Earlier this year, St. John’s began offering Voluntary Separation Offer packages-essentially buyouts-to all full-time employees.
At the time, I thought the only one within the athletic department who would be offered a buyout was Norm Roberts, and I was right, as he was bought out of the remainder of his contract when he was fired as the men’s basketball coach.
But the sports and news pages collided when I heard from multiple sources that legendary St. John’s basketball coach Lou Carnesecca had accepted the VSO package. He had, after all, told me last year that as Assistant to the President, he frequently fielded phone calls for Rev. Harrington and made public appearances.
Since our first meeting last year, I didn’t necessarily view Carnesecca as a full-time employee. He told me that he basically checked messages, made phone calls, and spoke with people. His hours, he explained then, were very flexible, and he came and went as he pleased.
I envisioned Carnesecca the way most do, as a larger-than-life historical figure within the college basketball panorama. He did win five regular-season Big East championships and six conference tournament titles, and guided the Redmen to their first Final Four appearance under the current NCAA tournament format. I just wasn’t sure his everyday connection to the school was still there.
Because the University could not speak on behalf of the decisions of any specific employees, I went right to the man himself in search of why he took the buyout. As soon as I stepped foot into Sun Yat Sen Hall, where his office is located, I found my answers.
Carnesecca’s raspy voice boomed throughout the hallway as he talked basketball with a visitor. I opted to wait a few minutes outside his office until the meeting ended,but Coach was in a hurry. He tried to rush through his conversation and then his phone rang. Carnesecca was just about to leave when I caught him outside his office, almost as soon as he hung up the phone.
“Yeah, I took it,” he told me. “I’m still going to be here, still going to volunteer. I still have my office. I’m not going anywhere.”
If he’s not leaving, then why take the buyout? There was no stipulation within the VSO package that required any employee to accept the offer, and Carnesecca could have continued working, at age 85, within the same conditions under which he currently does.
Yet Coach took the buyout anyway. Even though he’ll only receive salary for the next two years, and get medical benefits for the next three, he took the buyout anyway-in the midst of the University’s obvious financial trouble.
Carnesecca has become an iconic figure at the University, and in addition to being the school’s most noteworthy alumnus and celebrity figure, this act maintains his devotion to the Vincentian mission St. John’s upholds.
Help the poor. Serve thy neighbor. Go out of your way to do what you can. These are the principles St. John’s tries to instill in each of its students. Through this act of severing the employer-employee relationship he has with the school, Carnesecca is living that mission. At the very least, he will continue representing the University with the same enthusiasm and pride he has had for the better part of his life.
What kind of Vincentian will I be in 50 years? How much of the school’s mission will be rubbed off on me when I eventually say goodbye to St. John’s? To this point, St. John’s religious affiliations have been an afterthought to me-I’ve focused too much time on box scores and headlines to pay St. Vincent much mind. I take more stock in actions over words, anyway. To me, a mission is only a mission until we make it a reality.
I’m assuming Carnesecca didn’t give up much in accepting the buyout. Though I was unable to uncover what he earns as a full-time employee, I can’t imagine he’s earning a top-dollar salary at St. John’s. But he did help those in need. He went out of his way to give what he could.
And when a similar situation arises in my life, I’ll remember to live by Coach’s example.