The JTIII era was not his father’s, but still worthy
Well-lived lives deserve to stand erect in the bright daylight of their own actions and not be diminished, pushed into the shadows by anyone else’s deeds.
It’s difficult to be the decent, thoughtful, accomplished son of a complex, outspoken, philosophical volcano of a giant Hall of Fame father.
And it’s doubly tough when, with an entirely different skill set and temperament from your dad, you follow that father into the same job that made him famous, in part to advance his legacy as you take over a semifamily business.
So let me, as counterbalance to his firing Thursday, offer my congratulations to John Thompson III for all 278 of his wins at Georgetown after he took over a losing program in 2004.
JTIII deserves praise for his trip to the Final Four in 2007, for his three Big East championships in 13 years and eight trips to the NCAA tournament as well as grooming players like NBA veteran Jeff Green and Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. His career winning percentage of .648 on the Hilltop would look pretty good . . .
Except that his father’s record was .714 over more than 26 seasons with three trips to the NCAA championship game and a national title in 1984.
On the other hand — the one that always seems to slap you in the face after the first one patted you on the back — Thompson deserved to be replaced.
Despite running a clean program, caring for his players and representing Georgetown with dignity, JTIII was treated appropriately. For the past 10 years, his teams have done exactly the things that get every big-time coach (with a $3.6 million contract in 2014, the most recent year for which figures were available) thrown out of work eventually.
Five times he lost in the NCAA tournament to a doubledigit seed. Mix in three blah NIT seasons, then the past two losing campaigns.
Thompson didn’t just get fired because his team finished ninth in a 10-team Big East this season but because of the accumulated evidence of all 13 of his years.
JTIII can coach a quality college team. (See earlier citations.) He just can’t coach well enough to stay at Georgetown while it still believes its program can be a national contender and is willing to pay a salary that should attract a top talent.
Maybe he got one year more than a generic Coach X would. Maybe he got one less year to turn things around than many of us suspected, considering his dad, Big John, the guy with the bronze statue on campus, did more for Georgetown’s national profile, fundraising and applications than a full-court press of Greek professors.
Either way, there’s no reason to get angry. JTIII, who was an All-Met player at Gonzaga, deserved the Georgetown job after a dozen years at Princeton — first as a player and assistant coach, then four seasons as head coach with three Ivy League championships and two trips to the NCAA tournament. He played for, worked under and was anointed by legendary Tigers coach Pete Carril.
In the end, JTIII could have been hired by Georgetown with few apologies if his name had been Jones. And considering he got fired this week, not 52 weeks from now, he came close to being canned just as if his name were Smith.
Someday, we may know the ticktock details of the departure. But for now, both Thompsons and university President John J. DeGioia seemed to have acted like adults in a painful situation in which furniture and feelings could have taken a beating.
I first met JTIII one morning in the early 1970s while looking for angles for my high school stories for The Washington Post. Big John, then the coach of St. Anthony’s High, sat in the living room of Father Raymond Kemp, a D.C. school board member. At Thompson’s large knees were his sons — John III, then about 5, and his younger brother, Ronnie.
Sometimes you see the beginning and the end. Perspective can be painful. And it will probably be hard for the Thompsons. But sometimes the story is just over. The only choice is how you react. Obviously, both Thompsons should hold their heads high. Not that, knowing them, there would be any other possibility.
This sounds to some like a sad story. It isn’t. It’s just a finished chapter. At 51, JTIII has tons of coaching time if he wants it.
Ironically, Thompson might have stayed as coach at Princeton for a lifetime with his degree from the school, Carril’s blessing and his quick success. Both Thompsons may disagree with me, but I suspect JTIII would have been better served professionally if he had followed his coaching father, Carril, rather than his real father. But how do you turn down the Georgetown challenge?
JTIII made a choice that not only seemed honorable but logical, too. In fact, when I covered Georgetown’s trip to the Final Four a decade ago, it felt perfect.
But ultimately it wasn’t a fit. There are plenty of theories. When JTIII took the job, I had a similar feeling to the day Craig Esherick succeeded Big John five years earlier: What are smart, decent guys like you, with books by serious thinkers from previous centuries on your library shelves, doing jumping into a bar fight?
The elder Thompson grew up on Benning Road in Northeast D.C., not too far from where I grew up, and he was straight street when he needed to be. There was no one, high or low, honest or crooked, that he couldn’t understand and deal with.
To Big John, a high school gym on a recruiting trip was dangerous territory, full of rival coaches or inquiring eyes ready to snitch on any dubious behavior. I sat next to Thompson in the top rows of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School near Boston to see Patrick Ewing as a senior. It was sweltering, and John had a huge bottle of Pepsi in a brown bag. Suddenly, he stopped in mid-swig and stuffed the bag between his feet. “Damn, I’m drinkin’ out of a brown bag,” he said. “If these other college coaches see me, they’re going to tell everybody it’s whiskey.”
That’s the tone of voice of the basketball world. Coaching is and has always been full of manic, driven, colorful, unbalanced, sketchy, funny and dynamic people. And they can inspire, motivate or terrify a box full of rocks — as required. I wouldn’t describe JTIII as any of these things. The last qualification for such a job is: “He seems sane.” Okay, JTIII has that one. But to say that a man isn’t cut out to be a top 20 power-school coach is not a criticism of his character.
Sports have produced few figures as principled as Big John. He wasn’t always right — but he usually was. And often he was very right, very early, when it was very hard. His wounds and anger were central to those principles.
The day after he won the NCAA title, he told me: “A national championship was something I was obsessed with. It was something I personally and selfishly wanted to do . . . . Now I have the period that ends all sentences.”
Big John does not have obsessed sons, just fine ones. As for John Thompson III, Big East coach of the year only four years ago, few coaches of big-time programs are so widely respected as people. He’s got a .648 winning percentage in the big time, too.
Some will throw shade. But both Thompsons still stand in the light.
John Thompson III led the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament eight times in 13 seasons.