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Rick Pitino opens up about his plans to rejuvenate St. John’s: ‘Needs a new brand’

New St. John’s coach and New York City native Rick Pitino — who also has coached the Knicks and Celtics in the NBA, won NCAA titles and led Iona to the Big Dance this season — takes a timeout during March Madness for some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.

Q: What is it about Rick Pitino that makes him made for New York?

A: You grow up on 26th Street, you lived after that in Queens, you lived after that on Long Island, you’re the Knicks coach and the assistant coach of the Knicks. Also, I go back to idolizing Mickey Mantle in center field, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, [Tony] Kubek, [Bobby] Richardson, Moose Skowron, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Cletus Boyer. I grew up just an amazing Yankee fan — I collected every card and everything. And I know the Knicks from winning the two championships. Football I’m a big fan of the Giants, and I was with [Joe] Namath and the Jets. I’m just all-in on New York, it’s always been that way with me. I kept my apartment since the New York Knick days as the head coach in midtown. So I never really moved out of New York, even though I moved to Kentucky.

Rick Pitino after he was introduced as the new head coach of St. John's University men's basketball team, during a press conference at Madison Square Garden.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Q: What are your favorite New York things?

A: The pulse of Manhattan is probably my favorite. Christmastime in Manhattan is one of my favorites. Sometimes I could just visualize sitting there with a bag of popcorn, and listening to New Yawkas converse. New Yawkas are a special breed. They’re hysterical, they got a great sense of humor. They blend sarcasm with laughter.

Q: The most electric you’ve seen or felt Madison Square Garden?

A: Probably the [1989] playoffs against the Chicago Bulls for me. That [regular season] we swept the Pistons, the Bad Boys, who wound up winning it, we were 4-0 against them, I thought we could potentially win the championship.

Q: Do you fantasize about that kind of environment for St. John’s basketball?

A: Take this year for instance, they played Connecticut at the Garden, and it was 80 percent Connecticut [fans]. I want to get it to the point where it’s 80 percent St. John’s. The one thing you have to understand about St. John’s, as you know as well as anybody, is their subway alumni. A lot of their fans did not go to St. John’s. It’s just they’re college basketball fans, this is the local team they’re gonna root for.

Rick Pitino of the New York Knicks looks on during a game in 1989 at Madison Square Garden.
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Q: Do you visualize cutting down the nets?

A: Not yet. I think that living in the future’s a bad thing. Planning for the future’s a great thing. I think right now you just gotta live where we are today, try to make every day constructive to make St. John’s better. St. John’s needs a new brand. It needs branding. We all can cherish Looie [Carnesecca]. We all love him, we cherish him, everything about him, but the kids today, they know of the legacy of Looie, but they don’t remember those days. They don’t remember Walter Berry and Mark Jackson, Bill Wennington. They don’t remember those days, so we’ve got to rebrand and let them understand what St. John’s is all about from a style-of-play standpoint, what St. John’s is all about from getting players drafted. All the things that go into making a big-time program.

Q: What do you want St. John’s fans to say when they watch your team play?

A: I want relentless passion. I want the fans to say, “I can’t believe how hard those guys are playing.”

Q: Do you plan on making St. John’s the hardest-playing, best-conditioned team in basketball?

A: I just want them to live up to my standards of all my teams. All my teams have been in great shape, all my teams play really, really hard. It’s a subjective thing. … There’s no ranking for that. I just want them to live up to my standards.

Q: What won’t you tolerate?

A: A lack of work ethic … lateness … inability to be passionate … [a lack of] appreciation for where you are and what you’re all about. Those are things that go into the making of a program. St. John’s right now has to go through a period of … you just gotta understand what work is all about, you have to understand how to be a pro, how to act like a professional. Oftentimes, they did not act like professionals, and they have to learn how to act like a professional, no different than I had with the Knicks with Mark Jackson or Patrick Ewing — they acted like professionals. And they gotta learn that. Because the stories I’ve heard, it was anything but acted like professionals.

