For St. John's University, the 1970s ended with a bang. The
men's basketball team flourished under Lou Carnesecca's unique
leadership - a combination of competitive zest and nurturing
support for his players.
Carnesecca has summed up his approach to coaching in this way:
"It's the St. John's philosophy. You take good care of the ball,
you play for the good shot and you play good defense."
There was one other aspect to Carnesecca's approach, one he
considered even more important. "You never forget the kids who're
playing for you," he said. "You never put them in a situation to
make them feel poorly."
Carnesecca's "St. John's Philosophy" helped propel the team to
victory after victory. In March, 1979, St. John's was the last team
invited to the NCAA Tournament. Yet the team muscled its way to the
East Regional final by trouncing Duke, Rutgers and Temple until
Penn finally stopped the "Johnnies, " 64-62.
That winter, St. John's blew away defending NCAA champ Michigan
State in the recently established Lapchick Tournament. On December
16, 1979, St. John's Reggie Carter scored 39 points in a win over
Brigham Young. At the time, it was an Alumni Hall record for a St.
John's player, only to be surpassed by Ernie DeGregorio of
Providence (41 points) and then by St. John's own Malik Sealy (43
As the academic year drew to a close in December, St. John's
went on to beat both Lafayette and Boston College, earning its
fourth Holiday Festival title. David Russell was named Most
Local Talent Dominates Dream
A fierce belief in New York City's local talent led Carnesecca to
recruit one of the greatest teams in St. John's history. By
1985, he had assembled a star-studded team of New York talent - a
team that would lead St. John's to the Final Four and firmly
establish Carnesecca's place in college basketball history.
The Dream Team of the 1980s included several homegrown New
Yorkers: Chris Mullin, from the Flatlands section of Brooklyn; Mark
Jackson, another gifted Brooklyn native; and Walter Berry, born and
raised in Manhattan. Joining them was Bill Wennington, the towering
center from Montreal, Canada.
Their string of victories was stunning. In December, 1981, St.
John's won its fifth ECAC Holiday Festival title by routing
Villanova at Madison Square Garden. That year, Mullin was
named Most Valuable Player. In November, 1982, St. John's
trounced North Carolina (led by Michael Jordan) by a score of 78-74
in the Tip-Off Classic. Once again, Mullin was named Most
Valuable Player, along with Kevin Williams.
Sometimes legends are born unexpectedly. A good example is
Carnesecca's famous "ugly sweater." This legend began with a
One day, a coach from Italy visited Carnesecca at St. John's
Queens campus. "It's an Italian tradition to exchange gifts,"
Carnesecca recalled. "So the coach gave me a sweater - it was an
ugly one, no style, no composition."
Carnesecca tossed the sweater into his closet and forgot about
it - until one day in January, 1985. "I caught a cold," he
said. "We had a game scheduled for that day, and my wife was
worried the court would be drafty. 'Lou,' she says, 'why don't you
wear a sweater?' Being a good husband, I went to my closet and got
the sweater the coach had given me."
Carnesecca wore the sweater as St. John's took on
the University of Pittsburgh, on January 14, 1985. St. John's
won the game by "a last minute jumpshot." In his view, the
sweater had brought good luck. "The sweater helped win the
game," he said with a smile. "After that, I had to wear it. If I
didn't, I'd hear all these St. John's kids yelling, 'Hey, Coach!
Where's your sweater?' "
The Final Four
Over the next three years, St. John's would defeat one great team
In March, 1983, St. John's captured its first Big East
Tournament title by running over Pittsburgh, Villanova and Boston
College. A 1985 victory over Number 1-ranked Georgetown University
propelled St. John's to the Number 1 ranking in the nation, until
February 27, 1985, when Georgetown triumphed at Madison Square
St. John's players continued to win national acclaim. Chris
Mullin was named MVP again in 1983. In 1985, Mullin received the
John R. Wooden Award, as did Walter Berry a year later, after
becoming the second-fastest player in St. John's history to achieve
1,000 points for his career.
In 1986, Mark Jackson set a St. John's record with 16 assists
against Providence, propelling St. John's to yet another victory.
One year later, Jackson would be named NBA rookie of the year.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Carnesecca continued to lead St.
John's to victory. In 1989, for example, he guided St. John's to an
NIT Championship over St. Louis University. Assessing Carnesecca's
style, Chris Mullin, once offered this observation: "He was never
afraid to challenge you, but he was always right behind you as
In fact, Mullin added, Carnesecca's natural humility also helped
to motivate his players. "When there was a loss," said Mullin, "he
took the loss. But when there was a win, he always gave it to
The "Winningest" Coach
It was at this time that American began to recognize Carnesecca as
one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball.
On February 11, 1984, he became St. John's all-time winningest
coach when his team beat Connecticut. Originally named
"Metropolitan Coach of the Year" in 1970 and 1978, Carnesecca won
the designation again in 1983, 1985, and 1986. In 1985, he also was
named the Kodak NIT "Man of the Year."
By the time Carnesecca retired as coach in 1992, he had amassed
a record of 526 wins and 200 losses. To honor this achievement,
Madison Square Garden in 2001 raised Carnesecca's 526 banner to its
Yet Carnesecca's greatest achievement is the respect and
affection his players and colleagues have for him as a coach and a
person. As Mark Jackson once said of Carnesecca, "he was a
phenomenal basketball mind and an even better person. He not only
produced excellent basketball players, but he produced men."