat
This room has been his on-campus home since 1992, when he retired
from coaching and joined the University's administration as a
Special Assistant to the President.
It also serves as a veritable treasure trove of Red Storm
The walls are meticulously decorated with countless photos, posters
and banners documenting the history of St. John's men's basketball.
Trophies and plaques stand on the desk and windowsill.
"I'll be honest with you, I didn't decorate this office,"
Carnesecca jokes. "But whoever did sure put a lot of work into
Though retired from coaching for nearly 20 years, this 86-year-old
legend is as sharp as ever. His mind is like an encyclopedia,
retaining the names and faces of every young man he's
He points to a photo of Greg "Boo" Harvey ’99SVC, who won three
games during the 1989-90 season on last-second buzzerbeaters. The
coach's eyes light up.
“That kid had a sweet shot, baby," he says. “A heck of a
A picture of Walter Berry ’10CPS hangs beside it.
"Phenomenal player," the coach recalls. "Great athlete, fantastic
center of the wall, directly behind Carnesecca's desk, is a framed
poem written by Mark Jackson ’85CBA. The coach smiles as he glances
"I’ve always said, that kid sure has a way with the pen."
Its precisely this easy-going and approachable personality that has
made Carnesecca the iconic face of St. John’s for decades, an
ambassador who embodies the University’s metropolitan location,
Vincentian mission and rich basketball tradition.
He's also become one of St. John’s most honored graduates, and his
impressive list of accolades recently grew longer: at the 2011
Commencement Exercises, the University awarded him the St. Vincent
de Paul Medal, commemorating his over-50 years of service to the
St. John's community.
Since he retired from coaching, his resume has continued to grow:
induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992,
an Honorary Degree from St. John’s in 2000, the University’s Spirit
of Service Award in 2008 and – perhaps most notably – the renaming
of Alumni Hall to Carnesecca Arena in 2004.
The coach, always humble, likes to downplay his achievements.
"It's very nice to be thought of in that light," Carnesecca said.
"But I think it's all a matter of longevity. If you can stick
around this long, people start to associate your face with St.
John's. Plus I’ve been very lucky to spend my entire coaching
career in New York City. You become part of the pavement; people
recognize you, they know who you are because you’ve become part of
A New York native and an alumnus of the University’s Lewis Avenue
campus in Brooklyn, Carnesecca fell in love with St. John’s
athletics during his student days. As an undergraduate, he played
in three games on the 1946-47 junior varsity basketball team as a
self-proclaimed benchwarmer. He also competed as an infielder on
the baseball team, helping St. John’s reach its first-ever College
World Series in 1949. Along the way, he developed strong
relationships with St. John’s coaching standouts like James “Buck”
Freeman ’27 and Frank McGuire ’36C, men who first brought the
University’s athletics to prominence.
Though his father had wanted him to become a doctor, Carnesecca
knew that coaching was his passion. He served as Assistant Coach of
the basketball team at St. John’s under Joe Lapchick for eight
seasons, and eventually stepped in as Head Coach in 1965. But
taking over an already successful program and replacing a future
Hall-of-Famer in Lapchick was no easy task.
was a giant,” Carnesecca said. “He spent 50 years in basketball
with the Celtics, the Knickerbockers, two terms at St. John’s –
amazing stuff. It was very difficult to step into his shoes, but
thank God I had the opportunity to learn under him first. That made
the transition feel almost natural.”
Lapchik’s example both on and off the court greatly shaped
Carnesecca’s approach to the game. Most notably, Carnesecca learned
that charm and personality can be just as important to a coach as
“Aside from the Xs and Os, Lapchick taught me how to handle
people,” Carnesecca recalled. “He had that rare ability to make
personalities blend together, and he was never too busy to give an
Those lessons paid off. Carnesecca thrived as Head Coach, his
personality making him a fan favorite and a recognizable figure on
the national scene. He guided his teams to the postseason in all 24
of his years at the helm.
He left the University briefly in the early ’70s to coach the New
York Nets of the ABA – “My purgatorial period,” as Carnesecca
jokingly calls it – only to return to St. John’s for arguably the
most successful decade and a half of his career.
In particular, there’s the mid-’80s, a period of great success for
the men’s team. From 1984 to 1986, Carnesecca amassed an overall
record of 62-9, memorably reaching the NCAA Final Four in 1985.
Legendary players like Berry, Jackson, Chris Mullin ’98CBA and Bill
Wennington ’85SVC led the way, turning in spectacular performances
during a time that Carnesecca now considers his crowning
“The funny thing about 1985 is that everyone said we had to get to
the Final Four,” Carnesecca noted. “So if we didn’t make it, that
would’ve been a terrible disappointment. Thank God we got there. We
couldn’t get all the marbles, but we gave it a run, and those kids
did a heck of a job.”
After retiring from coaching in 1992, Carnesecca served the St.
