News & 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.