St. John’s Spends Millions on a Basketball Coach While New York City Catholic Schools Close Due to Money Problems
By Evan Weiner
April 5, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- Last Wednesday, the New York Daily News celebrated the St. John’s University hiring of a new basketball coach not only with stories splashed inside the sports section but with banner headlines on both the front and back page of Mort Zuckerman’s tabloid. The front-page headline was about the new coach’s wife, the actress Mary Ann Jarou. Apparently according to the world of Zuckerman, Mary Ann Jarou will be a big enough star that she will be able to be St. John’s secret weapon in recruiting. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post also had a big headline on the back page of the paper.
The St. John’s coaching situation had been very troublesome for both tabloids and the two New York sports talk radio stations. The school, which is a private Catholic university, just didn’t have a good basketball team and that caused concern. More concern than the announcement that by the Archdiocese of New York that two Catholic schools in the city could shut their doors at the end of the school year. Tuitions hikes at colleges along with student fees seem to be going up at New York State schools while the schools continue to cut back which is not atypical across the country as politicians slash educational budgets to make up for the economic downturn but educational woes don’t seem to resonant as much as college basketball.
The New York media wants college basketball in the city to be relevant again and has thrown down the gauntlet. They demanded that the bigwigs at the two Catholic schools hire top of the shelf coaches and make college basketball an event like it was back in the 1930s and 1940s or in the 1980s at St. John’s. They want a wreck of an old building, the new Madison Square Garden on top of what is left of the old time gorgeous Penn Station, to come alive like the defunct Madison Square Garden (on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets) where college basketball made a mark decades ago.
To be fair, St. John’s has nothing to do with the Archdiocese of New York and the what has become annual closing of Catholic schools in the city, yet the St. John’s signing of Lavin to a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract to coach about 40 basketball games a year and be the top paid St. John’s employee seem to validate lines about education and sports that were blurted out by Groucho Marx as Professor Qunicy Adams Wagstaff in the 1932 movie Horse Feathers, written by the satirist S. J. Perlman along with Will B. Johnstone, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Arthur Sheekman. Wagstaff is Huxley College’s new president and has to build a football team knowing that Huxley has not won a game since 1888. Wagstaff’s son Frank, who has attended Huxley for 12 years, suggests that dad should go out and recruit two top professional players to aid the school, not unlike all the advice that the tabloids and sports talk radio yakkers were giving to the St. John’s administration. In this case, the tabloids and yakkers suggested that it was time to get serious and pay millions to a coach so that the Johnnie’s would re-emerge as a top basketball playing school.
You can almost fill in the blanks and substitute St. John’s for Huxley in one of Wagstaff’s complaints. And I say to you that this college is a failure. We are neglecting football (basketball) for education.”
At a faculty meeting Wagstaff tells the assembled multitude that Huxley cannot afford having both a football team and a college and one will have to go.
“Tomorrow we start tearing down the college,” Wagstaff announced. The professors speaking all at once ask, “Where will the students sleep?” Wagstaff replies. “Where they always sleep. In the classrooms.”
Wagstaff, of course, does not recruit the top players around and instead ends up with Baravelli (the iceman/bootlegger) and Pinky (the dog catcher). St. John’s apparently missed out on their top choice or a St. John’s booster’s first choice, Florida’s Billy Donovan and the school’s fallback guy in Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt. But the school did land Lavin who has not coached since he was let go by UCLA in 2003.
At least the school did not poach another school’s under contract coach which, of course, is a common practice in college basketball.
Lavin’s salary will be paid from a variety of sources including the school, sneaker company, boosters and television. Lavin will also have to be a bit shady if a line in a New York Times sports story is correct.
An Amateur Athletic Union coach in New York told the Times that whoever coaches St. John’s better “bend the rules or something” to be successful.
Bend the rules or something could mean boosters paying players, altering school transcripts or having other people take tests for potential recruits. Coaches sign up with sneaker companies who go after junior high school players and put them through various camps and somehow those players end up at the sneaker-sponsored school. It is not clear what sneaker company will own Lavin yet but one of them will and Lavin’s players will wear that sneaker company’s product. That is how it is in big time college sports or else. Michael Jordan’s son Marcus wore NIKE shoes while playing for the University of Central Florida which was an adidas school. Jordan was more loyal to his father and NIKE and adidas dropped the $3 million, six-year sponsorship of the Central Florida basketball program. The sneaker industry has a great say in college basketball. College basketball is a much different entity than the show CBS presents during March Madness.
That also comes as no shock to anyone who has ever come near college basketball. Kentucky’s John Calipari is one of the few coaches to guide two teams to the NCAA tournament as a number one seed and is the only coach to have a Final Four vacated at two schools, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Memphis. Despite the blots on his resume, Calipari is all aces when it comes to turning programs into winners.
Calipari can jump from school to school and break his contract like many others in the college basketball coaching industry. The players, the stars of the show who don’t even make minimum wage for the toiling, cannot do the same. If a player wants to transfer, that player would have to sit out a year and lose a year of playing eligibility. Coaches can make millions; the players have a salary cap on what they can make from outside work. The get a scholarship, true, but the players raise money for schools (which have a federal tax exempt status) and if a player is lucky and wants to work hard enough, they can get an education out of the deal.
Sportswriters moan when a star leaves school to turn pro after a year. That is the only leverage a student-athlete has. The ability to turn pro.
Lavin’s track record indicates that he might be successful at St. John’s and success translates into more money in terms of moving ahead in the NCAA tournament. The majority of college sports programs are money losers but that could be changing with conferences realigning for cable TV network purposes (and money), some conferences have formed cable TV networks which increases exposure and puts more money into the coffers and the National Collegiate Athletic Association is thinking about expanding the Men’s College Basketball Tournament from 65 to 96 teams. The increase in the number of teams involved has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with trying to squeeze out more television money from someone, whether it is Sumner Redstone’s CBS, the soon-to-be Comcast owned NBCUniversal or Disney’s ESPN-ABC.
The thought of money flowing into a school is driving school presidents and chancellors at the big time sports schools in a frenzy to sign up big names to multimillion-dollar pacts. Seton Hall just poached Iona to sign Kevin Willard as coach. Seton Hall is the major leagues, a Big East team, Iona is not. Schools like Iona are training grounds for coaches looking to move up in the college basketball industry.
Coaches routinely break contracts and apparently that is fine with people who are supposed to be academic leaders like college and university presidents and chancellors and people on the board of trustees. Sometime you wonder whether these leaders respond to educational needs or the phalanx of people like boosters, television networks, marketing partners, luxury suite and club seat owners.
St. John’s has a big name coach with actress wife who might be a recruiting tool and that pleases sportswriters, the professional radio sports talkers, St. John’s alums, boosters, marketing partners and the guys who bet games. The private Catholic university is spending millions on a coach and his staff in order to win some basketball games while other Catholic K-12 schools are closing as enrollments drop and money becomes scarce.
No wonder college basketball’s defining moment every year is known as March Madness.
Evan Weiner is a radio-TV commentator, author and lecturer on “The Business and Politics of Sports” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org