The JTIII era was not his fa­ther’s, but still wor­thy

The Washington Post Sunday - - NCAA TOURNAMENT - thomas.boswell@wash­ For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­

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.

Thomas Boswell

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