Georgetown fires John Thompson III

After 13 seasons as the coach of Georgetown’s basketball team, John Thompson III is out. Firing JT3 was a big call, considering his father’s stature at the school.

John Thompson, Jr. took a middling, at best, basketball program — one that in a good year might get an NIT invite — to the pinnacle of the sport. His Georgetown teams appeared in three Final Fours and won a national championship. As the sport’s most successful African-American coach, he made a small, elite Jesuit school the pride of Blacks all over America.

Georgetown’s sparkling new athletic facility bears Thompson’s name. His statue stands near the entrance. He still has an office at the school and is an ever-present at Georgetown games.

What about his son? He’s a good coach. At Princeton, his teams won three Ivy League championships in four years. At Georgetown, he took over a losing team and within three years had the Hoyas in a Final Four — the only one the school has made since 1943 without Patrick Ewing.

Under JT3, Georgetown won three Big East regular season championships in his first nine seasons. During that stretch, the Hoyas made the NCAA tournament seven times.

JT3 also seems like a very good man. I found his father insufferable during his heyday as a coach, but the son displayed none of that obnoxiousness. I can’t recall him putting a bad foot forward during his tenure.

It was almost enough to make me start rooting for the Hoyas, something I haven’t done since the pre-Ewing era — the days of John “Ba Ba” Duren and Craig “Big Sky” Shelton. (Shelton told a Washington Post reporter that Thompson never returned his telephone messages when he called to solicit help in trying to return to school and earn his degree.)

Unfortunately, JT3’s Georgetown program has been in decline for some time. First came a string of NCAA tournament exits at the hands of teams with double-digit seeds. Then came a stretch of four seasons with only one NCAA appearance.

Finally came this season in which Georgetown went 14-18 — its second straight losing season. Losing seasons are tough to come by, considering Georgetown’s schedule. However, the past few years have seen the Hoyas lose games that seemed like pre-scheduled victories against what Dick Vitale calls “cupcakes.”

The most common explanation I’ve heard for Georgetown’s woes is that it’s difficult for JT3 to recruit players given his use of the structured “Princeton offense.” These days, the theory goes, players just want to run up the court and shoot.

There is probably some truth to this. However, this year’s Georgetown team possessed more than enough talent to have a winning season. In my view, the Hoyas’ talent is comparable to that of the University of Maryland, which started three freshmen. In fact, Georgetown had Maryland soundly beaten until the Terps staged an improbable last-ditch comeback.

Maryland’s record this season went 24-9 (counting its lose in the first round of the NCAA tourney).

Whatever the cause of Georgetown’s woes, the effects were obvious. Its games, held in the same arena that hosts Washington’s NBA team, were sparsely attended. The one I went to this year (a win over powerhouse Creighton), felt like it was played in a ghost town.

Players have been transferring out of the program at an inordinate rate, and a top recruit de-committed from the program just before JT3 was sacked. The future was looking grim. The school had little choice but to move on from its coach, in my opinion.

What does the future look like now? It depends, of course, on the new hire. Big John Thompson doesn’t have much of a coaching tree. Patrick Ewing is a well-respected NBA assistant coach. He would be a logical replacement if the program were in good shape. As it is, Ewing’s lack of college coaching experience, and in particular recruiting experience, makes him an unlikely choice.

Thus, Georgetown probably will bring in “an outsider.” If so, it will be the first time since 1972 that a Thompson or a Thompson assistant/player has not been at the helm.

Georgetown basketball isn’t close to what it used to be. However, the program should be able to attract a coach with strong credentials. The Hoyas play in the Big East, and Washington is an attractive city for college athletes. The D.C. and Baltimore areas are full of talented players, and the Georgetown name still counts for something, I imagine.

The glory days may never return, but the future of Hoya basketball need not be bleak.

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