In the latter part of the 20th century, St. John’s was one of the proudest and most successful college basketball programs in the country. Under coach Lou Carnesecca, the Red Storm won over 72% of their games, was a 1 seed three times, and reached the Final Four. However, since the turn of the century, things have gone downhill for the program. Remarkably, St. John’s hasn’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament in over 20 years now.
Who receives the blame when programs fail to meet their historical expectations? Most of the time, it falls on the coaches. After the Red Storm slumped in Big East play for yet another season, the school fired fourth-year head coach Mark Anderson. Many in college basketball expected the move given the program’s struggles. However, an interesting development about Anderson’s firing popped up this week: St. John’s fired Anderson for cause.
According to the termination letter obtained by ESPN, St. John’s claimed there was "failure to create and support an environment that strongly encourages student-athletes who are in the men's basketball program to meet all university academic requirements," "failure to perform your duties and responsibilities in a manner that reflected positively on St. John's University ... in actions [that] brought serious discredit" to the school and "failure to appropriately supervise and communicate with your assistant coaches."
If you’ve ever looked at a college coach’s contract, you’ll see that there are numerous responsibilities a coach has beyond just the Xs and Os. In addition to the most obvious task of winning games, there are clauses about team academic performance, media obligations, reflecting positively on the school, etc. Furthermore, there are clauses about how a coach could be terminated for cause if they run into legal issues, commit NCAA violations, and other off-the-field/court problems (i.e. Chris Beard at Texas).
From what we know, Anderson isn’t in any legal trouble with the law or the NCAA, so this is all about his inability to perform his essential duties within the program. Clearly, St. John’s believes they have enough on him to fire him for cause. On the other hand, Anderson strongly disagrees.
"I vehemently disagree with the university's decision to terminate my contract for cause," Anderson said in a statement to ESPN. "The for cause accusation is wholly without merit and I will be aggressively defending my contractual rights through an arbitration process."
According to the contract, St. Johns would have been on the hook for an $11 million buyout if Anderson had not been fired for cause, so it’s unsurprising the coach isn’t going down without a fight.
The backdrop behind all of this is that St. John’s is reportedly hiring legendary coach Rick Pitino to replace Anderson. By firing Anderson for cause, could St. John’s be saving money needed to hire Pitino? It’s definitely a conclusion one could draw from this situation. Most Big East schools are not hurting for cash as the conference has a solid TV deal with Fox. But it’s worth noting that St. John’s likely doesn’t have the same resources that the football-playing SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 schools do.
Firing a coach for cause is not a sure bet by any means. One of St. John’s Big East rivals, UConn, learned the hard way in the past couple of years when they attempted to fire Kevin Ollie. In fact, I wrote for Conduct Detrimental about how that situation served as a warning sign to schools looking to save some money when firing their coaches.
We obviously don’t know all the facts in this case, so making any grandiose statements or conclusions at this point would be a little premature. But as I’ve said before and will say again when it comes to situations like these. If Mike Anderson had the Red Storm in the NCAA Tournament and competing for Big East titles, would they have fired him for cause? I find it doubtful. It will be interesting what happens in the arbitration process.
So even as St. John’s hires Rick Pitino and embarks on a new (and hopefully more successful) era of Red Storm basketball, there will still be lingering questions regarding their previous head coach.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5