Q: How many rules will you have?

A: I’m not big into rules. Obviously, you take care of your body, take care of your mind. Be early, be ready, go to work the right way, be a professional, be a professional away from the court. The basketball things’ll come easy on the court. I’ve gotta work on the off-the-court activities.

Q: What does an all-in, committed player look like to you?

A: Well, someone that’s very goal-oriented. When I hear a player say, “Look, I want to make it big, I want to get to the next level, I want to obviously be the best I could possibly be,” then you’re all-in. And if that’s the case, then you’ll become the next Donovan Mitchell, you’ll become the next Terry Rozier, you’ll become the next Ron Mercer or Antoine Walker or Derek Anderson. So if you have those goals, you’ve gotta be willing to put the work in to reach those goals.

Q: Does any of your lifelong drive and ambition come from a fear of failure?

A: I told somebody on the St. John’s team, I said, “Oftentimes players and coaches will chase fame and money, to make more money, to chase fame and to move up the ladder of success.” I said, “The only thing I’m chasing is to make St. John’s a big winner, and to make you the best you could possibly be. That’s the only thing I’m after, is to make you the best person off the court, to make you the best person on the court, and for us to win and win big.” And those are my goals. I said, “I’m not trying to move up the ladder, I’m not trying to make more money. I’m just trying very simple goals.”

Q: How come you never feared failure?

A: My parents growing up were low middle-class people. They told me basically they’ll try to come up with the money to go to college, but they didn’t think they could afford college, and I said to them, back when I was a first-year at Five Star, I said, “You don’t gotta come up with a penny. I’m getting a scholarship to college, so you don’t worry about that.” And I think that was the only fear I had of failure as a basketball player — I had to get a college scholarship or I wasn’t going to college. Once I got that scholarship, I never had fear of failure again.

Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson on the Rick Pitino's Knicks bench as they build up up a big lead in the second game of their playoff series against the Chicago Bulls in 1989.
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Q: What is the key to motivation?

A: Everybody has — I call it motive in action — everybody has a different reason. In talking to Joel [Soriano], he’s motivated by helping his family. He constantly talks about helping his family. So you have to know that. Some people just are different and you have to establish the motive in everybody in order to motivate them, they’re all different. Young people are really different today. That goes back to listening — you have to sit back, listen, “OK, what are you looking for?, what do you want? And don’t B.S. me. Tell me exactly what you want so we can plan correctly in mapping out your future.”

Q: Do you plan on bringing in motivational speakers from time to time?

A: I have nothing against that. I’ve had Derek Jeter speak to my team, and DJ’s a friend. Anybody I think the players could look up to, I would certainly bring in.

Q: When did Jeter speak to your team?

A: At Louisville, maybe 2014, 2015, right around there. He was with Tino Martinez.

Q: What was his message?

A: He was so humble. And I loved it so much because he said, “I’m sorta nervous speaking to you guys ’cause I always wanted to be a basketball player. I never got the opportunity.” But he says that, “This is what it takes to be a winner.” And he talked about being a winner. He did a fabulous job because he came across extremely humble, he came across with a clear vision of how to be a winner. I think I loved it more than the players, being a big Yankee fan.

Q: At the press conference, you said, “St. John’s will be back, I guarantee it.” Don’t you know that guarantees are reserved for Joe Namath?

A: (Laugh) Well, I’m not gonna walk off with a championship right away, but we’re gonna win right away. We’re gonna win on the court, off the court, in recruiting, and I think that’s the culture you have to build. You have to leave what I call “Darkness of Doubt.” When Darkness of Doubt creeps in, you fail. And there can be no Darkness of Doubt.

Q: What is your definition of winning big?

