EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For two years now, P.J. Carlesimo has heard the boos. And the whispers. He never has responded to either. Perhaps that is why, when the cheering began last week, he didn't seem to notice it. He just did what he has done now for six years at Seton Hall: He kept working.
"This one was great," he said, the cheers after his team's resounding 89-72 upset of Pittsburgh still ringing in his ears 10 days ago. "It was a game we just had to have. I told the players before we started that this was the biggest game they had ever played at Seton Hall. Ever. That's a lot to put on a team. But it was true."
He paused for a moment. "But, the fact is, big as this one is, if we don't go out and get the next one, then tonight will just be a nice memory."
And so, Carlesimo and the Pirates went back to work. Four days later, they beat Villanova. Then, two nights ago, they stunned Pittsburgh again, this time ending the Panthers' 14-game home winning streak with an 83-79 victory. That makes seven victories out of eight, a Big East record of 8-7 (their best ever) and an overall 20-10 mark that leaves them with a lock on an NCAA bid as they come to Capital Centre Saturday to close out the regular season against Georgetown.
More important than all the numbers is this: unless the administration at Seton Hall has taken complete leave of its senses, the Pirates have saved their coach's job. The fact that Carlesimo's job was ever in danger is rather remarkable considering that the school's record improved each of his first five seasons -- this year makes it six -- and when one realizes that he has rebuilt a shattered program in one of the toughest leagues in America.
"P.J. has done a hell of a job over there," Pittsburgh Coach Paul Evans said. "He's gotten good players and made them better. He's gone from a bad record to a good record. What else is a coach supposed to do?"
That is a question Carlesimo's friends have asked for two years now. The booing when he was introduced at the Brendan Byrne Arena had become as much a part of the pregame routine as the national anthem. "I don't even hear it anymore," he said. "But I know it's there."
That is only one little part of the pressure he has been under this season. Going into the last year of his contract, the Seton Hall administration refused to give him a contract extension or renewal. Wait and see what happens this season, they said. Behind that statement was an implicit message: make the NCAA Tournament this year or else.
In another conference that might not have been that tough a task for a team blessed with experience and talent, such as Mark Bryant, the senior center who has been dominant during the current five-game winning streak; guards such as John Morton and James Major, and a slew of experienced if not brilliant inside players.
But Seton Hall is in the Big East. That means that a team that is good enough to beat New Mexico and lose to Florida at the buzzer in the preseason NIT may not be good enough to finish at .500 in conference play. Even though the Pirates' steady progression under Carlesimo took them from a 6-23 record in 1983 to 15-14 and an NIT bid last year, their best Big East mark during that time was last season's 4-12.
Many of the losses were in games in which the Pirates led into the final minutes or were in position to win at the end but couldn't. The feeling was that Carlesimo had recruited talented players but hadn't been able to get that talent to reach its potential.
"We got into a 'here-we-go-again syndrome,' that can happen when you're in the building process," Carlesimo said. "Last year we did some things we hadn't done in a long time and we made the NIT. I thought that was progress. The school's only been to the NIT three times in 30 years and hadn't been once in 10. I'm not saying I should have been coach of the year, but I really didn't think I was awful, either."
Few of his peers did, either. Among coaches, he is respected and liked -- a rare combination these days. When Seton Hall joined the Big East in 1980, school officials had little idea what they were getting into. They had no idea that they would find themselves looking up at a group of national powers. Seton Hall had been a nice little eastern independent throughout the 1960s and 1970s, coached by such men as Richie Regan and Bill Raftery -- always respectable, but never overwhelming. The school hadn't won 20 games since 1956 but the basketball had always been solid.
But Seton Hall was not St. John's. It was New Jersey, not New York. When Carlesimo took over in 1982, the program was on square one. The job wouldn't be easy or quick and when the Pirates went 6-23 in Carlesimo's first season it was apparent that the job would, in fact, be hard. Methodically, he rebuilt, using the lure of the Big East to attract good, although not great, players. By his fourth season, the Pirates were winning most of their nonconference games. But they couldn't break through in the league. Last season, the nonconference start was 11-0. But then came the Big East.
