Articles > People & Politics
In the Name of the Father
When coach John Thompson III took the job his legendary father once held, Georgetown fans went wild. Surely he would restore the program to national-championship glory. Will his achievements one day match his dad’s?
Coach Thompson is known as a control freak who’s focused on developing players both on the court and off. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
Would you buy a car from this man?
In his eight years as coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, John Thompson III has become a beloved figure on campus and a well-known face across Washington. The fact that his father is Georgetown legend John Thompson Jr.—whose 1984 Hoyas basketball team brought the school its only national championship—gave the younger Thompson’s arrival on the hilltop an aura of homecoming, even destiny.
But rewind the clock 23 years and the likeliest point of contact between Thompson and a typical Washingtonian would not have been on the Verizon Center court but on the sales floor at Dave Pyles Lincoln-Mercury in Annandale, where he was training to become a Ford dealer.
“I never thought about being a coach,” Thompson says. “I didn’t grow up—like a lot of people—dreaming of going into the same profession as my dad.”
After two years with Ford, there was a problem. “Cars are not my passion,” he says. So like his younger brother, Ronny—who also did a stint in the business world before turning to coaching—John was drawn into the family trade.
“I didn’t grow up—like a lot of people—dreaming of going into the same profession as my dad.”
The first thing you notice about him is what he isn’t. He isn’t loud or bombastic; his comments aren’t provocative; his manner isn’t brusque—all traits that defined his father’s public persona for the better part of three decades. John III is measured, thoughtful, and contemplative. It’s said he gets his temperament from his mother.
“People who don’t really know him think it’s an act,” says Byron Harper, one of Thompson’s childhood friends and high-school teammates. “That’s just who he is. You’re not going to make him go faster than he wants to go, and you’re not going to make him slow down. He’s going to do it his way.”
Five years ago, in just his third season at Georgetown, John III led the Hoyas to the Final Four. It was the first time the school had advanced that far since his father last led them there in 1985. The Hoyas’ success that March reinvigorated the Georgetown program and established Thompson as one of the outstanding young coaches in the game. More such appearances would surely follow.
None have so far.
Which is not to say Georgetown has been unsuccessful. In the four full seasons since their Final Four berth, the Hoyas have averaged 22 wins a season, ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation for 68 out of 76 weeks, and drawn an average of more than 12,500 fans to games at the Verizon Center, rating them among the nation’s top 30 schools in terms of attendance.
The younger Thompson is regarded by his peers as a first-class motivator, tactician, and recruiter, but he lacks the one thing that enshrines a coach’s credentials: a national championship. Thompson isn’t yet considered to be in the elite tier of coaches with the likes of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or Louisville’s Rick Pitino. Nor, at age 46, is he seen any longer as a young coach on the rise, like Butler’s Brad Stevens or Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart.
Thompson is now seen as a good coach, perhaps not a great one. But Hoya fans are counting on JT3, as he’s called, to bring the program back to national-championship glory.
“Markel, Markel, hold it, hold it!” Thompson orders. His command stops practice and brings the flow of his intricate Princeton offense to a halt.
There isn’t as much screaming at Georgetown practices these days as there was under Thompson’s father, but there’s still plenty of discipline and instruction. Thompson is driven by three abiding needs: to teach, to win, and to prove that the first two are not mutually exclusive.
Thompson presides over the 105-year-old basketball program from his office on the second floor of McDonough Arena, the on-campus gymnasium built in 1951. Each afternoon during basketball season, as his players trickle in for practice, he changes into workout gear and joins them on the court one level below. That’s where the four-year indoctrination of a dozen young men takes place.
On this afternoon, Markel Starks, a sophomore guard from Accokeek, Maryland, who played his high-school ball at Georgetown Prep, has just called out an offensive play his coach considers a bad choice.
“Spell kiss,” Thompson tells Starks as he stands at the top of the key and stares into the player’s eyes. Starks, unsure what the coach means, doesn’t respond.
Thompson repeats it: “Spell kiss.”
Aware now that he has become the coach’s straight man, Starks replies: “K-I-S-S.”
“What does that stand for?” Thompson asks.
“I don’t know,” Starks says.
“Keep It Simple, Stupid.” The players smile. Thompson pats Starks on the behind as he resets the offense and makes the team run the sequence again. The coach has made his point while keeping the teachable moment lighthearted.