John’s community in a different capacity as Special Assistant to
the President. In this new role, he spent his time spreading the
University’s mission, helping out at St. John’s Bread and Life and
contributing to many other charitable endeavors to reach out to
those in need.
philosophy on helping others is simple: just do it,” Carnesecca
said. “It should be second nature; you see someone suffering, you
help them. The great thing about St. John’s is that you don’t just
learn about theology and ethics, you live it. The Vincentian
Fathers used to hang out with us when we were students, have lunch
with us and lead by example. They were marvelous, and I’m glad to
see that today’s kids are still helping out, making sandwiches and
giving them to the homeless at those Midnight Runs. That’s really
Carnesecca’s retirement from coaching ushered in a period of
inconsistency for St. John’s basketball. The men’s team had its ups
and downs, while the women’s squad reached an all-time low in the
2001-02 season, going 3-23 overall and 0-16 in the BIG EAST.
Fast forward to 2011 and suddenly both programs are back on track.
First-year Men’s Head Coach Steve Lavin has revitalized the men’s
team, taking the Johnnies to the NCAA Tournament for the first time
in nine years and sending shockwaves across the nation with
thrilling victories at Madison Square Garden. Women’s Head Coach
Kim Barnes Arico, meanwhile, has spent the last nine seasons
transforming the women’s team into a national powerhouse. Her squad
made the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year in 2011.
(read more about the
men's and women's
Both coaches have ushered in a new era of Red Storm basketball, and
they cite Carnesecca as one of their major role models and sources
"When I think of St. John’s University, I immediately think of
Coach Carnesecca,” said Barnes Arico. “I grew up watching St.
John’s play, sitting in the bleachers at Alumni Hall. Just the type
of man Coach Carnesecca is – he wasn’t just a basketball coach. The
things he did and the value he brought to the University and our
mission here at St. John’s is outstanding, and I have the utmost
respect for him. He’s a wonderful man.”
Coaching at St. John’s has been a fantastic experience for this
Long Island native, especially since she is still able to interact
with Carnesecca, one of her longtime idols.
“When I first came here I was in awe of Coach Carnesecca,” she
recalled. “For someone of his magnitude, someone I looked up to, to
take the time out of his day to stop by a practice, attend one of
our games or just give me a word of encouragement about our program
– that means so much to me. That’s just the type of person he is,
and for him to do that after 50 years of service to the University
is truly incredible.”
Lavin, on the other hand, was playing Division II basketball at
Chapman University in California during Carnesecca’s prime. He
still followed the team, however, and viewed Carnesecca as a
teams in the ’80s captivated the college world,” Lavin said. “The
personality of Carnesecca on the sideline – his charisma, those
sweaters – that made him stand out. He’s legendary: someone who’s
won at the highest level, so I naturally followed the St. John’s
program back then from a distance.”
One of Lavin’s favorite moments during his first year on the job
came when he met Carnesecca.
"My first day on campus, Lou Carnesecca patted me on the knee at
lunch and said, ‘You’ll be fine, kid. Just make sure you get the
horses.’ Or, in other words, recruit at a very high level if you
want to win games. That’s the same advice John Wooden gave me at
UCLA: great players take you to great heights.”
Lavin took those words to heart. He’s landed a dynamic recruiting
class ranked third in the nation by ESPN and hopes to build off
last year to develop a winning culture around the program.
The fan base has been reenergized and everyone on campus is excited
to see the new squad in action – especially Carnesecca, arguably
the Johnnies’ biggest fan. His energy is contagious when talking
about the job Coach Lavin has done.
“Just look at Coach Lavin,” Carnesecca said. “His personality is
fantastic – he’s got that rare ability to get people to like him,
and he makes you feel right at home. I think he could run for
mayor, but I sure hope he doesn’t – we gotta’ keep him here!”
The success of both the men’s and women’s programs has been
exciting for Carnesecca to see. He views it as a fitting reward
after nearly two decades of inconsistency.
“I’ll tell you how good it is: I can walk down the street and not
be afraid,” Carnesecca jokes. “I used to walk down Union Turnpike
and hear people telling me, ‘What’s the matter with the teams? When
are they gonna’ win?’ And now this year, both the men’s and women’s
teams are clicking. It gave us a shot in the arm. We have that
tradition, that heritage, and sometimes we lose it for whatever
reason. But I’m so glad we got it back, and it looks like we’re
really going at it now.”
other Red Storm fan, Carnesecca is now just a spectator, happy to
watch his successors from the stands and cheer along with the home
crowd. But even after a storied career of over-50 years of service
to St. John’s, he continues to act as an ambassador for the
University, attending major events and participating in a host of
charitable endeavors. The St. Vincent de Paul Medal is undeniable
proof of this lifelong commitment.
Today, Carnesecca is still a familiar face on the Queens campus and
can often be found grabbing coffee at the Starbucks in the D’Angelo
Center, attending Mass at St. Thomas More Church, walking across
the Great Lawn or speaking with students and staff.
And, of course, he loves to spend time in his office – a room
literally covered in fantastic memorabilia from his Hall-of-Fame
“This campus is a showplace,” he says, a smile across his face.
“You walk across it and see the students, and it makes you feel
young. I can’t get enough of it.”
Carnesecca looks around at the countless photos decorating his
office’s walls. A signed poster of Chris Mullin hangs next to a
photo of Malik Sealy ’92CBA. Just a small sampling of the lives
he’s touched during his phenomenal run as the face of St.
“This is home,” Carnesecca says. “That’s the best way I can put it.
This is home.”