The Thompson Legacy: More Than Just a Name at Georgetown

by Pete Medhurst

The year was 1979. I was nine years old. The local college hoops scene was dominated by the Maryland Terrapins, and rightfully so. They had terrific talent with Baltimore product Ernest Graham, Buck Williams and Albert King, who Lefty Driesell was able to secure from New York.

By the end of that 1979-80 season, it was another local team who was making its claim to be included in the local hoops hysteria.

The 1978-79 season, Georgetown had a group of freshmen, who would combine with juniors Craig Shelton and John Duren to establish a new power in the area. Eric ‘Sleepy’ Floyd, Mike Hancock, Ed Spriggs, and Eric Smith would become cornerstones for Georgetown basketball, which the following year would help establish the Big East right away as a power to be reckoned with.

In the 1980 NCAA Tournament, Georgetown defeated Maryland, 74-68, after beating them in the regular season, 83-71. Maryland won 24 games that year and finished first in the ACC regular season, going 11-3. A new era was born.

Every Monday night, I was glued to my TV when the Big East was on WTTG locally in D.C. This was becoming the best basketball conference in the country, even surpassing the great ACC, and the genius of John Thompson Jr. was on display.

Since Big John first took over, when I was two years old, the Thompson family name has been a part of Georgetown basketball. Eventually, his coaching acumen and business intelligence would turn Georgetown into such a household name that Nike — an eventual Georgetown sponsor — could have created the “Thompson” brand, complete with a caricature of Big John, the glasses, his broad shoulders and a towel draped over his shoulder. And it would have sold like hot cakes.

Thompson brought Georgetown into the limelight, won a national championship and, for many years, out-shined the other local powerhouse. It also eventually led to another Thompson getting a job at Georgetown, when John Thompson III replaced longtime Thompson lieutenant Craig Esherick as Hoyas coach 13 years ago.

Thompson III would win 278 games and take the Hoyas to a Final Four, but, in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture of college sports, back-to-back troubled seasons with defections and too many losses ultimately doomed the younger Thompson.

Thursday, Thompson III was relieved of his coaching duties at Georgetown University. A statement from school president John J. DeGioia read:

“It is with profound regret and deep appreciation that I informed John Thompson III this morning that the University will no longer be retaining his services as our Head Men’s Basketball Coach.

“For 13 years, he has been one of the elite coaches in college basketball. His performance as a coach has been exceptional, and he has served our community with remarkable distinction and integrity, sustaining our commitment to the academic performance of our students and providing them with the very best preparation for their lives beyond the Hilltop.”

I get it. The last two seasons, especially, were not good. Do I think he could have gotten them out of this slump? Yes.

John Thompson III will coach again. He’s good at it. You don’t win 278 games and go to a Final Four if you can’t coach.

What was discouraging was it appeared the Hoyas were playing with lesser talent than most Big East teams. Local talents — like Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, who won a national title — were far more comfortable going to Villanova than coming to Georgetown.

Could he have evolved his style of play? Sure. Would he have next year? We won’t know now.

Legend has it they never offered Melo Trimble, who ended up at Maryland. The Hoyas were often mentioned in the running for top recruits like Tremont Waters, who committed to Georgetown but has since de-committed.

Thompson’s biggest flaw, perhaps, was playing a system for which he maybe didn’t have the right talent.

Could he have evolved with Waters at point by moving Jagan Mosely to the off-guard and been really decent? You bet. Were his assistants aggressive enough in suggesting things? Thompson III never at anytime lost his ability to be classy and professional. Losing is tough. Kids graduate and move on. Coaches lose their jobs and livelihoods. It can bring out the worst in you.

The Thompson family won 874 games for Georgetown, which it established as a major brand in the college basketball world. It has a small on-campus facility. Frankly, it should play more games there until it rebuilds that brand. Play more non conference games and fill it to capacity at 2,500 with some standing room only. Rebuild the enthusiasm, where more students can easily access games, instead of playing in cavernous Verizon Center, where, if you really counted the bodies at, say, the Coppin State game, were there really more than 2,500 people there?

In a statement through attorney David Falk, Thompson III was classy in departing.

I am honored to have been the Head Coach at Georgetown University for the past 13 years, where I had the privilege of coaching and mentoring outstanding student-athletes. I am proud of what my players have accomplished on the court and how they are thriving since leaving Georgetown.

I have been fortunate to work for a dynamic forward-thinking President, Jack DeGioia, whose guidance and unwavering support I cherish. I would also like to thank Athletic Director, Lee Reed, for his strong and public affirmation, particularly during difficult times.

I am grateful to the fans of Georgetown for their tremendous support. Georgetown Basketball has been a part of my life since 1972, which makes this moment even more impactful but I look forward to my next chapter.

Georgetown has a terrific marketing department, which works hard to try and interest people in the product, but, you’re only as good as the product you have to sell. I’m sure there will be interest for Patrick Ewing among Hoyas fans, and I would love to see the former Hoyas big man get a sniff for a head coaching job somewhere, at least once.

It seems the time is now to part with the Thompson family name. And if so, what will that bring the small school, in Northwest Washington, on the hilltop? How much financial support might the school lose — if any — with a Thompson no longer in charge?

Those seem like valid questions on the surface. The job will attract stellar names. What the job pays and commitment from the school will go a long way in determining who takes it. Where does the Big East stand in the pecking order of college conferences? The top is great. The league won a national title last year with kids from the D.C. area playing starring roles. Few coaches in the Power 5 will leave an established job to take this one.

The school is still in a high-profile league with schools of similar profile. It’s made only one Final Four since 1985, when Ewing was the Secretary of Defense in the lane for the Hoyas. Winning is hard. Winning without a Thompson may prove to be harder at first. Maybe it won’t.

Tears will be shed as a legacy of class and prestige leaves Georgetown University with the Thompson name. The family has done far more for the school than you could place a value on.

It went from being a great law school to a nationally known product whose Starter jackets and other merchandise flew off the shelves in the 1980’s, and whose centers went on to dominate at the NBA level.

It gave a second chance to a future NBA Hall of Famer in Allen Iverson, whose life may have been totally different had Thompson Jr. not stuck his neck out; a talented guard from Hampton Roads who was dealt a bad hand by the local authorities.

The Thompson family stood for far more than basketball. It was about business, education, opportunity, and yes, 874 wins.

They don’t make Starter jackets for law schools.

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