The first question Georgetown president John DeGioia asked Thompson when they met to discuss the coaching job in 2004 was “Are you sure this is something you really want to do?”
DeGioia had known Thompson’s father since 1975, when DeGioia was a student at Georgetown assigned to tutor some of the basketball players. DeGioia has been at the university ever since, holding various positions as a teacher and administrator. He became president in 2001. DeGioia considers the elder Thompson a close friend and knows how long a shadow his legacy casts at Georgetown.
Still, when the coaching vacancy arose and it became clear the younger Thompson was interested, DeGioia was tantalized by the possibilities. Georgetown basketball had fallen into disrepair under coach Craig Esherick, whom DeGioia had just fired. The 2003-04 Hoyas ended their season on a nine-game losing streak to finish 13-15—the program’s worst record in three decades. Hiring Thompson looked like a sure way not only to restore the program’s respectability but also to mollify unhappy alumni.
Thompson interviewed for the job over lunch at DeGioia’s house. The president says he knew on the spot he had found his man: “When I interviewed John for the position, he was 38 years old, but he had a maturity far beyond his years. It was clear that he was ready for the challenge and that he embodied the deepest values that characterize this university.”
Of course he did. Thompson is too bright to bomb a job interview—especially at a place where the key words and catch phrases have been part of his vocabulary since childhood. But did he really know what he was getting into? Was he prepared for the inevitable comparisons and the unrealistic expectations that come with being coach of Georgetown basketball with the last name Thompson?
“My name is John Thompson, and I am definitely comfortable in my own skin.”
John III read the words straight into the camera. They were part of the script—a tagline to the Dove soap commercial he filmed in the summer of 2010.
The Princeton offense Thompson deploys is based on passing and constant motion. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
There may not be a more apt way to describe Thompson—comfortable in his own skin. Each day when he arrives at work, he walks through the ornate John Thompson Lobby of McDonough Arena to his office. On the way, he passes a display of the many trophies his father’s teams won over the years alongside a bust of his father’s head in bronze.
Yes, Thompson literally has to walk past a monument to his father to get to his office each day.
“It’s nothing to run from,” John III says. “It’s part of who I am. He was one of the best that ever did it. Do people compare and contrast me to him more because I’m here? Probably. But I’ve been John Thompson’s son my whole life. I’m pretty comfortable with him.”
He needs to be. His father isn’t just a vague presence in Georgetown basketball history. He’s an actual presence—in the building almost every day. He has an office at McDonough and retains both a $500,000 salary and an official title from the university: special assistant to the president and coach emeritus.
When he comes to practice, the elder Thompson stays out of the way. He waits until the session has started before he enters and he often sits in a wooden chair in front of the collapsible bleachers, his back pressed against the wall as if trying to blend into the woodwork.
Yet his presence is felt.
“He was here every practice,” says Jeff Green. The former Hoyas star is now with the Boston Celtics but is recovering from surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. “He took notes, and when we were done we’d walk past and shake his hand and he told us hello, and he would give us his piece,” Green says.
When asked if his son likes having him at practice, the elder Thompson says, “I don’t care if he likes it or not. He lets me in there. I very seldom say anything to him at practice. I just sit there and watch because I enjoy it.”
To see John III at work is to see a man so self-possessed that he’d likely be at ease if basketball inventor James Naismith himself were watching his practices. But when it comes to his father, the younger Thompson says it’s not a question of his own comfort: “That man has earned the right to do whatever the heck he wants.”
The bedsheet unfurled from the stands during a game in February 1975. “Thompson the nigger flop must go,” it said.
It was the elder Thompson’s third season at Georgetown, a decade before he would become the first African-American head coach to win the NCAA championship.
John III was a month shy of his ninth birthday. These were the lean beginnings of his father’s tenure at Georgetown. The elder Thompson had inherited a program that had won just three of 26 games in its final season under his predecessor, Jack Magee.
John Thompson Jr.—known to friends and family as Pops, Big John, or Coach—had grown up in public housing in DC and was a star player at Archbishop Carroll High School, leading the team to an undefeated season in 1960, his senior year.
