When I was a freshman at Georgetown, an upperclassman leading one of my orientations gave our group an unexpected piece of advice: If you ever see John Thompson Jr. driving on campus, get out of the way, and get out of the way fast.
I nodded. Sure. An old basketball coach seemed like the least of my worries.
A few months later, walking down a hill on the back side of campus, I heard a car behind me. The stream of students walking between classes pressed its collective self against a fence on the side of the road. Sure enough, it was the legendary silver-haired former coach, driving not at all slowly, as if there weren’t four dozen or so undergrads in his path.
That was around the start of the 2006-07 basketball season, when I realized the elder Thompson was still a fixture around the Georgetown program, which his son, John Thompson III, had just taken back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. I began to learn there were just a few agreed-upon pieces of campus wisdom at Georgetown: Bill Clinton’s freshman dorm room is in Harbin Hall, the cafeteria workers will chase you if you try to take a pie home with you, and John Thompson Jr. is the most intimidating man you’ll ever lay eyes on. And you’ll lay eyes on him a lot.
That winter was my first dose of real college basketball, and I was hooked. Jeff Green was friends with a girl in my freshman dorm. Roy Hibbert was the tallest human being I’d ever seen. Georgetown was good, and Thompson III was its coach. His father sat in the first rows of the Verizon Center stands for every game, a constant reminder of the glory days of the 1980s and early ‘90s, which looked as if they might be back. It seemed a little bit like basketball heaven.
Ten years after that 2007 Final Four berth, it’s over. When the school fired Thompson III on Thursday, I reacted with a level of glee that almost made me sad. I couldn’t help but think of the win over North Carolina that sent the team to the Final Four in ’07. My friends and I—and most of the rest of campus—rushed out onto the quad, and the crowd ran to the White House to celebrate. (Yeah, in retrospect, Georgetown traditions are bizarre.) I remember thinking we should act like we’d been there before, that this was just a trip to the Final Four, that there were two games left before a title. (Or one; the Hoyas promptly lost.) I rationalized that next time, we’ll wait another game, or until they win it all, to storm the president’s house.
There wasn’t a next time. The past decade of Georgetown basketball has been a slow slide into mediocrity. The Final Four berth was followed by a second-round upset at the hands of a Davidson team led by Steph Curry, which makes that loss much easier to stomach now than it once was; then the NIT; then several seasons of 20+ wins and early tournament exits. The most memorable moment of the past five years is the Hoyas’ loss as a No. 2 seed in 2013 to No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast.
Things had to get better, but they got much worse. The Princeton offense became outdated and Georgetown recruited poorly, posting losing records in each of the past two seasons and missing the tournament in three of the past four years. When I saw their game against St. John’s in the first round of the Big East tournament was on a television at a bar earlier this month, I went so far as to ask the bartender to change it. He refused. They lost by a point, and it was the first time I considered it might make sense for the school to fire the son of the most revered man on campus.
That’s the thing about firing Thompson III: It’s like firing a family, even if Thompson Jr. will remain adjacent to the program. Only a forgettable five-season gap separated father and son on the sideline, and for 40 of the past 45 years, a Thompson has been the Hoyas’ coach. That’s almost unfathomable. But tradition only gets a team so far, and it’s been a decade since Georgetown has done anything noteworthy in the postseason. Its best player this season, forward L.J. Peak, is going pro, and its top 2017 recruit, point guard Tremont Waters, asked for a release from his National Letter of Intent earlier this month. A program that, given its resources and history, should be at the top of the Big East, is now at its lowest point in years.
Still, the Hoyas should be able to make a noteworthy hire despite the late timing of the announcement and the considerable amount of coaching movement in college basketball this off-season. Georgetown may be removed from greatness, but it was still at the top of the college game for years. Washington, D.C. is a hotbed of recruits, and basketball is king on campus. This is a program that, at its best, has come close to filling an NBA arena for its games. When things are good, they’re really good, and Georgetown should have its pick of candidates for what could be the Big East’s best job.
The school could go in a handful of directions, from grabbing an out-of-work coach like Tom Crean, snapping up a smaller-school guy like Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, or even bringing in the best player in school history, Patrick Ewing, who’s now an assistant with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
As exciting as the latter sounds, let’s not forget the lesson learned with JTIII: Hiring a legend—or the son of one—most likely means that you’ll have to fire him eventually. That’s not an argument against Ewing, just a dose of perspective. Even if Georgetown brings in someone with no prior connection to the team, its history will be ever-present, and that history has the power to get the Hoyas back on an upward trajectory, fast.