"A lot of times we lost games we should have won," said Bryant, who has 93 points and 45 rebounds in the three straight victories over Pitt, Villanova and Pitt. "The problem was that we knew how to play but we didn't know how to win."
Because they didn't win enough, Carlesimo was faced with what amounted to a win-or-else situation this season. Officially, Athletic Director Larry Keating will say only, "When the season is over, P.J. and I will sit down, go through the criteria that were set up and make decisions about the future."
Unofficially, sources say that means this: The school administration told both Keating and Carlesimo that an NCAA bid was necessary if Carlesimo was going to get a new contract. Carlesimo has not lost sleep over that ultimatum. During the summer, he grew a beard, a move that worried some of his friends because it is unconventional and coaches fighting to save their jobs aren't supposed to do anything out of the ordinary. Carlesimo shrugged it off. "All I can do is the best possible job coaching that I can do," he said. "If that's not enough, so be it."
There are two reasons for this attitude: one is his personality. He coaches basketball, but he doesn't live it. When the game is over, he goes in search of good Italian food, not a game tape. That is not to say he doesn't work hard -- he does. But he isn't tortured by basketball the way some coaches are. The second reason is more pragmatic: If he did get fired, he would find work somewhere in about five minutes.
"It's comforting to know that if the ship does go down there will be a lot of people waiting with life preservers," he said. "But right now, I'm still trying to right the ship."
The season began with three straight NIT victories, putting the Pirates in the final against a powerful Florida team. Down 19 at halftime, Seton Hall came back to tie. But a silly -- although questionable -- foul with six seconds left gave the Gators a two-point lead and Morton's forced three-point shot with four seconds to go was too soon and too strong and the game was lost. The here-we-go-again syndrome lived.
Still, the preseason record was 11-3. That was fine, but league play would decide Carlesimo's fate. A victory over Connecticut was followed by losses to Syracuse, Boston College and St. John's. There was a victory over Providence but then came close losses to Villanova, Syracuse and St. John's. The last one, on Jan. 30, dropped the Pirates to 13-9, 2-6 in the Big East.
But Carlesimo and his team didn't quit just when most people thought they would. "The amazing thing about P.J. is that through all of this he's never seemed bothered," said Tom Brennan, the coach at Vermont and a friend of Carlesimo. "He's never complained, never pouted, never gotten depressed. I think he's passed that attitude on to his players."
Whenever a coach is in trouble, players always claim that they pay no attention to the situation, that it doesn't bother them and they're just playing basketball. Usually, they are lying. At Seton Hall, if they are, they are putting on a terrific act. "Contract, what do you mean?" Bryant said when someone asked if he thought beating Pittburgh would affect Carlesimo's contract. "I can honestly say it hasn't been talked about all year. Our goal coming in was to get to the NCAAs. It still is."
That is the approach Carlesimo wants from his players. "They've really been oblivious to the whole thing," he said. "All they knew was we had to do better in the league than we have in the past. We had to get a really big win somewhere."
That victory came against Pittsburgh. The Panthers were ranked sixth in the country and leading the Big East when they came to town. Seton Hall had beaten the bottom three league teams -- Connecticut, Providence and Boston College -- to increase its record to 5-7. With Bryant dominating Charles Smith by getting 32 points and 16 rebounds, the Pirates won going away. That was the night the boos turned to cheers.
"I hope we can enjoy this one," Carlesimo said. "I hope we can look back at tonight and say, 'That's where we really turned it around.' That's where we went from being a team with good potential to being a good team. I want to get into the tournament so I can say we did it, we reached that goal. After that, whatever happens, happens.
"All I asked of this team was to go out every night and be able to compete no matter who we were playing."
Carlesimo has gotten that. And more.