A: Being ranked, getting in the NCAA Tournament. Obviously you can’t predict how far you will go, but once you get in, anything can happen. And that’s the whole idea, get in the Tournament. I’ve seen Cinderella stories like Providence. I’ve also been the No. 1 of No. 1 seeds with Kentucky. And once you get in, you have a legitimate shot to make it happen.

Q: Will St. John’s be in the NCAA Tournament next year?

A: It all depends on what type of players we get. I’ve gotta do a redo of the team. That’s not easy. So right now I’ve probably gotta bring in seven or eight players, that’s probably the most I’ve ever had to bring in. If we bring in the right players, it’s distinctly possible.

Q: Do you have a timetable for, let’s say, Final Four?

A: No, I’m realistic there because, you know, look: If you would have told me that Virginia would lose [to 16-seed UMBC in 2018] and Purdue would lose to Fairleigh Dickinson [this year] … .March Madness is such a crazy dynamic. There is no common sense to it at all, and that’s what makes it so much fun.

Rick Pitino and his Kentucky Wildcats after winning the 1996 Men's National Championship over Syracuse.
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Q: Describe your ideal culture.

A: You organize your day to be the best you could possibly be … understanding what organizing your day’s all about. It’s organizing your day to reach your potential. … It’s not just gonna happen by rolling the ball out, you’ve gotta organize your day to reach your potential.

Q: Describe your deflection chart.

A: [If you can get] 35 per game, you’re gonna win 95 percent of your games. I had it at Boston University, Hubie [Brown] loved it, so I kept it with the Knicks as an assistant. It’s a chart of blocked shots, steals, deflections, 50-50 balls and tips from behind.

Q: What makes a great leader?

A: I always said this about Hubie Brown: Although he came across as someone very authoritative, he was one of the best listeners I’ve ever been around. Sometimes on the phone, it would be like a pause, and I said, “Hubie are you there?” He was listening, and I think to be a great leader you have to be a great listener. I always say you have to listen four times to the amount you speak, ’cause there’s no way you can motivate a person, no way you can get to understand a person, unless you let them speak.

Q: Which successful people’s brains have you picked?

A: Oh, there’s so many. There are lot of things about Vince Lombardi that I used to love in my younger years … his passion. … I became friends with Paul Hornung, and the stories he would tell me about Vince, I could sit there all day and listen to the stories. I got to know Bill Belichick, a lot of things about the way he organized things I liked a lot. I was a head coach at 24 years of age, so sort of be in my own laboratory and just reading. … I was an avid reader back then, anything I could get my hands on I would read — from Socrates to Plato to politicians

Q: What are the best books you have read?

A: I loved the book on Alexander the Great. I thought he was as good a leader as there was. Certainly, Napoleon was a great leader, but he didn’t end up the right way. He conquered basically Europe.

Q: Sports books?

A: “When Pride Still Mattered” [a Vince Lombardi biography by David Maraniss].

Q: What are your favorite inspirational sayings?

A: I think humility is the key driving force for everybody to reach their potential. I think once you lose humility, you stop working, it’s time to really give up on your vocation. And I’ve always made my vocation my vacation. There’s nothing better than being around basketball for me.

Q: One of your own books was “Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life.”

A: “Success Is a Choice” was a New York Times business book of the year, which made me really proud. It was right off the ’96 [Kentucky] championship year. It was everything I believed in at that time, the 10 chapters for overachieving in business and life.

Q: Has any of that changed since then?

A: No, obviously it’s updated ’cause the technology has changed in life, social media has changed tremendously, and that wasn’t around back then.

Q: Willis Reed’s passing?

A: Sad day for all of us that loved those [Knicks] teams. Willis was just a pulse of the city. We all remember those days. But Willis led a great life, great man. The Captain of the Knicks. All of us that represented the Knicks in some small way, just really, really sad with his passing.

Q: What went through your mind after Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field?

A: I don’t think I’ve cried too many times. Every time I watch Lou Gehrig give that speech I cry. When [Hamlin] was going through that, and finding out about that, I actually had tears in my eyes. I don’t know him. And then, I actually cried whenever he’s home and doing well. That emotionally just triggered so much inside of me, and I’m so happy he’s doing well.

