NEW YORK (AP) — The weeks of talk on whether coach Norm Roberts would return to St. John's ended Friday: He was fired after six seasons with the Red Storm — only two of them with a winning record.
"To say it was a difficult decision would be to minimize it," St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch said. "Norm took over a program that was at a low point and at a time when there was a minimal amount of Big East level talent. Norm has restored integrity to our basketball program."
But he didn't win enough games.
The Red Storm lost to Memphis in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday to finish the season at 17-16, giving Roberts an 81-101 record with the school. St. John's has not been in the NCAA tournament since 2002.
Roberts told The Associated Press on Friday that St. John's handled everything "with class."
"They really tried to support us and give us what we needed to be successful and we were," he said. "This program was in disarray in a lot of different ways and we were able to move it to postseason play."
St. John's returns all five starters and 94 percent of the scoring from last season's team. But whether Roberts would run the team next season was a big question the past six weeks.
The Red Storm won three of four games, including wins over Louisville and Notre Dame, to raise the possibility that Roberts had done enough to earn a reprieve. Then came three straight losses followed by two wins, including a 73-51 thrashing of Connecticut in the opening round of the Big East tournament.
Marquette beat St. John's in the second round of the Big East tournament and the Red Storm lost to Memphis, both by two points.
"We were monitoring how things were going all season and said we look at the program at the end of the season," Monasch said. "It's easy to get caught up in the highs and lows on a daily basis. That's the beauty of a 30-game season, that you have the entire year to assess where we are."
Roberts was a longtime assistant to Bill Self at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas, where he earned the repuation as a stellar recruiter. He took over at St. John's when it was coming off a 6-21 season under Mike Jarvis and interim coach Kevin Clark that was marred by off-court issues that resulted in probation and a loss of scholarships.
Monasch delivered the news to Roberts on Thursday night.
"It was certainly emotional," Monasch said. "I believe there is a sincere affection among the parties. It would have been a great thing to be successful under Norm. We gave him enough time."
Roberts said the junior class will be "the guys who get St. John's over the hump and gets us back in the national spotlight. ... The have a chance to be a super basketball team because they finally got it, they finally knew how to play hard and to your ability and with passion."
Including four years at Division II Queens College, Roberts' record as a head coach is 105-185.
Roberts said he would "take a couple of deep breaths."
"I'll try to relax a little and enjoy my family," he said. "My older son turned 18 on March 12 and because of it being the end of the season, I barely said 'Happy Birthday' to him."
Monasch said he would not use a search firm or committee to select the new coach.
"We want to hire someone who has a record of success of getting into the NCAA tournament," Monasch said. "In trying to find the right person, probably the safest choice is someone who has done it at this level, someone who believes in the mission of school and understands New York."
This was the second coaching firing in the Big East in two days, following Bobby Gonzalez's ouster at Seton Hall on Wednesday. Monasch said that shouldn't affect his search.
"The fact Seton Hall is also in the market for a new coach is not a concern to me," he said. "There are enough good coaches out there that we'll both find someone we'll be happy with."
Monasch said the school is ready to offer a salary that could place the new coach among the highest paid in the country.
"Depending on who the coach is we will make the financial commitment and a length of time that is appropriate," he said.