Inside the John Thompson Jr. Athletic Center, the newly constructed practice facility for all of Georgetown’s varsity teams, reminders of the past are everywhere. Grainy pictures of the elder Thompson patrolling the sideline accompany similarly aged photos of Patrick Ewing and the trademark Hoya big men that succeeded him. Georgetown’s campus is minuscule, and the facility, which spared no expense, jumps out like a monstrous 50-millimeter Hublot on a child’s wrist. The administration and the athletic department emphasized the facility’s utility, but by merit of the name on the door, the building is something more. It’s a message: Do not forget our rich history.
With that in mind, the news of Georgetown’s newest hire comes as no surprise. Two weeks after John Thompson III’s ousting from the helm of the Georgetown men’s basketball team, the school has moved on to another member of John Thompson Jr.’s coaching tree: Ewing, their former great.
The news Monday puts an end to a coaching search in which the school reportedly pursued a number of coaches from both mid-major programs and power conferences, but struggled to garner interest from their top candidates.
That the school “[struck] out” with a number of its ideal coaches is illustrative of a troubling truth that the school has done its best not to confront in recent years: that Georgetown is no longer the national presence it once was.
For those who were tapped into the culture of 1980s and early 1990s, Georgetown will always have an identity, a strong brand that stretched from the college court, to sweatshirts and jackets splattered across MTV, and back to NBA floors in the space around the rim. But that was eons ago — even the school’s last Sweet 16 appearance, 2007’s Final Four run, seems to be from a different age.
After Thompson III’s firing, I was encouraged by the university’s seeming willingness to move on from the Thompson Way, which had worked for decades, but had become undeniably stale in recent years. Thompson Jr. has no official title at Georgetown, but he is still a constant presence in the program at practices, on press row at games, and even in the back of press conferences, occasionally interjecting when a question directed at his son or a player is not to his liking.
All of this — Thompson’s vast web of connections to the program’s alums and history, the building bearing his name, and his literal physical presence — makes his control of Georgetown basketball very real, even 18 years after his retirement. John Thompson III’s recent teams haven’t embraced the Princeton offense. The lack of organization often displayed by his talented players was hard to watch. But the Thompson brand had grown beyond reproach, and the lack of accountability from the school and the staff in addressing their obsolescence is what allowed the program to wither on the vine.
Thompson Jr.’s legacy was a safeguard, and during his son’s earlier years, the securities of never having to make adjustments to or answer tough questions about the system were of little concern. The team’s successes overshadowed all discontent. But as the Hoyas’ postseason failures began to pile up, and then even winning seasons moved out of reach, the Faustian bargain that the program made in 2004 had revealed its consequence: How do you hold the prince accountable when you can’t anger the king?
Clearly, this adherence to the Thompson Way has made Georgetown less appealing to everybody who is not, mentally or physically, on the Hilltop. Thompson III made $3.6 million in 2014, a formidable salary that, one would imagine, would surely make up for the job’s decline in prestige. Apparently not — Ewing was a fixture in the rumor mill, but didn’t appear to be among the top candidates at the time of Thompson III’s firing. Instead of accepting their new normal and building from the ground up, the school made the same decision that it did when it hired Thompson III: bringing in a coach close to the program’s roots who also reflects back to the school’s former standard of greatness, but also one that, for those same reasons, is almost unimpeachable.
Now, Ewing, who has coached in the NBA for 15 years, most recently as an associate head coach for the Hornets, is well known for his player-development ability. He’s never had a head-coaching job, but, surely, he will not be running the Princeton offense when he arrives at Georgetown. (That, in itself, is a massive relief. If the Hoyas had run a more efficient system, I fully believe that they could have been a significantly more competitive team in both of the past two seasons.) Also, assuming that nostalgia is now Georgetown’s main recruiting draw, Ewing’s reputation will also go a long way toward reviving the Hoyas’ presence in the D.C. area, a region now dominated by Maryland and vultured by programs like Villanova. (Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were both products of D.C. prep schools. Jenkins even went to Gonzaga College High School, Thompson III’s alma mater.)
Then again, Ewing’s reputation may not be as strong among today’s high school prospects and college players as one might expect. Here’s a reaction this morning from Georgetown’s starting center, Jessie Govan, after the news of Ewing’s hiring was announced:
There will undoubtedly be a rough acculturation period. Ewing, an NBA coaching lifer, has never actually hit the recruiting trail. He may be a natural salesman, but it will take time for him to start bringing blue-chip players back to the Hilltop, even if he assembles a staff of effective assistants. During that time, the program will likely be in dire straits. With leading scorers Rodney Pryor and L.J. Peak leaving for the pros, Isaac Copeland’s midseason transfer to Nebraska, top prospect Tremont Waters’s request for a release from his commitment to the school, as well as the graduations and rumored transfers of other players, the Hoya roster will be gutted over the next few seasons.
Patrick Ewing is a Georgetown icon, and to see him patrolling the sidelines will, on some level, be a pleasure no matter what results he produces. But visual nostalgia is only one part of what makes the history of Georgetown basketball important. The other part is simpler, but much more elusive: winning.