Enter San Man

Sometimes I think about how Vince Lombardi would have fared as a basketball coach—these are the kinds of things you think about when you have a week between issues and the Super Bowl fits right in between publication dates.

And as I watched Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews make mince meat out of Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, and the sportswriters pounced on the idea of “Bringing the Lombardi Trophy Back to Titletown,” I couldn’t help but think about how the legendary Packers coach would have approached the hardwood.

Actually, I don’t think I would have cared so much about his wins and losses as long as he’d have been good enough to take a seat alongside Dick Vitale and Doug Gottlieb on ESPN after his coaching days ended, so that he could weigh in on the top programs.

(If you think about it, you could make the case that the basketball equivalent of Vince Lombardi is Bobby Knight, who, ipso facto, is already an ESPN analyst—but in this case, having two great coaches with short tempers is much better than one. Plus, this is my fantasy we’re dealing with here.)

Of course, I’d be especially curious in finding out how Lombardi would motivate the St. John’s men’s basketball program as it approaches the twilight of the regular season schedule and prepares for the conference tournament.

These days, everyone seems to have an opinion on the Johnnies, and with good reason. It’s a dangerous time to have St. John’s creeping up on your schedule.

The Red Storm, desperate for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2002, have won five of its last six games since losing three straight a the time of this writing—and those aren’t just creampuff wins fluffing up St. John’s résumé.

Over that span, they beat then-No. 5 Duke by 15 and then-No. 10 Connecticut by 17, and overcame a near-9 minute span during which they were held without a field goal to get a sweet revenge win over Cincinnati, exchanging road wins with the Bearcats in their home-and-home series. Last night, they beat Marquette by double digits on the road.

I could picture Lombardi now, fully dressed in his classic thick-rimmed glasses and fedora cap, screaming at the cameras. “Winning isn’t everything,” he’d tell the Johnnies, as only he can, “it’s the only thing!”

Which is to say he wouldn’t want St. John’s to let up now. With big games against No. 4 Pittsburgh and No. 15 Villanova remaining, he’d inspire the Johnnies to be giant-killers yet again,appreciating the irreverence St. John’s has already had for its more prestigious opponents this season.

I think he’d be proud that the Johnnies have four wins over ranked teams at Madison Square Garden, forcefully taking back their home floor from those quick to carelessly label the World’s Most Famous Arena as a vacation home for Duke, Syracuse and UConn—there’s a brash quality about this years’ team that I’m sure he’d find refreshing.

Most importantly, he’d appreciate the team’s hunger for victory, its understanding that, for this group of seniors, this is the last opportunity to leave a positive legacy upon the program—to complete the mission of resurrecting St. John’s basketball by getting back to the Big Dance come March.

He, more than anybody, would appreciate their bringing St. John’s back to national prominence, especially when they were tossed around like ragdolls in their first three years of Big East play. It would be the embodiment of redemption story Lombardi described when he said, “The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.”

I think Lombardi would be smart enough to know that the Red Storm aren’t quite there yet. Their return to glory hasn’t quite manifested. After all, they’re still only on the cusp of being recognized in the AP Poll, the next step—after beating teams that are recognized in the poll—in establishing yourself among the elite programs in the nation.

Despite the chatter that suggests the Red Storm have locked up a spot in the NCAA tournament, the Big East is so deep this year that the possibility exists for the team to miss the Big Dance if complacency sets in and the Johnnies struggle against teams they should beat—not the Pittsburghs and Villanovas of the world, but the Seton Halls and South Floridas. After all, for as much as wins over strong teams like Duke and UConn weigh in the minds of the selection committee, so too do losses against weaker programs, which the Red Storm already have in falling to Fordham and St. Bonaventure earlier this year.

Lombardi understood—maybe a little too well, considering his other famous quotations—that success isn’t a one-shot deal. One good run won’t mean much if a down-to-earth revert takes place. The run has to resonate long enough and frequently enough to change the perceptions others have of you.

It took winning five NFL Championships and two Super Bowls over the course of a decade for people to see Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers among football’s most elite. It’ll take a deep Big East tournament and then NCAA run for the Johnnies to be restored to college basketball’s most elite—but it’ll take a strong finish to the regular season just to get there.