Thompson was an All-American at Providence College and made it to the NBA, where he had a short and undistinguished career. He played two seasons for coach Red Auerbach in Boston and arguably lasted that long only because he was tall—six-foot-ten. He earned the nickname the Caddy because his lot in life with the Celtics was to back up future hall-of-famer Bill Russell. John was traveling with the Celtics when John III, his first son, was born; his wife, Gwen, drove herself to the hospital, according to a 2005 article in the Washington Post.
The Celtics won the NBA championship both seasons Thompson was on the roster, but when the Chicago Bulls joined the league in 1966, the Celtics left Thompson unprotected in the expansion draft. The fledgling franchise from the Windy City selected his rights, but instead of moving to Chicago Thompson came home to Washington and became head coach at St. Anthony high school in Northeast DC.
He arrived at Georgetown in 1972 following an exceptional six-year run at St. Anthony—his teams went 122-28—but he had no experience coaching at the college level. When he failed to produce a winning record his first two seasons at Georgetown, skepticism grew. At the time of the bedsheet incident, the Hoyas had just come off a six-game losing streak. They won that game by 42 points, and they would win all but one of their remaining games that season to finish 18-10. Georgetown finished each of the next 22 seasons with no fewer than 19 wins.
John III and his younger siblings, Ronny and Tiffany, bore witness to their father’s missteps and the milestones. The kids, however, didn’t get the kind of special treatment one might expect the children of emerging basketball royalty to enjoy.
“My kids didn’t come over to school and sit at people’s desks and run around my office,” the elder Thompson says. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden the king’s kids are here. I made them respect that.” It was part of the Thompsons’ parenting philosophy: Don’t exploit who you are, but don’t deny it, either.
“You want to look at me and ask what it was like being the son of John Thompson, the coach of Georgetown, and I don’t have another point of reference,” says John III. “It was just my life.”
Young John defused his father’s celebrity, and his friends in the Michigan Park neighborhood of Northeast DC—where the family lived—followed suit.
“We saw John as John,” says Mark Tillman, a childhood friend. “Yeah, we knew who his dad was, but growing up around him and going to his house all the time, it wasn’t like ‘Wow, that’s Coach John Thompson from Georgetown.’ He was just another typical dad who lived in the neighborhood, and John was just his son.”
Tillman notes that in those days most everyone referred to the younger Thompson as John or JT. The moniker JT3 seems to have been created by the media following his arrival at Georgetown. Few close to him use it.
When John Thompson III’s parents enrolled him at Gonzaga, head coach Dick Myers was giddy over the prospect of the six-foot-two freshman with the size-13 shoes. Sadly, Myers recalls, when he graduated four years later Thompson still had a size-13 shoe and he was still six-foot-two. “I never forgave him for that.”
Thompson may not have grown in stature under Myers, but his skills and leadership blossomed. In the spring of 1984, he was selected to the All-Met team by the Washington Post.
Myers, who coached Gonzaga for 29 seasons before retiring in 2004, says Thompson was one of the smartest and most insightful players he ever coached. “He was a very cerebral player,” his teammate Byron Harper says. “Not very athletic but definitely a student of the game. While most guys were out there playing checkers, he was playing chess.”
Myers tells the story of a game Gonzaga played against McKinley in the Beltway Classic. With Gonzaga behind by three points late in the game, McKinley fouled Gonzaga’s Harper. Coach Myers, noticing that the officials were distracted, ordered Thompson—a better free-throw shooter—to the foul line in Harper’s place.
“I said, ‘All right, John. You got fouled, right?’ And he looks at me with shock in his eyes. He didn’t say a word, but he looked so disappointed in me, and his eyes said, ‘Don’t do this, coach.’ “
Myers paused and changed his mind. “Forget what I just said,” he told Thompson.
“It was one of the stupidest things I think I’ve ever done,” Myers recalls, “and I vowed I would never do it again. And I didn’t.”
In 1984, Thompson’s senior season at Gonzaga, he led the Eagles to a 24-6 record and helped reestablish the school as a power in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. The team managed to finally beat archrival DeMatha—and did it in front of legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who had come to the game to scout both Thompson and DeMatha standout and future NBA star Danny Ferry.
The elder Thompson wasn’t around Gonzaga much during his son’s playing days. As the early ’80s unfolded and Georgetown marched toward a national championship, Coach Thompson was often on the road with the Hoyas or working late to prep for games. Gwen, whom he had met in high school, was left to manage the home front largely by herself.