Q: What do you think of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones?

A: I was tweeting about Geno Smith, and Geno tweeted back at me. And my point was, be patient, and these guys all get better. Why are they trying to make quarterbacks in the first year into Bart Starr? He’s got the size, he’s got the arm, he’s got the attitude. So it just takes patience, and sometimes in professional sports as well as college sports, patience is not a virtue.

Q: Do you know Eli Manning?

A: I know Peyton very well. I know Eli to say hello to him, I knew his dad [Archie]. I know Peyton very well because he did a term paper on Providence College when we went to the Final Four.

Q: What’s Jim Boeheim gonna do with himself now that he’s retired?

A: He said he wants to be my consultant. I said anytime. I would love to see him move to Florida during the winter, but knowing Jim, he does not want to leave Syracuse.

Q: You’ve had two Kentucky Derby horses.

A: I was telling my horse trainers, they kept calling me and said, “Will you take a piece of this, will you take a piece of that?” I said, “Listen men, I’m no longer at Louisville, I’m at Iona. I’ve taken a vow of poverty, so I can’t take anything.” And now I get a phone call from three of them yesterday: “Can you buy in?” I said, “Still not yet, give me another year or two.” (Laugh.)

Q: That was one of your dreams, to have a Derby winner?

A: Not really, actually. Horse racing’s a hobby. I don’t take it real serious because it’s almost like the roulette table. You put it down, you may get lucky once out of 35 rolls, but you’re not gonna win at horse racing. I like winning too much to invest too much time into it.

Q: What would 1,000 career NCAA wins mean to you?

A: [Dick] Vitale tells me almost once a week that if I didn’t go to the pros I’d have about 1,100 now. And I said, “Will you stop saying that Dick?” I think it just means longevity. I’m pretty grounded when I know about the number of wins — I know what gets me there. Great teams get me the wins. … I think if you’re getting the right players, the right culture, then you will win. St. John’s was the antithesis of that the last couple of years. Mike Anderson’s a very good coach, but they had a bad culture, and it showed.

Q: How would Rick Pitino the player have enjoyed playing for Rick Pitino the coach?

A: Probably I really would have enjoyed him offensively. I don’t think I would have enjoyed him defensively. I wouldn’t visualize full-court pressing all the time. I would love the fact that you could shoot 3-point shots and create a lot of motion, I’d like that. But full-court pressing, I’m not sure I would have loved that.

Q: The loves other than basketball in your life: Let’s start with your wife, Joanne.

A: She’s been with me since age 15. She’s a big basketball fan. Used to go to every Knick game. She’s a great mom, she’s been a great wife. Deep down people think people listen to me in the family. But she’s a very religious woman. She has deep faith. And she’s the one everybody listens to at the table.

Q: Your son, Richard?

A: Extremely bright. Very technical. Very sensible, realistic. He’s not from New Yawk but he has a New Yawk sense of humor. He’s gonna be a terrific coach. He’s much different than me … thankfully. But he’s got a great future ahead of him.

Q: Your son, Ryan?

A: I get kidded all the time because I always say my son Ryan doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. And he doesn’t. He mixes with people from 80 to 60 to 50 to 40, and he never says a bad word about anyone. Everybody’s great, if someone starts knocking somebody, he says, “Nah, I don’t find him to be that way, I think he’s a pretty good guy.”

Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals and his wife Joanne celebrate after they won the 2013 Men's National Championship 82-76 against Michigan.
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Q:. Your son, Christopher?

A: Chris is the intelligent one in the family. He’s the most well-read. Christopher has a great mind. He’s very analytical, a big-time numbers guy.

Q: Your son, Michael?

A: Michael’s the ballbuster in the family. We all say this: We all want to come back as Michael. Michael can make $150,000 a year and live like a billionaire.

