On Thursday, the axe came down on John Thompson III, the head coach of the Georgetown men’s basketball team for the past 13 seasons. He took the Hoyas to a Final Four in 2007, won three Big East regular season titles, and brought a program a heap of thrillers against top tier competition. It was time for him to go, however, and I was mildly surprised that the university had the guts to lay Thompson’s tenure to rest.
I missed the good years. JTIII’s downfall began with a long string of losses to double-digit seeds that coincided with my first interest in Hoya hoops. (In 2008, as a high school senior with hopes of heading to the Hilltop, I watched them lose in the NCAA Tournament to unheralded Davidson and this Stephen Curry kid who came out of nowhere to have a huge game. I wonder what ever happened to him?) The Davidson loss set off a string of can-you-top-this losses to double-digit Tournament seeds: Ohio (no, not Ohio State, Ohio), Virginia Commonwealth (hello there, Shaka Smart), North Carolina State (at least they’re a power conference program…?), and Florida Gulf Coast (the last and worst). But lately, those years when they gave talented young coaches the breaks they needed to land more prestigious jobs are a happy memory. With just one Tournament appearance in the last four seasons, with transfers out and decommitments and with the same obnoxious shortcomings, it was certainly time to bid JTIII farewell.
JTIII’s dismissal has to be among the most pained firings in sports history, as evidenced by Georgetown President Jack DeGioia’s glowing retrospective in the announcement. (DeGioia, a Georgetown man through and through, named his own kid J.T.) And for good reason: despite the underperformance on the court, JTIII has done nothing but represent the program with dignity and class, and the 2007 Final Four run will forever be a proud moment, and one that restored pride to a program that had been on a downhill slide. JTIII fit the Georgetown ethos well: a blueblooded coach carrying forward a legacy, and doing it with cool composure, high standards off the court, and a somewhat antiquated but largely successful (for a while, anyway) Princeton offense built on pretty cuts.
But, enough beating around the six-foot-ten elephant in the room: the proud old Princeton Tiger’s firing was momentous because of what his name means to this program. His father, John Thompson Jr., built Georgetown up from nothing. He did it in brash and memorable ways, and in ways that went far beyond the court. He made Georgetown Big Man U, with names like Ewing, Mourning, and Mutombo all rolling through, plus a little Allen Iverson, too. He was an early pioneer among black coaches, withstanding abuse to blaze trails. John Thompson was such a larger-than-life figure that he could confront and intimidate the most dangerous of D.C.’s druglords at the height of the city’s crack epidemic. With five years from longtime assistant Craig Esherick wedged between the two Thompsons and a continued presence around everything Georgetown basketball eighteen years after his retirement, his son’s dismissal is a sudden shock to the system.
The Hoyas now head out into the great unknown. The decision to name former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (an alumnus and Board of Directors member) co-chair of the search committee would seem to suggest the Hoyas are ready to play big league. It’s tough to guess what sort of interest the program will draw, given that it’s basically been in one family for 45 years. The Hoyas are a big name in basketball, with an NBA home arena and a sparkling new practice facility, but the cupboard is also pretty bare at the moment, and Georgetown has some quirks that could drive people away, including its high academic standards, the lack of a big state school’s huge following, and the very long shadow of John Thompson Jr. As with any other major program with an opening in recent years, Shaka Smart’s name is getting tossed around. More realistic, really, is Danny Hurley, who has done a very nice job with Rhode Island and comes from a famous basketball family that will give him some added credibility. Tommy Amaker at Harvard fits the academic pedigree this program would like, but his track record is fairly meh. Tom Crean, freshly dismissed from Indiana, has won at a high level; Notre Dame’s Mike Brey has local ties and a relatively small paycheck from the Golden Domers. Even Minnesota’s Richard Pitino is getting some serious mentions. (Hey, he already knows how to lose to a double-digit seed in the first round.) Whatever course Georgetown takes, it will be a clean break from a long tradition.
Unless, of course, they go with an alumnus who is incredibly loyal to the Thompsons, and has been biding his time as an NBA assistant for the past 14 years. A man by the name of Patrick Ewing. There are reasons to question Ewing as Georgetown coach; the NBA game is different from college, and he will certainly need to find himself some assistants who can give him a quick education in the recruiting game. At 54, he’s at a point where the kids who would play for him have no memory of him as a dominant player. It’s no secret he’s been angling for an NBA job, too; does he really want to go all in on a college program?
But I’m a sucker for tradition and continuity, so if everyone wants it to happen, I’m on the bandwagon. He’s a loyal man who will honor the brand. The program is at the point where it could use the buzz of celebrity, instead of the moderately successful mid-major coach this program is likely to command at this point in time. His return would, presumably, come with the blessing of John Thompson Jr., and spare the program any fallout there. Sure, there are risks, but there is also incredible potential. Bring the big man home.