By Julie Parise, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Steve Lavin has only been at the helm of St. John’s basketball for three seasons, but each year of his New York tenure has been marked by drama — highs and lows that don’t appear to be stopping anytime soon, even after an early exit from the Big East Tournament this week.
During the 2010-11 season, New York was abuzz with a resurgent St. John’s team that went 21-12, with six victories over ranked teams and a return to the NCAA tournament.
Then, after landing a top 10 recruiting class for his second year with the Red Storm, Lavin was diagnosed with prostate cancer, causing him to miss most of the 2011-12 season as he recovered from surgery.
When he returned to the Johnnies cancer-free for the 2012-13 season, it looked as if Lavin’s biggest obstacle would be coaching one of the youngest teams college hoops has ever seen.
“From the outset, I was very open about the fact that this would be the most challenging season of my coaching career,” said Lavin, who coached at UCLA and spent seven years in broadcasting before coming to St. John’s. “It’s unprecedented in my experience…it’s the youngest team I’ve ever been a part of.”
In essence, Lavin spent this season coaching all first and second-year players — but you wouldn’t have known it in January. The team started off conference play strong in 2013 and looked to be setting themselves up for another trip the Big Dance.
Until February 3, when Lavin found out his father was going to die.
“There’s no coaching manual on having a father die,” Lavin said. “I’ve never navigated through something like that in my career.”
The coach got on a plane the next day, Super Bowl Sunday, to fly to California and be with his dad. Cap Lavin died February 10.
That same day, on the other side of the country and without their head coach, the Johnnies took on Syracuse.
They lost that game. And the one after that.
Aside from a victory against South Florida on Feb. 20, the Red Storm saw nothing but losses after their head coach suffered his. Throw in the loss of their leading scorer – suspended for reasons that the team has yet to specify – and St. John’s was looking at another dramatic season, one that wasn’t likely to include a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“It was unusual. From February 3rd forward, it’s been really tough,” said Lavin. “That’s probably why I feel as close to this team as any in my coaching career, and why I’m so grateful…and looking forward to brighter days ahead.”
After a loss to Villanova in the second round of the Big East Tournament Wednesday night, Lavin said it was a learning experience for the young men on his team, as well.
“There were some things that were beyond these kids’ control…It’s not their fault,” Lavin said of his players. “From that point, obviously I had to be with my family…Things happen. But I share a major part of the responsibility, of the fact that we didn’t finish. But there are sometimes take-aways and lessons even in that.”
Emotion has also been the overarching theme at the Garden this week. The story of conference realignment and the changing face of the Big East has been reported seemingly nonstop, as coaches are asked again and again to reflect on 30 years of buzzer beaters, overtimes and rivalries at the world’s most famous arena.
Lavin chuckled at the post-game press conference when asked by a reporter about the “demise” of the league.
“I’ve been so locked in, and in particular this last month, it’s just been such a unique situation for me personally. Just a hard month on all fronts,” he said. “I’m not really at a point where I can speak in an informed, intelligent manner about what this means in an existential way or a historical way.”
But Villanova Coach Jay Wright was ready to talk.
“All of us who have been a part of this, this means a lot. This is really big to us,” Wright said. “It’s just been so much a part of us. It’s sad, but the greatest thing about it is that we get to come back here and we keep a lot of the original schools together. I would lie to you if [said] I wasn’t very sentimental about this. “
It seemed every coach had similar feelings about the transformation of the league. Even the hard-nosed coach from Syracuse.
“Just so you all know, Jim Boeheim’s a lot friendlier, nicer guy than you think,” Wright told reporters after the win over St. John’s. “He’ll never admit it, but he’s a little sentimental. I know he is. I know this league means the world to him. He went and hugged John Thompson after the game, and you know, he’s not a hugger.”
Lavin did say was that he was bold on the new Big East, and “encouraged” by the the group of schools the transformed league will include.
“The future of the league is very strong. I’m glad we got the name, because the brand is very important – in anything. You know, in Coca-Cola, Hershey’s. You can’t go wrong with a Hershey bar. You know, the logo,” he said. “So, we got the right branding. We’ve got good leadership.”
Indeed, rumor has it that the so-called Catholic 7 is expected to announce new members in the coming week.
“There’s still some things in play we need to take care of. But that’s to be expected when you go through a transition like this,” Lavin said. “I know that we lost some titans, some great rivalries, some great coaches and great institutions. Unfortunately that’s kind of the world we live in.”
St. Johns will return almost its entire roster for the 2013-14 season, looking forward to a fresh start in a new Big East Conference. Going forward, Lavin and his team will continue to take the punches as they come in a league that will be different, but still demanding.
After his loss Wednesday night, the coach put it simply:
“And the beat goes on.”
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