Q: Your daughter, Jacqueline?

A: Jacqueline’s my princess. She can do no wrong in life. She’s never done anything that I don’t love. I just think she’s a kind-hearted person.

Q: In 2019, you lobbied for St. John’s to hire Mark Jackson. Why hasn’t he gotten a head coaching job?

A: Probably ’cause they don’t know Mark Jackson the way I know Mark Jackson. Every time he’s close, they come up with things that happen. Certain people just won’t know how to forgive. The greatest thing about Catholic schools is forgiveness. People need to let go of certain things and stop living in glass houses. Because glass houses are broken houses. If Mark said something off the cuff, I know he’s sorry about that, he should be forgiven for that, whatever it was that he said. But Mark Jackson has a great mind, would be a great pro coach. He was a terrific pro coach with the Warriors. And they gotta stop bringing up the past, and say, “You said this or he said that.” That stops people from really having great careers. I think everybody needs to just have a little more ounce of forgiveness in them to let people reach their potential.

Q: Walter Berry?

A: Very quick, long, lefty, average shooter, terrific passer, great one-on-one player from the high post.

Q: Malik Sealy?

A: Malik Sealy was a 15-foot basketball player. Also not a 3-point threat, great one-on-one player from 16 feet. Very good defensive player, very good passer, terrific athlete.

Q:. Chris Mullin?

A: Chris Mullin was as good a basketball player to ever come out of New Yawk. Just a great passer, great shooter, great knowledge of the game. Used his body really well. He had euro steps when euro steps weren’t popular.

Q: What do you visualize at the Garden?

A: I visualize 15,000 people yelling “Defense.” Clyde Frazier on defense going down on one knee stealing the ball. We gotta find another Clyde Frazier (laugh).

Q: Is there room in this town for Rick Pitino and Aaron Rodgers?

A: (Laugh) Aaron can have it all. All I want to do is get St. John’s to win. Aaron can have all the publicity, all the good moments — just give me St. John’s winning the game.

Q: How many suits do you have?

A: I used to get free Brioni suits. Brioni suits are timeless. I have quite a few, I don’t know how many. But in three years at Iona, I didn’t buy any suits. I just used my Brioni suits from back in the day. Yesterday, I bought two Armani suits — one for the press conference, and one for my first game.

Q: Describe that suit for the first game.

A: It’s just a navy blue suit. I’m gonna have my St. John’s red tie on. Can’t wait for that moment.

Q: Is your best coaching yet to come?

A: There’s nothing great about being 70. Except you have learned what not to say and what not to do. And that type of wisdom really helps you in life.

Q: What do you say to St. John’s fans who view you as the savior?

A: There’s no such a thing as a savior. All I am is a coach that gets the most out of every minute of every day. And just that I just love, have a deep passion and love for the game. And everywhere I’ve been, that’s been the secret to winning. Why is Belichick still coaching? He just loves teaching the game of football. And I just love teaching the game of basketball, motivating athletes to be the best they can be. So that’s what they’re gonna get — there’s no magic wand, there’s no hidden potion. It’s just a relentless work ethic.

Q: What would your message be to St. John’s fans?

A: Buckle up, we’re gonna have a great ride together. And it is together. It’s I’m joining your team, I’m not joining my team.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: Just, he had a passion that was unmatched. He loved the game, and loved the players in the game.

Q: Winning big at St. John’s, where does that fit in?

A: No different than coaching the Knicks, no different than coaching Kentucky. It would mean the world to cap off a career filled with a lot of great moments, cherished moments. If I could get St. John’s to the heights of Kentucky and Louisville and Providence and those things, it would mean an awful lot to my family, to me, and all the people that follow us.

Q: And you believe you can get St. John’s to those heights?

A: Always. There’s no Darkness of Doubt in me. It’s not false confidence, and it’s not a brash confidence. It’s a formula for success. It is a choice.