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Bosco’s Corner: Gonzalez is the guy for Red Storm

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March Madness is still in full swing, but aside from the odd high school game, St. John’s University’s Alumni Hall has been as quiet as a country church these last few weeks. And a March without the St. John’s Red Storm somewhere in the mix just doesn’t feel like March at all.

Of course, nothing has been going according to plan at the Jamaica campus of the nation’s largest Catholic university, at least when it comes to the men’s basketball team. At least nothing since the team first tipped off the 2003-2004 campaign, a season that once seemed so full of promise but now ranks as the worst in the long and storied history of the fifth-winningest program in the history of college hoops.

Instead of trying to gameplan for a Sweet 16 opponent, the brain trust at St. John’s is focusing its attention — or at least I hope it is — toward the hiring of the team’s next coach.

I have listened long and hard to the ongoing debate among fans, alumni and the media as to who the next person should be to wear the title of Head Coach at St. John’s, and I’m at exactly the same place I was when Mike Jarvis was given the proverbial boot six days before Christmas.

When Jarvis was fired just six games into the season — the first basketball coach in the history of the Big East conference to be canned midseason — I, along with just about everyone else, was shocked at the sudden move by the school. The action all but doomed the team and interim coaching staff to mediocrity for the remainder of the year.

Well, the season was far from mediocre — it was downright dreadful. The Red Storm managed just four wins following Jarvis’ departure, was rocked by numerous scandals and finished the campaign with only four scholarship players eligible.

When all was said and done, St. John’s finished with a 6-21 record, 1-15 in the Big East, good enough for dead last in the conference. The team failed to make the annual Big East Tournament for the first time in the 25-year history of the event and missed post-season play for just the second time in seven seasons.

So how does St. John’s rebound from such a devastating season? By making the absolute perfect hire to replace Jarvis.

And who will that be, exactly? If you’ve been paying attention, names from all corners of the basketball world have been bandied about, some realistic and some not. But for my money, the only real candidate should be Manhattan College’s Bobby Gonzalez.

Some, including the ever-intrepid associate sports editor of this fine newspaper, Dylan Butler, think former St. John’s great Chris Mullin is the answer. Dylan began calling for Mullin about a month ago and, while I think his presence at the school would certainly bolster recruiting, I’m not sure if he’s the answer.

Others have called for another St. John’s alum (and Queens native) Mark Jackson. Like Mullin, Jackson is an attractive and sentimental choice. But on the college level, players need an experienced coach who knows how to teach and would be 100 percent dedicated to the task at hand. I don’t know nor does anyone really know how Mullin and Jackson would do as college coaches because neither has ever coached at any level.

St. John’s needs a comer, a guy on his way up, and Gonzalez fits that bill perfectly.

So do a bunch of others who, for one reason or another, probably won’t come here. The guys I am referring to are Memphis’ John Calipari, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt and Providence’s Tim Welsh. All four are top-flight candidates and I would love to see any one of them get the job, but that’s not likely.

Then there is the list of good coaches who just don’t have the reputation or the name to get the gig, guys like Air Force’s Joe Scott and Boston University’s Dennis Wolff. They would both probably do well, but we are talking the perfect hire here and neither really fits that bill, I’m sad to say.

And then there is Gonzalez. He seems the natural choice for St. John’s, a local guy who has proven he can win against big-time programs (all St. John’s has to do is see how they have fared against the Jaspers and Bobby in recent years to figure that out) and is capable of getting high-quality kids from the metropolitan area, something SJU struggled with under Jarvis.

In his five years at Manhattan, Gonzalez’s teams have managed to show improvement with each additional year. He inherited a lackluster team but added five players for the 1999-2000 season and the Jaspers finished 9-9 in MAAC play, 12-15 overall. A season later Manhattan was 11-7 in the MAAC, good enough for a share of fourth place and only one game out of a three-way tie for first.

In 2001-2002, Manhattan beat St. John’s for the first time since 1976, made the N.I.T. for the first time since 1996 and finished with a 20-9 record. Last year, Manhattan finished 23-7, won the MAAC Tournament and made the NCAA Tournament (SJU was in the N.I.T.), losing to eventual national champs Syracuse in the first round.

Gonzalez was also an assistant at two city high schools — Tolentine and Rice — and worked with the Riverside and Gaucho AAU programs before catching on as an assistant under Pete Gillen at Virginia, Providence and Xavier.

If there is a more perfect pedigree for a St. John’s coach, I haven’t seen it.

The only real reason I have heard as to why St. John’s might not want to take a chance on Gonzalez is that he is the coach for Manhattan, the same school that produced two former SJU coaches, Brian Mahoney and Fran Fraschilla. But if that’s the only real reason, then that’s not a reason at all.

Some call him smug or too slick, but Gonzalez can coach and if St. John’s doesn’t make a move on him now, another school will. Gonzalez is the guy. I just hope someone over at St. John’s realizes it before it is too late.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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