Luigi “The Coaching Don” Carnesecca is one of the founding Godfathers of the now-defunct “original” Big East Conference. He coached St. John's basketball back in the days when they were still referred to as the feared “Redmen," going 526-200 over 24 seasons (1965–70, 1973–92) at the Queens Catholic university. He was a feisty, short, colorful character whose tremendous stature, life principles and virtue made him an icon in New York City basketball. He was legendary for the unique, “lucky” sweaters he fashioned and the hearts he touched.
Carnesecca’s legacy isn’t just about reaching the post-season in every season he coached the team, including a dope Final Four run in 1985, or being selected as the National Coach of the Year in 1983 and 1985 by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
His ability to reach inner-city kids and instill ethics of hard work and discipline in preparing them for manhood and life after basketball is renowned and celebrated to this day. Street cats like Walter Berry benefitted from Louie’s stern compassion and willingness to give “fringe” players a shot at an education and maybe even NBA fortune.
“The coach that epitomizes what the Big East is all about to me is Lou Carnesecca, said TSL friend Keith Schlosser, Managing Editor at SB Nation and Editor-In-Chief of Knicksjournal.com. “Winning and also instilling a certain mentality in these hard-edged NYC guys. He taught sound fundamentals and these guys like NBA Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, Berry and Mark Jackson thrived in the NBA and their success is a credit to Louie’s coaching success.”
The St. John’s community certainly thinks so. With the exception of a Ron Artest-led Elite Eight run in 1999, the program has been downhill ever since Louie left. In November 2004, St. John's University officially dedicated and renamed the historic Alumni Hall to Carnesecca Arena. He led the rise of SJU as a Big East powerhouse, so it’s only fitting. Last season as the Big East prepared for its funeral of sorts—the last Big East Tournament that included original powerhouses Syracuse and Pittsburgh—there was a surprise party for Carnesseca for his 88th birthday.
Dan Sacco of the Joe Lapchick Character Foundation was lucky enough to be there
Sacco: “It was a small gathering of about 120 people…it seemed like everyone wanted to speak about Louie. So when people got a chance to speak there were grown men in their 70’s that got up and said this man changed my life, he was like a father. So many people in the room got up and expressed how Lou was like a second father or father to them, and what he meant to them and how he influenced their lives. It’s incredible to get to that stage in life and be a shining example of what character is.”
Carnesecca’s classic battles with John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas and Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orangeman laid the competitive foundation and exemplified the talent, grit, flair and high-stakes attraction that made the Big East college basketball’s most influential conference in the ‘80s. Carnesecca had a fertile recruiting ground – the hard courts of the hardest city in America at the time. New York City basketball was king and produced stud ballers like every day. Carnesecca’s embracing arm extended to playground legends and supreme floor generals, who became the defining staple of his St. John’s teams. He was the DJ of a riveting NY basketball mix.
Sacco: “Point guards were so important, especially in those days because the game was played a little bit more below the rim. The point guards were the key to those teams because they controlled the flow of the game and the ball. They set everything up and made things happen. Teams before that had the big centers, but the point guards coming out the Big East made such an impact because of the up tempo way they ran their show and kept control of the game. Louie always brought in good point guards.”
Ben Osborne, Editor-In-Chief, Slam Magazine : “For me I was obsessed. I played point guard as a kid and Mark Jackson was my favorite player of all time. I thought they were the coolest guys in the Big East. It goes hand in hand. If you’re the most popular conference and the point guard is the most visible member of the team, coach on the floor, ball handler… I guess there is some logic to that. To me the Big East peek ended at about ’90 because for Kenny Anderson and then Stephon Marbury to go to Georgia Tech and not go to the Big East, if it was 5 years before – when Louie was there—they almost def would have gone Big East.”
Making his mark in life and basketball is something Carnesseca acquired from legendary coach Joe Lapchick. As a star center with the Original Celtics, a college coach at St. Johns, an NBA coach with the New York Knicks, and an ambassador of the sport and proponent of diversity in athletics, Lapchick cast an extensive shadow across the game and its history.
Sacco: “Lou followed Joe Lapchick as coach at St. John’s, so he had huge shoes to fill on a social and basketball scale already,” When you think about the Big East and those early years, it was the coaches like John Thompson, Carnesseca, Boeheim, and PJ Carlesimo (Seton Hall) that made the league what it was. The coaches became bigger than life itself.”
The Coaching King became iconic, but remains personally grounded and dedicated to always being a teacher and cultivator of men first.
Sacco: “Louie used to carry around in his wallet…still to this day, a piece of paper that Joe Lapchick gave him and on it is a reminder about life, how you should look at things and keep things in perspective: ‘Today a Peacock. Tomorrow a feather duster.’
That meant don’t get bigger than who you are and where you come from. Remember everything about life. It all has a place in your journey. “
That’s Luigi “The Don” P Carnesecca in a nutshell.