Chris Mullin Returns To Coach St. John’s

Chris Mullin, who left an indelible mark on the St. John’s basketball program just over three decades ago, quickly became the darling of the New York media in a different way this past weekend.

The 51 year-old was floated around as a candidate for the Red Storm’s open job barely an hour after the school mutually parted ways with Steve Lavin, their head coach from the last five seasons. On Sunday, while the last regional final was being played, Jon Rothstein broke that the golden child of St. John’s hoops had been offered the job of head coach at the Big East program.

J.P. Pelzman of the Bergen Record confirmed Monday morning that Mullin and the school have agreed to the contract’s framework, effectively confirming Lavin will be the Red Storm’s next coach.

At first blush, Mullin is a strange hire to replace Lavin. St. John’s is far from its stint atop the Big East or national rankings and while Lavin had left SJU in good stead, the next coach will face a significant rebuild — the quartet of seniors who led SJU to the NCAA tournament this season are gone, while Rysheed Jordan and Chris Obekpa could quickly follow suit.

Names like Danny Hurley and Steve Masiello were bandied about, not only for their ties to NYC, but because both have also engaged in program overhauls and are now leading two of the top mid-major programs in Division I.

Mullin was immediately suggested by some in the aftermath of Lavin’s announcement, and the thought process was two-fold: like Fred Hoiberg, who has taken his alma mater to great heights (2015 Big 12 tournament title) since becoming Iowa State’s coach, Mullin would restore the luster to the Red Storm’s patina. And even if Mullin had never been a head coach before, he has still been involved with numerous NBA front offices (like Hoiberg), acting as an advisor to both Golden State and Sacramento (he was an EVP for a period in the Bay area).


Second, athletic director Chris Monasch was entwined with Lavin. The former UCLA coach was Monasch’s first big hire, and he will forever be linked to that 2010 decision. This is the first year for president Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw and the rapid interjection of Mullin into the vacancy reeks of an administration that wants to make the big sexy hire to ignite the fan base. Nothing is more exciting than bringing back Flatbush’s own.

But here lies the dilemma — do current recruits even know who Mullin is? When the sharp-shooter was torching defenses in the 1980s and then for Team USA in 1992, prospects in the 2016 and 2017 classes were still six to seven years away from being born.

That nostalgic euphoria may work on the prospect’s parents, but in the eyes of the elite recruits St. John’s wants to land, Mullin isn’t that attractive. That changes if he brings in at least one dynamic recruiter. Using Hoiberg as a case study, Iowa State hired TJ Otzelberger and Matt Abdelmassih — assistants with recruiting bonafides on the West and East coast, respectively — but the Cyclones have still ascended up the rankings not by elite recruits but by calculated acceptances of transfers.

Mullin at the helm means assistants like Abdelmassih (an SJU alum), Barry ‘Slice’ Rohrssen, Jared Grasso and Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson should expect a phone call in the minutes after he signs on the dotted line. All four not only have extensive ties to NYC, they are elite-level recruiters, and would help Mullin with the transition.

Iowa State has shown that an alumni, with no former head coaching experience, can revive a program in one of Division I’s most challenging conferences, and St. John’s is banking the same can happen with Mullin in Queens. It’ll be interesting whether Mullin pursues transfers or junior college prospects the same way Hoiberg does. Towards the end of his tenure, Lavin had begun to dip his entire leg into the juco ranks, and with a depleted roster, Mullin will likely have to do the same.

The one hallmark St. John’s currently possesses is the clarion call of tradition. It could be a huge recruiting tool: “Help me bring St. John’s a national championship.” Mullin, talking about the glory days and how he wants to get there, the recruit earning major playing time while being on the team that raises the first Final Four banner in Carnesecca Arena since 1985.

For Mullin’s sake, this decision has to work. Good is not enough. Lavin led St. John’s to two NCAA’s and two NIT’s in five seasons, and even with a rebuild, a postseason appearance in Mullin’s second season will be expected.

And if Mullin fails, it affects both his reputation as well as the school’s, along with the officials who thought best to extend an offer to Mullin and not pursue, or not pursue aggressively enough, coaches with the appropriate experience for what the Red Storm will face in 2015-16.

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