Nice guys finish last

March 11, 2010

Norm Roberts is out at St. John's

For one week, St. John’s basketball had a chance to be the darling of the city, audition for their role in Cinderella, and ultimately save their season and regain some respectability.  After blowing out Connecticut Tuesday afternoon, the Redmen looked to continue the dream against Marquette, but missed crucial free throws and had too many costly turnovers, a microcosm of the 2009-2010 season and Norm Roberts tenure at St. John’s. 

Close, but not good enough. 

 The New York Post is reporting this morning that head coach Norm Roberts will finally be fired after six seasons.   St. John’s has yet to confirm this, but all indications from various sources are pointing to Norm getting canned. 

Norm Roberts took over a program in 2004 that was in bad shape, to put it lightly.  His predecessor Mike Jarvis did an OK job as a coach on the floor, but off the court the team was in the middle of scandals, corruption of sorts, and eventually landed on NCAA probation.   While Roberts has definitely changed the culture of the program, the wins were still not there and after six seasons it is time for Norm to pack his bags. 

Against the Golden Eagles of Marquette, the Johnnies played tough and as hard as they always do, rallying from 14 points down and eventually taking a four-point lead.  As much as I have criticized Norm Roberts, I will admit that the players always give 110% for the man and that is not something to just push under the rug.   Nonetheless, when you’ve been at a school for six seasons, and hold a record of 81-100, you did not do a good job.

Roberts was brought in to coach St. John’s for two main reasons:  He was a Queens native, and was a top recruiter for Bill Self at Tulsa, Illinois, and Kansas as an assistant coach.  Hailing from Queens painted a rosy picture that Norm would be able to recruit the local city scene, and get some of the top Big Apple talent to stay home.  His success as an assistant for Bill Self also furthered the point that Roberts would be able to bring some talent to the Garden. 

The only problem is, after six seasons, Norm landed just two top 100 recruits. 

Burrell hasn't blossomed enough

One of those recruits, junior Justin Burrell, had a great freshman season which earned him a spot on the Big East All-Rookie team.  Burrell has size (6’8), athleticism, and a decent outside jumper to go along with his post-play.  Norm lived up to his hype in recruiting Burrell, but the problem is Justin has regressed since averaging 11 points and 6 boards his freshman season.  After averaging 9 points his sophomore year, Burrell put up just 7 points per game this year, and looked lost at times on the floor. 

Justin Burrell is the perfect example of another problem with Norm Roberts- he had no idea how to develop players. 

Another example would be Sean Evans, a 6’7 Junior who was not a highly touted recruit.  Anybody who has watched a few St. John’s games will know that Evans had a tremendous turnaround from his freshman to sophomore season, but this year Sean’s game has regressed like Burrell.  A good coach would inform Evans that he is not a point guard, should not be dribbling the ball, and must be the post presence that fans saw last year.  Instead, Sean feels the need to run the fast-break, attempt to beat defenders off the dribble, and average just seven points per game. 

In case you’re wondering, Evans put up 10.3 points per game last season.  

If that is not evidence enough for Norm’s firing, there is Omari Lawrence, the second top-100 recruit that Roberts brought in.  Lawrence was recruited by some of the top school’s in America, but ultimately chose St. John’s.  Although slightly overweight, Omari could do it all out of high school, and showed some promise early this season.  Nevertheless, Omari Lawrence was benched for virtually the entire second half of the season, playing only sparring minutes this week in the Big East Tournament. 

Due to his lack of playing time, Lawrence wrote on his facebook a week or so ago that “I don’t know what else have I do to…maybe I’m not right for St. John’s.”

If Omari transfers, it will not be the first time a talented player chose to leave the Johnnies.  Larry Wright was a sharp-shooter out of Michigan who showed plenty of promise as a freshman and sophomore at St. John’s.  After averaging close to 10 ppg for the Red Storm in 2007, Wright chose to transfer and will now be playing in the 2010 NCAA Tournament with the Oakland Golden Grizzlies. 

There was also Cedric Jackson, Mike Cavataio, Avery Patterson, and Ricky Torres who left Jamaica, Queens after Norm buried them on the bench at one time or another.  

If Norm is such a nice guy, why did so many kids transfer?

I could also address the lack of set offensive plays, the incredibly dumb and clueless substitution patterns, and the inability to make halftime adjustments, but I think the writing is clear on the wall by just looking at Norm’s record and lack of Big East success. 

To rub it in the St. John’s fans face, the Red Storm even lost to both Big East local teams – Rutgers and Seton Hall-  this season. 

But hey, at least they finally beat Hofstra.  

“The best thing about Norm is he’s a nice guy,” one of his good friends said before the game yesterday. “But that’s also one of the worst things about Norm. He’s a nice guy competing against a lot of heavyweight coaches who aren’t so nice.”

Maybe St. John’s needs to bring in a not so nice coach, somebody who will get in the face of his players and not take the same mediocrity year after year.   Sports is a bottom-line profession, where results ultimately outweight hard-work and a positive attitude. 

Possible candidates appear to be Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech, a Long Island native who has brought Hokies basketball back to contention in the ACC.  There is also current Siena Head Coach Fran McCaffrey, whose Saints team will play in the NCAA Tournament this year for the third straight season. 

Tom Pecora at Hofstra is a long-shot, as are Rockville Centre’s own Billy Donovan (Florida) and Rick Pitino who both might come to St. John’s if the price was right.  Another problem with the basketball program, however,  is their unwillingness to pay top dollar for an elite head coach. 

But again, this is about Norm Roberts tenure, and not his eventual replacement.  Roberts was hired as an elite recruiter, and yet St. John’s loses more recruiting wars than basketball games.  His recent recruiting efforts failed to sign Jayvaughn Pinkston (Villanova) or Tobias Harris (Tennessee) and if you look at any Big East roster you will see plenty other local kids who chose to go elsewhere. 

2009-2010 was supposed to be the year for the Red Storm, but a 6-12 record in conference couldn’t even top last year’s dismal season.  Norm Roberts deserves praise for repairing the school’s image off the court, carrying himself with class and grace, and being a role model for his players. 

And he may deserve a job somewhere else, just not at St. John’s anymore. 

Today, another nice guy finished last and out of a job.



  1. […] T.O.N.Y: Nice guys finish last […]

  2. […] the problem with keeping Norm for one more season. But trust me, there isn’t just one reason.   Next year the team will have nine seniors, which means at least nine scholarships will be […]

  3. […] After reports broke last week that Norm would not be retained for a 7th season, the firing became questionable when Norm was seen coaching the team at practice leading up to their eventual NIT first-round loss to Memphis.  […]

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