Georgetown can’t ignore fact: Program is in decline
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.