PHILADELPHIA — Now when they talk about Seton Hall being last among Big East teams, it's a compliment. For the third time in four seasons, starting with their run to the national championship game in 1989, the Pirates have survived as long or longer in the NCAA Tournament than any of their peers. Chronic failures during the early years of the conference's existence, they have become habitually successful.
Indeed, although much of the media attention that accrues to the Big East still is lavished upon Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John's and their familiar coaches, it is Seton Hall that has emerged as the flagship of the 1990s. As the last conference representative to reach the Final Four and the last remaining in the 1992 event, the Pirates can stake a claim to being the team of the recent past as well as the team of the present. That they have but a single senior on their roster indicates they may be the team of the future, as well.
When Big East officials used to sit down to map out the television schedule for the coming season each spring, Mike Tranghese said Wednesday, they would begin with the likes of the big three. "This year," the commissioner said, "our starting point is Seton Hall."
And therein lies one of the great turnarounds in college athletics. Even should Seton Hall defeat top-ranked Duke in the nightcap of Thursday night's East Regional doubleheader at the Spectrum, it would be a mistake to label the Pirates as giant-killers. The truth is that, under P.J. Carlesimo, they are giants in their own right, a team that doesn't shrink from measurement against the most celebrated in the country.
What they have become in the course of a few years' time is a hardy perennial and an established -- drum roll, please -- program. Even the administrators at the South Orange, N.J., institution recognize the distinction. "In 1988 and 1989, we had a good team," said Charles R. Dees, the vice chancellor for university affairs. "Right now we have a bona fide Division I program."
That precisely was the point made by the Duke coach whose program is the model for the profession. "P.J.'s built an excellent program," Mike Krzyzewski said Wednesday. "And that's better than having an excellent year. It means you're going to be (in contention) every year except for an injury or an academic problem you can't anticipate."
While Krzyzewski has been acknowledged as the foremost coach in the college game, Carlesimo hasn't suffered by comparison. In fact, he has gained from their association. Two years ago, the Seton Hall coach was Krzyzewski's assistant on the U.S. team that competed in the Goodwill Games and the world championships. This summer they both will serve under Chuck Daly on a U.S. Olympic team dominated by NBA stars.
"I know one of us is going to have laundry (duty) and the other is going to be responsible for golf tee times," Carlesimo said, jokingly. "I know more about golf."
"Don't trust people with false beards," Krzyzewski warned. "I've been with P.J. quite a bit and, after midnight, (the beard) comes off."
It only was five years ago that Carlesimo was under fire from the Seton Hall student senate because of the team's record that then commissioner Dave Gavitt was compelled to intercede on his behalf. Now the man and his trademark beard, grown in the summer of 1987 while he was guiding a team of Big East all-stars around Australia, have become nationally prominent. And his exposure likely is to increase at the expense of the Big East's old guard -- John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino and Jim Boeheim.
Certainly, Carlesimo's presence is a plus for the institution whose physical expansion and academic upgrading has paralleled the rise of his basketball program. According to Dees, basketball success " ... has given Seton Hall national name recognition" and has better enabled the school to fill the four residence halls completed in the past decade. "With that, we've been able to attract students from across the country," Dees said. "Before, we were pretty much a local institution. Now we're more of a regional institution. People (everywhere) know who we are, where we are and what we are."
The prime salesman for the university has become none other than Carlesimo. "I think P.J.'s synonymous with Seton Hall," Dees said. "His family (father and mother) lives in New Jersey. He's a New York metro kind of guy who's good with the media. And he's loyal."
He also is an accomplished coach. Under Carlesimo, the Pirates are 11-3 in the Tournament for a percentage of .786. Among active coaches, only Krzyzewski (29-7, .806) has a better mark. Of course, Coach K also has one national championship and designs on another.