When the elder Thompson did attend Gonzaga games, he stayed as high up in the stands as possible. At practices he sat behind the bleachers, but as Myers recalls, “it’s pretty hard to miss a guy who’s six-foot-ten.” Even today, when the elder Thompson attends a Georgetown game, he hides in upper-tier seats or in a luxury suite.
None of which is to suggest the father wasn’t meddlesome. He was and still is. “I will stick my nose in his business,” he says. “That’s my child. I’m not talking about second-guessing John the coach. I act as a father.”
“I will stick my nose in his business,” he says. “That’s my child. I’m not talking about second-guessing John the coach. I act as a father.”
In 2001 when John III was head coach at Princeton and being courted by other schools, his father said he wanted him to make his own decision. But John III suspected that if he were to choose a job his father didn’t think was the best option, his dad wouldn’t hesitate to speak his mind. So John decided to play a practical joke.
“I was offered a job at school X, not to be mentioned, and I knew it was not the right place. But I called home and said, ‘Moms, Pops, what do you think?’ They just turned it back on me and said, ‘What do you think?’ ” he says. “I remember calling home and saying, ‘Pops, I’m going to take this job.’ And this is after days or weeks of him telling me, ‘Hey, you make your own decision.’ He goes crazy: ‘Hold on! Wait a minute! Where are you? I’ll be there in three hours! You haven’t accepted yet? I’m getting in the car!’ “
All three of John Thompson Jr.’s grown kids live in Washington. Tiffany is a teacher, and Ronny—who played for his dad at Georgetown and coached at Ball State—is a television analyst for Bethesda-based Comcast SportsNet.
The elder Thompson could be gruff and abrasive on the basketball court, but as a father he never withheld affection—he still kisses John, Ronny, and Tiffany often. Yet neither did he withhold hard truths.
Shortly after John III started high school, his father told him he would never play pro basketball. “You’re not athletic enough,” John recalls his father saying. “No matter how good you are at everything else, you’ll never have a chance to play in the NBA.”
John III found that same kind of candor in his coach at Princeton, Pete Carril.
“You go through the recruiting process and you’re used to people telling you how great you are,” Thompson says. “But Coach Carril and I were talking and he just told me how bad I was and what I needed to work on and how if I didn’t improve I would play JV there. I remember sitting there and feeling comfortable with that.”
If the Mount Rushmore of college basketball includes the carvings of John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, and Mike Krzyzewski, then longtime Princeton coach Pete Carril would be among the first alternates alongside Thompson’s father. Carril spent 29 years guiding the Tigers, winning 13 Ivy League championships.
“Coach Carril reminded me a lot of my dad,” Thompson says. “Yeah, one’s a big black guy and one’s a little white guy, but who they are is very similar.”
Thompson thrived at Princeton, graduating with a degree in politics and starting all four years for the basketball team. He wound up second on the Tigers’ all-time assist ledger.
Broderick Johnson, who came to Princeton from Alabama, was two years younger than Thompson and met his future friend by chance, assigned by the university to stay with Thompson during a recruiting visit.
“Life-changing” is how Johnson describes meeting Thompson at Princeton in 1985. “It was meeting someone who had a much bigger worldview than I did at the time as far as what one could be in their lives.”
“He’s always been, for me, a bit of an old soul, like a big brother,” Johnson says. “I guess having grown up in DC and having a father like he did and having seen that world stage, he had just a bit more perspective than most people his age.”
Johnson now lives in Los Angeles and is cofounder of Alcon Entertainment, the production company responsible for feature films including The Blind Side. Johnson and Thompson remain best friends.
Thompson wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation in 1988. But during his senior year at Princeton, he went through the corporate-recruiting process on campus, which is how he landed in the Ford Motor Company program to train new auto dealers.
Thompson did well, both at corporate headquarters in Michigan and at the dealership in Annandale, but he left after two years and took a job at the Score Board, a sports-marketing firm based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. His group brokered sponsorship deals between athletes and companies. It seemed like the ideal marriage of his sports background and the business acumen he had developed at Ford. Says Thompson: “I thought it would satisfy my sports fix.”
“I remember sitting in a conference room at the Four Seasons in Philly,” he says. “We had just finished negotiating a multi-multi-million dollar deal with a very big athlete.” Thompson initially refuses to reveal the name of the athlete, but after prodding he confesses it was Shaquille O’Neal.
