Ge­orge­town can’t ig­nore fact: Pro­gram is in de­cline

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - jerry.brewer@wash­ For more by Jerry Brewer, visit wash­ing­ton­

In the clos­ing min­utes, the con­flict reemerged at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter with faint dis­plays of dis­plea­sure. One stu­dent in­ter­rupted si­lence by yelling, “It’s time for a change!” An­other lifted a sar­cas­tic sign that read “Thank You JTIII.” And as the game ended, the soft chants ad­vanced from “You can’t si­lence us!” to “We want change!” to “Fire Thomp­son!”

That’s how the reg­u­lar sea­son of an­other lack­lus­ter Ge­orge­town men’s bas­ket­ball cam­paign con­cluded, with drama es­cort­ing the Hoyas off the court, with an over­whelm­ing sense that an in­tri­cate and sen­si­tive prob­lem has only be­gun to dis­turb. If this were an old tele­vi­sion show, the words “To Be Con­tin­ued . . .” would’ve ap­peared on the screen as Coach John Thomp­son III ex­ited the dis­ap­point­ment.

Bar­ring a mir­a­cle Big East tournament run, the Hoyas (1417) are des­tined to fin­ish with their sec­ond straight los­ing sea­son. They have lost five games in a row. They posted a 5-13 record in the di­min­ished Big East. As a sign of how far they’ve fallen, they couldn’t keep pace with No. 2 Vil­lanova — his­tor­i­cally their

peer as a dom­i­nant pro­gram de­fy­ing the foot­ball-pow­ered cul­ture of col­lege ath­let­ics — in an 81-55 loss Satur­day af­ter­noon.

Vil­lanova is the reign­ing na­tional cham­pion led by Josh Hart and Kris Jenk­ins, two stars from the D.C. area. And Ge­orge­town is lost, trapped be­tween what it used to be and what it be­lieves it can be now, watch­ing the son of the man who built its em­pire strug­gle, cre­at­ing the most cum­ber­some sit­u­a­tion in col­lege bas­ket­ball.

How awk­ward is it? When Thomp­son was asked a stan­dard ques­tion about the fu­ture of the pro­gram and the po­ten­tial for dis­trac­tions af­ter Satur­day’s game, a team spokesman de­clared be­fore the coach could an­swer: “Leave it to game-re­lated ques­tions.” And that was the end of a postgame me­dia ses­sion that lasted about four min­utes.

Thomp­son will never be Jay Wright when it comes to me­dia friend­li­ness, but he is a po­lite, ar­tic­u­late 50-year-old gen­tle­man who can han­dle a few big-pic­ture ques­tions. He could’ve just swat­ted them away, like he has some queries this sea­son, fa­vor­ing to save state-ofthe-pro­gram eval­u­a­tions for the off­sea­son. Or maybe he would’ve of­fered a few words of in­tro­spec­tion and made him­self more hu­man in this de­bate. In­stead, Ge­orge­town chose to cast it­self as closed and aloof.

It was short­sighted and made the pro­gram look dis­pas­sion­ate and above scru­tiny. In ac­tu­al­ity, Thomp­son wears his frus­tra­tion on his face, and you could feel how much this sea­son has worn on him as he said of his team’s in­abil­ity to re­cover from a sec­ond-half Vil­lanova spurt: “We didn’t bounce back. We didn’t bounce back.”

But if you want peo­ple to feel your pain — or bet­ter yet, if you want them to re­mem­ber, through the dis­ap­point­ment, that you’re all on the same team — you have to ex­press it in words. Ge­orge­town is do­ing it­self no fa­vors by avoid­ing dis­cus­sion of the very thing that the score­board has shown con­sis­tently over the past two sea­sons: The pro­gram is slip­ping. It might be slip­ping into a dan­ger­ous place. And Thomp­son has to de­fend him­self.

He won’t be fired af­ter this sea­son ends. That’s just re­al­ity. And it’s un­fair to say his job se­cu­rity is tied solely to the le­gend of John Thomp­son Jr. Be­fore this two-year slide, the son made eight NCAA tournament ap­pear­ances in his first 11 sea­sons. He has been to a Fi­nal Four, al­beit 10 years ago. He has eight 20-win sea­sons. The early tournament ex­its are in­de­fen­si­ble, as is the re­cent re­gres­sion in re­cruit­ing and the fact that Ge­orge­town still doesn’t find the best tal­ent to fit its style of play. But in most cases, if a col­lege coach has had a decade of suc­cess and done so with in­tegrity, the coach, re­gard­less of his last name, should have ac­cu­mu­lated the eq­uity to sur­vive two down sea­sons.

Af­ter that, all bets are off, and Thomp­son III should be en­ter­ing that phase. The prob­lem is the per­cep­tion that, be­cause of his fa­ther, the coach will have an in­fin­itely long rope.

So, right now, this is a stale­mate of frus­trated fac­tions. There are plenty of fans preach­ing pa­tience, though they don’t chant dur­ing games. But it would be un­wise to la­bel the “Fire Thomp­son” crowd as just im­pa­tient young peo­ple who for­got the pro­gram be­gan long be­fore Jeff Green. It seems that many of the peo­ple yelling for change have taken on a con­fronta­tional tone be­cause they think their con­cerns will only be heard if their voices are loud and their mes­sage is provoca­tive.

As Joe Ger­ics, a 2001 Ge­orge­town grad­u­ate, re­cently told The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Adam Kil­gore: “I don’t know if JT III should be fired. But I feel the fact he just won’t be is a prob­lem. The feel­ing I have as an alum is, he’s part of the Thomp­son fam­ily, and with the ath­letic fa­cil­ity with his fa­ther’s name on it, it doesn’t seem like the univer­sity will fire him. And it seems to me he should at least be on the hot seat.”

Ge­orge­town should be pa­tient and vet the pro­gram thor­oughly be­fore mak­ing any move that would up­set Big John, or more im­por­tantly, send a pro­gram no longer tied to a power con­fer­ence into the un­known. But it shouldn’t ar­ro­gantly ig­nore the hope­less­ness that some fans are start­ing to feel.

The univer­sity can’t put it­self in a pro­tec­tive bub­ble. It can’t be aloof to the frus­tra­tion, and it def­i­nitely can’t op­er­ate as if Thomp­son magic is the so­lu­tion to all of its prob­lems. Thomp­son III should keep his job, but his seat also should be get­ting hot­ter. In the up­keep of a great pro­gram, there’s one thing that mat­ters more than loy­alty and even tra­di­tion: win­ning.

It’s al­ways about win­ning. Thomp­son III has won enough to sur­vive two bad sea­sons. But when you com­bine the bad sea­sons with the early tournament ex­its, you see a pro­gram with an ur­gent need to stop the de­cline. Over the next year, the pro­gram needs to make it clear that it is re­set­ting, on the court and in re­cruit­ing. Or else.

And if there is no “or else,” the part of this story that’s to be con­tin­ued will ad­vance from awk­ward to down­right ugly.

Jerry Brewer

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