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Bosco’s Corner: SJU picks homegrown new coach

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I know Roberts a lot better than I know the other candidates who were being considered for the job only because I actually knew him a little when he was the head coach at Queens College in the early 1990s.

I remember the first time I actually met Roberts on the Queens College campus more than a decade ago. I went to the school to give Roberts a plaque and tracked down the coach in a foyer at Fitzgerald Gymnasium. I can’t say I remember much about that very informal meeting, but one thing that does stand out was how gracious he was to receive some sort of recognition for his hard work with the Queens Knights.

And that’s another thing I remember about Roberts. Being that the TimesLedger is one of the only publications to give serious ink to Queens College athletics, as sports editor I was painfully aware of just how bad some of the teams he coached at Queens actually were.

Very painful memories, indeed.

Still, I do not want to rain on anyone’s parade. By all accounts, Roberts has been a bang-up assistant with some pretty outstanding basketball programs since leaving the borough behind him after the 1994-95 season.

He’s had stints with Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and most recently Kansas, where he worked under longtime friend and colleague Bill Self.

The thing Roberts has going for him, at least from the outset, is that he was a long shot from the get-go. With guys like former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty, Memphis’ main man John Calipari, Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt, Tim Welsh from Providence, Bobby Gonzalez from Manhattan, Boston University’s Dennis Wolff and DePaul’s Dave Leitao, Roberts was certainly one of the least known commodities.

Roberts’ name first appeared on the radar for the vacant head coaching position soon after the school fired Mike Jarvis Dec. 19. But as the season wore on and things in and around the program continued to crumble, it was clear that interim head coach Kevin Clark would not be back for an encore performance and that St. John’s would have to make a bold move if it wanted to resurrect the once proud program.

Many Red Storm faithful were not shy about voicing their opinions on the unofficial Web site www.redmen.com that the school needed to “hit a home run” with whomever was eventually hired to replace Jarvis. Some are already saying St. John’s has done that. I just don’t know yet.

As much as I want Roberts to succeed in his new post, it will certainly be a daunting task. St. John’s is coming off the worst season in the history of its storied program, winning only six games — including just a single Big East contest — while being beset by scandal after scandal.

First there was Willie Shaw’s arrest for marijuana possession and his subsequent removal from the team. Then, with the Red Storm off to its worst start in more than eight decades, the hammer finally fell on Jarvis, who was sent packing just before Christmas.

The team limped through January only to suffer through one of the worst scandals in school history, the suspension or expulsion of six team members for their involvement in an after-hours sex scandal following a conference loss to Pittsburgh Feb. 4.

The last month of the season saw a team with as few as four scholarship players available and an equal number of walk-ons playing out the schedule.

Can Roberts reverse the trend and save St. John’s basketball? Well, I certainly hope so.

Roberts is a borough guy through and through, growing up and learning the game of basketball on the streets of southeast Queens. He led Springfield Gardens High School to the Public School Athletic League city championship in 1983 before going on to play at Queens College, where he still holds all-time records for assists and steals and is second in scoring with 1,719 points.

His first coaching job was under legendary high school basketball coach Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy in Briarwood, where he coached the boys’ freshman team from 1988 through 1991.

Those who lambasted Jarvis for being unable or seemingly unwilling to recruit New York City high school talent should not have the same ammunition with Roberts. He landed two top-flight recruits out of the city in recent years, including Charlie Villanueva while he was at Illinois and current Rice basketball standout Russell Robinson for the Jayhawks.

He knows the city as well as any other coach St. John’s was considering and I have to believe that university president Rev. Donald Harrington had to see something, some perhaps undeniable quality in Roberts that elevated him above such an impressive crop of possible candidates.

So I will reserve judgment on whether or not the school made the right choice, because to say otherwise at this juncture would be premature. But I must say I like the gamble almost as much as I like the man.

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

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