St. John's unexpectedly hiring ex-Arkansas coach Mike Anderson concludes embarrassing coaching search

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Less than two weeks ago, as rumors swelled at the Final Four about a potential pending divorce between St. John's and Chris Mullin, SJU athletic director Mike Cragg issued a short but definitive statement regarding his men's basketball program's coaching situation. 

"Let me be clear and I said from the start, Coach Mullin is our head coach and we are not looking for another head coach," Cragg said.

Two days later, Mullin resigned. It was the latest signal that St. John's house is a pigsty. 

Mullin's move was the commencement of a messy coaching flip, one so out of sorts and rife with issues it somehow made the elongated and way-too-complicated UCLA coaching search look halfway understandable

Things got so bad, a prominent St. John's booster went on the most popular sports-talk radio station in New York City and declared: "'This is not a New York laughingstock anymore. We are now a national embarrassment."

Said booster, Mike Repole, also called on St. John's President Bobby Gempesaw and Vice President Joe Oliva to leave the university.

Mullin's tenure at his alma mater was indisputably a washout, and in the ensuing week-plus of the split St. John's got a stinging dose of realism over its ranking in the realm of college basketball's job hierarchy. If you're a big-time program, a status claim St. John's has clenched a fingernail's grip on for two decades, you're not getting told "no" by a coach in a single-bid conference. 

It happened three times in less than a week to St. John's.

Cragg and St. John's brass first pursued Arizona State's Bobby Hurley fresh off that school's first back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tourney in almost 40 years. Hurley, a natural fit who is from New Jersey, decided to get a new contract from Arizona State instead. 

And then came the real embarrassment. Coaches of schools in the Missouri Valley, America East and MAAC followed Hurley's lead. Porter Moser (Loyola-Chicago), Ryan Odom (UMBC) and Tim Cluess (Iona) were all publicly linked to the opening. All passed. (Really, it's a wow.) Moser, who was not averse to taking a bigger job, went so far as to fly to New York City, get the full treatment and courtship, only to say thanks-but-no-thanks and stick with the Ramblers, who failed to make the 2019 NCAA Tournament and lost their first game in the NIT. 

This search went sideways, doubled back, twisted itself twice over and became a perverse spectacle in college basketball's community within the past week. Moser and Odom would have been iffy fits at best anyway, which made St. John's process all the more confounding. 

When you take into account all of the above as droll prologue, it's equal parts surprising yet entirely conceivable that St. John's wound up hiring fish-out-of-water Mike Anderson as its coach, which became official Friday morning. On Thursday, CBS Sports was the first to report Mike Anderson as a viable, late-stage candidate for the opening. It took less than 24 hours for Anderson and St. John's to agree to terms. 

This instantly becomes the most fascinating hire of the 2019 college hoops coaching carousel

Anderson, 59, who was coaching at Arkansas less than a month ago, will journey eastward for the first time in his life. He has no ties to the East Coast, let alone the northeast. St. John's decision to bring aboard Anderson has baffled multiple coaches, recruiting experts and industry sources I've spoken with. 

"I know and like Mike very well," a coach at a power program told CBS Sports. "It's going to be a hell of an adjustment for him."

That's more or less the chorus around college basketball regarding this hire: good guy, good coach, difficult fit.

The hire isn't necessarily a bad one, it's just a perplexing one. It's one that could work out -- but still has some asking why SJU put itself through the ringer to even get to this point. Did SJU end up with the right coach? No one has that answer right now, but plenty think the answer is no. 

Now, did SJU end up with the best coach it could? Eliminating the Rick Pitino pipe dream from the equation, the answer is probably yes. Landing the right coach vs. landing the best coach are not exclusive to each other. Anderson's credentials are probably as good as St. John's could have asked for. He's 369-200 in his career, has never coached a team to a sub-.500 record (but finished .500 twice) and won nine NCAA Tournament games. 

And yet, he was seemingly set up to thrive in his most natural habitat -- the University of Arkansas, where he spent 17 years as an assistant -- but went 169-102 there, making the NCAAs in only three of his eight seasons and never once cracked through to the Sweet 16. 

Now he's supposed to be the liberator of St. John's basketball in a region he's alien to? Anderson's style is fun as hell (40 minutes' worth), such a philosophy derived from the great Nolan Richardson, who tutored and molded Anderson into a really good coach. But you can be a good coach at a bad spot. That has been proven too many times over the years. 

St. John's might well have backed into a good situation here, but this is not going to be easy. Take, for example, this ominous tweet put forth by one of the more well-connected recruiting analysts in college basketball. The Red Storm don't need to dominate locally to win big, but it's a lot like Philadelphia basketball: If you can't make inroads in the city, your long-term success is almost impossible. 

"Coach Anderson is one of the most respected coaches in college basketball and there is no doubt in my mind that he is the perfect fit to lead our program," Cragg said in his statement Friday. "He has built programs and has sustained success throughout his career. We are confident that his extensive coaching experience, recruiting acumen and skill development program will elevate St. John's basketball to new heights. Coach Anderson has a relentless work ethic and he is focused on establishing a championship level program here in New York City."

The work ethic line is important, as it was well known that Mullin was not the grinding type. Anderson is, and his teams often exemplify that on the court. But if this hire winds up not working out -- if it's yet another St. John's coaching experiment with almost no payoff and another three, four or five years of St. John's just sort of ... existing -- all of this will come back on Cragg, Gempesaw and Oliva. 

It will come back to a coaching search that had no compass, that wound up hiring a veteran coach with a good record who landed the best possible job he could have gotten. But just because it's the best job for Anderson doesn't mean this is the best option for St. John's. 

It's possible that a bad search process can luck you into good coaching hire, but how often does that really happen? And given everything we've seen St. John's go through in the past week, the past four years -- the past two decades! -- the odds are not in its favor.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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