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Despite Firing His Son, Georgetown Basketball Is Still in John Thompson Jr.’s Shadow

After 13 years with the program, John Thompson III is out as head coach of the Hoyas

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In the early 1970s, Georgetown suffered two straight losing seasons, and the school responded by hiring John Thompson Jr. Forty-five years later, they’ve had their first set of back-to-back losing seasons since, and now Thompson’s son, John Thompson III, has been fired as head coach.

Thompson III, who was brought on in 2004, turned around a struggling program soon after arriving, leading the Hoyas to the Sweet 16 in 2006 and the Final Four in 2007. But in the following years, the program quickly became famous for being on the losing end of early tournament upsets. In 2008, Stephen Curry’s Davidson knocked off the Hoyas in the tournament’s second round. After an NIT trip in 2009, Thompson’s highly ranked teams would lose in the tournament’s first weekend in four consecutive seasons; in 2010 to 14th-seeded Ohio, in 2011 to 11th-seeded VCU, in 2012 to 11th-seeded NC State, and in 2013, infamously, to 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.

These teams were punchlines, but at least they were competitive; in each of the eight seasons between the Final Four year and the FGCU loss, the Hoyas were ranked in the top 10 at some point during the regular season while regularly competing against the country’s best teams in the pre-realignment Big East. That can’t be said of the Hoyas today.

Since 2013, Georgetown has danced only once: in 2015, when the team, again, lost during the first weekend. Over the past two seasons, Thompson’s Hoyas have finished near the bottom of the weaker Big East and have failed to qualify for the NIT. The program that many expected to be the flagship of the new Big East quickly turned into a bottom-feeder.

Understandably, much of the blame fell on Thompson. The Hoyas’ 2013–14 NIT season was arguably a result of a series of injuries and suspensions that left Georgetown with limited scoring options and a shallow bench, but after securing a combined five ESPN top 100 recruits over the 2014 and 2015 offseasons, Thompson’s team was both deep and talented the past two years, yet still performed far below expectations. Thompson’s late-game sets and offensive strategy tended to be the most obvious issues for the team. And though this year began with promises of a new, more modern system to replace the Princeton offense, the Hoyas quickly reverted to their old ways, and earned similarly poor results.

In 2016–17, the failures were unignorable: the Hoyas lost their last six games, including a matchup with lowly DePaul and two against 14–19 St. John’s. Early in the season, former blue-chip recruit Isaac Copeland transferred to Nebraska, becoming the fourth player to transfer from Georgetown since the FGCU loss. More recently, reports surfaced that Trey Mourning, the son of Hoyas great and Thompson acolyte Alonzo Mourning, was looking to transfer. Two weeks ago, Tremont Waters, the 33rd-ranked prep prospect in the country, asked for a release from his commitment to Georgetown.

There have also been issues of accountability. Signs critical of Thompson were confiscated from students during games and postgame press conferences were, at times, limited to only a handful of questions. Toward the end of the season, reporters were told not to inquire about the future of the program. This secrecy was a hallmark of the program during the 1980s, but that was a different time. When you win, you can do whatever you want. When you lose, people want to hear from you.

Despite all the signs pointing toward it, the decision was a tough one for the university, which is inextricably linked with the Thompson family. In the 1980s, Thompson Jr. led the team to its only national championship and turned Georgetown into a culturally relevant brand. Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Mourning, and all of the most important figures in the history of the program played under the elder Thompson, who still has an office on campus and an active role in the program. In 2016, a massive, multimillion-dollar athletic facility, the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, opened on the school’s campus. The obvious danger in cutting ties with Thompson’s son was that it could also sever the school’s ties to the program’s entire history.

Now that the administration has done so, it has a chance to move out of the Thompson era. Thompson, Craig Esherick, who was Thompson Jr.’s longtime assistant, and Thompson III have been the only people to lead the program over the past 45 years. Yet the buzz suggests that current Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is the favorite to become the next head coach of the Hoyas. Not inconsequentially, Amaker is a client of David Falk, who is also the agent of both Thompsons.

Tom Crean, Archie Miller, and Shaka Smart are being mentioned as potential candidates, as is Ewing, who is still close with the Thompsons but has yet to declare any real interest in the job.

The one word that has surrounded the Georgetown head-coaching job for the entirety of its relevance is “legacy.” The program, as it exists today, knows very little other than the Thompson Way. It now has an opportunity to move forward and chart a new path, but parting ways with Thompson III was only the first step.