“I was sitting in the room with our CEO and another guy and high-fiving because our company made a lot of money; Shaq made a lot of money; I got a little bit of money,” he says. “And I remember thinking, ‘This is probably as good as it’s going to get in this industry—and I feel nothing right now.’ It was at that point that I realized, okay, this isn’t going to do it.”
John Thompson III grew up seeing his dad in the spotlight. The elder Thompson was the first African-American head coach to win a national championship. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
Shortly thereafter, Thompson got a call from Carril inviting him to join the coaching staff at his alma mater.
John III first met Monica Moore during his freshman year at Princeton, when his resident adviser asked him to talk to Moore, then a high-school senior, because she was deciding between Princeton and Georgetown.
Thirteen years later, when they were married in the campus chapel, both had returned to Princeton as employees—Monica as a fundraiser, John as an assistant coach under Carril’s successor, Bill Carmody. Carril had retired in 1996 and Thompson remained on Carmody’s staff, then ascended to the head coaching position when Carmody left in 2000.
The couple and their three children—Morgan, John, and Matthew—settled in Northern Virginia after John got the Georgetown job. The move back to Washington gave them additional family support they didn’t yet know they’d need. The next year, in November 2005, Monica was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few days before Georgetown’s opening game in John’s second season as head coach. Monica’s mother had died of lung cancer.
At the time, the couple’s children were all under eight. “I don’t know how I could have gone through it if I hadn’t been here in Washington, where we had a support system, family friends that were there to help,” John III says.
His father suggested he take a leave of absence to support Monica. However, she was determined not only to beat the disease but also not to let it impinge on her family’s established rhythms. “She is much tougher than her husband will ever be,” John III says.
When the Thompsons hosted the Georgetown players and staff at their house for Thanksgiving dinner that November, few at the table knew that Monica was scheduled for surgery the next day. The couple did their best that winter to schedule doctors’ appointments on non-game days so John could attend. During chemotherapy treatments, he would watch videos on his laptop to prepare for the Hoyas’ next game.
“For all she was going through, she gave me the strength to do my job,” he says. Monica has been cancer-free for six years.
The Princeton offense John III favors is the polar opposite of the run-and-gun, pressure-defense style his father used. Did he choose a style of basketball that couldn’t possibly be construed as one copied from his father?
The younger Thompson finds this suggestion preposterous: “That line of thinking has never been a part of me.”
The only area in which Thompson consciously runs away from his father’s legacy is the towel. During his coaching days, Big John would never be seen on the bench without a white towel draped over his shoulder. Despite years of speculation as to its significance, the towel was simply a concession to the fact that he perspired a lot—a trait he passed on to his son.
But John III was unwilling to co-opt that imagery: “I couldn’t do it. I just thought it would be perceived as trying too hard to look just like him. I use a towel—I just don’t throw it over my shoulder.”
Longtime Georgetown sports-communication director Bill Shapland may have come up with the best way to describe how the two Thompsons differ: “The father is like a laser beam, extremely focused. The son is like a lighthouse. He sees everything.”
John III’s attention to detail extends to every aspect of the program, from media guides to the schedule magnets that Georgetown fans affix to their refrigerators. They are all run past the coach’s desk before leaving the building. When asked if Coach Thompson is a control freak, one member of the Georgetown staff quickly answers, “Yes.”
More often than not, though, Thompson’s attention to detail manifests itself in his devotion to his players—the kind of devotion that makes parents eager to turn their teenage sons over to his care. He’s obsessed not only with fostering basketball players but with creating full men.
The lessons he teaches don’t stop at the gym door. Jeff Green calls Thompson “one of the most important people I’ve encountered in my life.” Despite leaving school early to play in the NBA, Green has returned to campus during the off-season to fulfill his academic commitments and is now two classes shy of earning his Georgetown degree. He credits Thompson with motivating him to stay on course.
When the team traveled to China this past summer, the university organized an excursion to the Great Wall. Freshman Tyler Adams had suffered a severely sprained ankle several weeks prior to the trip and was still wearing a walking boot when the team touched down in Beijing. There was concern among the training staff that allowing him to make the hike to the top of the wall would compromise his recovery. Thompson overruled them. He didn’t want Adams to miss the opportunity.
