Shelter from the Storm

Something very exciting happened at St. John’s over the winter break, and you didn’t even need to be on campus to follow it. The Red Storm’s men’s basketball team began making some serious noise on the national level, the kind that comes with ESPN coverage and SportsCenter appearances.

It’s the kind of attention that makes St. John’s relevant again across the nation, not just as a basketball team but as a major university that people recognize. Even though this isn’t a sports column, I think the team’s recent success raises a discussion that transcends talk of team RPI and shooting percentages. St. John’s as a school is finding its identity again with the help of Coach Lavin, and with that, the University is finding answers to issues it has faced in the past decade.

Ever since the days of Lou Carnesecca in the ’80s, St. John’s students have had very little reason to get excited or stay informed about their team.

This is why Norm was fired last year before his contract expired, why St. John’s hardly ever got a mention on SportsCenter, and it’s exactly why there has been no better place to witness this school’s student engagement issue than at a Johnnies’ home basketball game.

It’s also the reason why St. John’s has slightly fallen off the map. While every native New Yorker grew up with an awareness of this University, that’s not always the case for people around the rest of the country.

As Shaquille O’Neal likes to say, sometimes you just have to put things into business terms.

Institutions of higher learning depend on strong marketing in order to attract students and grow, and in the world of collegiate business, there are two things that dominate marketing strategies and identity: scholarly research and athletic programs.

Some schools have mastered both. Take Stanford and Duke for example, two universities who are known for their athletic dominance as well as their contributions to the world of academia. Regardless of what the niche is, every top, well-known institution markets itself as at least one of these things. The Ivy League, for example, maintain their names from leading research and the top scholars in the world who work there.

At St. John’s, our business has always been basketball. It’s the University’s central marketing point, our claim to fame. The school pumps more money into athletics, and especially basketball, than any other part of the University, and they do so for the national attention it can bring. Across the country, we’re seen as a basketball school, and to deny that is to have a misconception about this University’s identity.

Regardless of the marketing tool that an institution identifies with, the common thread that quality research and athletics have in common is that they demand lots of money. Just as Brown University pumps enormous sums into its medical research and preserves top-notch resources, Michigan State spends liberally on selling their brand as an athletic powerhouse.

It seems as if the current administration of St. John’s has only just started to realize this, and thank goodness for that. If they hadn’t, the Johnnies would have entered another season with a dead-end coach and a broken contract with the Garden, their legendary Big East home. They would have been stuck once again with no prospects, an uninterested student body, and no national attention.

For the past two years the University has tried to tackle the student engagement issue by filling seats at games and increasing student turnout at events. The Torch has repeatedly criticized the University’s attempts at improving student engagement, but not because we disagree with getting students excited about their school. It has always been about the tactic, because offering free Metrocards and incentive points is a small start, but going to a sports-oriented school—that actually has a winning team—trumps all. It’s what St. John’s is supposed to be.

Paying the big bucks for Lavin was an investment that is already paying off, and will only continue to do so as the program continues to develop into a relevant name again.

As a freshman, I attended a Big East game on campus and saw a mediocre opponent embarrass my school. The score was awfully depressing, but made worse by the anemic atmosphere surrounding me: a scarcity of students and half-empty student section, as well as more red seats than bodies.

Watching St. John’s beat then No. 9 Notre Dame two weeks ago at the Garden was a stark contrast from that dire atmosphere. There was excitement for an early start game against a top team, and there were student fans out in force filling up the Garden.

From watching the TV broadcast, you might have thought that St. John’s had one of the larger fan bases in NCAA basketball. It certainly looks like we’re heading back in that direction, and the country is surely taking notice.

The resurgence of the Red Storm has proven why the basketball team is so important to this University. Students showing up at games and talking about it around campus means there’s some unity that didn’t exist last year. It’s our personality as a big university, and you don’t need to be a sports fan to appreciate what it all means.

If you ask me, things are looking up at St. John’s. We’re slowly making a comeback as a school known across the nation, and we’ve got Steve Lavin to thank for it.