The China trip was intended to continue the tradition of cultural exchange through basketball that Thompson’s father had begun when he took his teams to Taiwan in 1976 and to Israel in 1993. Georgetown’s itinerary included four exhibition games against local teams. The first, in Beijing against the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons, went off without incident. Georgetown won 98-81.
The second game was scheduled for the next night against the Bayi Rockets. Georgetown may be a college team, but the Bayi Rockets are not. Bayi plays in the South Division of the Chinese Basketball League. They are pros, and many have served in the People’s Liberation Army.
The game was physical. Fouls were not getting called—at least not equally. When Bayi was awarded its 57th free throw midway through the fourth quarter compared to Georgetown’s 15, it seemed obvious the fix was in.
Things got so ridiculous, in Thompson’s opinion, that in the third quarter he sent a member of his staff to summon Georgetown athletic director Lee Reed because Thompson was ready to pull his team off the court. Reed told Thompson he would support whatever decision the coach felt was best, but things calmed down and Thompson let the game continue.
Then, with 9:32 remaining, Georgetown senior guard Jason Clark became entangled with one of the Chinese players near center court. Clark pushed him, and the Chinese player began throwing punches. Within seconds, players from both teams joined the fray and things spiraled downward fast. Chairs and bottles were hurled; spectators joined the melee. According to Washington Post reporter Gene Wang, “As the brawl spilled beyond the baseline, an unidentified Bayi player pushed Georgetown’s Aaron Bowen through a partition to the ground before repeatedly punching the sophomore guard while sitting on his chest.”
Thompson frantically ushered his players off the court. The crowd threw water bottles. One member of the Georgetown delegation sitting in the crowd was injured. As the Hoyas scurried down the corridor, Thompson says, the Chinese players issued a threat. “In perfect English, their guys are screaming down the hall: ‘We’re going to kill you when you go outside! We’re going to kill you when you go outside!’ “
When Georgetown’s team emerged from the arena door, the players found that the lights in the parking area had been cut off. Thompson feared for the team’s safety.
The team boarded their buses quickly and Thompson, on the lead bus, ordered the driver to leave. “I felt we’d be safe once we got to the hotel because Vice President Biden was staying in the same hotel with us and Secret Service was everywhere,” Thompson says.
They made it back to safety, but the drama was just beginning. Georgetown officials began hearing reports from members of the Vice President’s delegation that Chinese police might arrest Hoya players. Written reports and video clips of the incident began to circulate in the United States, and Coach Thompson was at the center of an international incident.
Thompson turned the ordeal into a teachable moment.
Back at the hotel, he formulated a plan. Thompson helped broker a meeting among himself, two of his players, and members of the Bayi team. It took place the next day at the Beijing airport. The rest of the team had already left for Shanghai, but Thompson and Hoya players Hollis Thompson (no relation) and Clark stayed behind for the meeting. The two sides exchanged gifts, posed for photos, and expressed their regret.
The summit got lots of coverage in the Chinese media, with Chinese assistant foreign minister Cui Tiankai telling reporters afterward, “My understanding is that it’s all cleared up. We’re pleased about this outcome.”
Georgetown’s board of directors later met to review the incident. Their conclusion: Thompson’s finesse transformed a negative into a positive.
“That was true grace under pressure, and it ended up reflecting well on the university and John,” says Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, a member of Georgetown’s board. “If John’s father was the coach, he would have been imprisoned.”
GEORGETOWN COACHING RECORD
GEORGETOWN COACHING RECORD
Thompson says the events in China may have played a role in the surprising early-season success the team experienced this year. “Being involved in that confrontation accelerated their understanding of their need to be there for each other,” he says.
How surprising have they been? The Hoyas were picked to finish tenth out of the 16 teams in this year’s Big East preseason coaches’ poll. Most observers expected 2011-12 to be a transitional season, considering that the team had lost its two leading scorers—Austin Freeman and Chris Wright—to graduation.
This season’s roster includes six freshmen and just two seniors, yet as of February 9 the Hoyas were ranked 12th in the nation with a record of 18-5, including wins over four top-20 opponents. The team was ranked as high as number nine in January.
Another run of success this March would undoubtedly improve the chances for one thing Thompson has coveted since the day he arrived at Georgetown: a new home for the program.
He doesn’t mince words when describing what he believes are Georgetown’s substandard basketball facilities: “I think if you do the research, you’ll find that we are among the bottom two in the Big East.” (Thompson wouldn’t say whose facilities he considered worse, but it’s widely believed among reporters who cover basketball that the honor belongs to Seton Hall.)
McDonough Arena is quaint, but it can’t compare with the modern facilities enjoyed by other programs of Georgetown’s stature. It puts Thompson at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to recruiting. Elite high-school students want to play where the toys are new and shiny, the locker rooms are plush, and the amenities conjure a spa. Georgetown, despite its standing as one of the nation’s elite programs, has none of that.
Thompson is particularly galled by the fact that his team—which generates the revenue that supports all 29 of Georgetown’s other sports programs—has to share its practice court and coordinate scheduling with the Hoyas’ volleyball and women’s basketball teams.
According to one member of the Georgetown staff, the coach has offered to use his own money to rent space for the volleyball teams in Yates Field House, a student fitness center.
To Thompson’s complaints, DeGioia says, “He’s absolutely right. Our current facilities are not competitive with the current environment of Division I men’s and women’s basketball. It’s our next building.” The university has building plans and a zoning-commission hearing scheduled for this spring, but DeGioia can’t say exactly when the facility will be finished.
Infrastructure is not the only area in which Georgetown is leaking prestige. Its conference—the Big East—is losing members faster than MySpace. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are leaving for the ACC, while West Virginia is departing for the Big 12. Houston, Southern Methodist, and Central Florida will take their places, but those programs lack the stature of the ones that are departing. The defections may cost the Big East its reputation as the nation’s toughest conference and will almost certainly make recruiting harder for the schools that remain, including Georgetown.
The impending Big East shuffle also jeopardizes the Hoyas’ greatest rivalry. Georgetown and Syracuse have been enemies since the 1980s, when the elder Thompson and Jim Boeheim battled most years for the number-one spot in the conference, if not the nation. With Syracuse leaving, the annual meetings between the schools may no longer be part of the schedule.
Fans of both teams want the rivalry to continue. Boeheim, now in his fourth decade as head coach at Syracuse, says it “absolutely” will. Thompson, citing the questionable wisdom of playing an elite out-of-conference school on an annual basis, is less certain.
There’s not as much speculation about where Thompson might go next as there would be if he had a different last name. But the assumption that his attachment to Georgetown will keep him on the hilltop for as long as his father stayed is anything but guaranteed.
“We’re all hoping that the Georgetown platform can be sticky for John,” says Leonsis. The Wizards owner concedes that Thompson would be a strong candidate not only for other high-profile college jobs but also for head coaching positions in the NBA.
“That might be a good challenge,” Leonsis adds, “but there’s something romantic with a higher calling in coaching a university, and he would lose that should he go to the NBA one day.”
DeGioia’s desire for Thompson to stay is somewhat less poetic: “I’d say John came here with a goal in mind—to win a national championship—and I don’t think he’ll be satisfied until he wins one.”
If Thompson were to leave Georgetown, it likely wouldn’t be over his compensation. The university’s tax filings for fiscal year 2010 (the most recent data publicly available) list the coach’s salary as $1.8 million. That makes him by far the school’s highest-paid employee, and in 2011 it made him the 12th-highest-paid college basketball coach, according to USA Today.
When Thompson is asked if he intends to stay indefinitely, he answers: “When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, you quickly learn that your world can change in an instant, and at that point I learned you shouldn’t make statements about indefinite.”
Meanwhile, amid the pressure to win, Thompson’s cool demeanor prevails. And the teaching continues.
In a December game at the Verizon Center against crosstown opponent Howard University, the Hoyas—who had led at one point by 17 points—saw their lead dwindle to two with less than eight minutes remaining in the second half. It was a juncture at which the unwritten coaching handbook calls for a time-out—to stop the bleeding, to issue instructions, and to reverse the momentum. Thompson stood calmly and let the game continue.
“At some point, the guys on the floor have to take ownership of what’s going on,” he says. “I wanted them to figure it out on their own. Not just to figure it out but to fix it.”
Georgetown won the game by 14.
If you liked this story, you may be interested in How the Verizon Center turns the Hoyas basketball court into the Capitals hockey rink in less than three hours.
This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.