PHOENIX — In the decade since Georgetown last reached the Final Four, it has undergone a precipitous slide into national irrelevancy. The Hoyas’ best seasons over that span ended in stunning NCAA tournament upsets, and the past few years have been marked by transfers, apathy and a home arena that doubles as a ghost town. Georgetown finished ninth in the 10-team Big East this year, and that only happened after it poached Robert Morris’s best player, guard Rodney Pryor, to become its leading scorer.
But Georgetown has managed to be on the lips of everyone at the Final Four in Phoenix this weekend, a sad case of relevancy due to dysfunction. Coaches, executives and agents can’t stop talking about the Hoyas’ flawed coaching search, the topic du jour of open-bar parties, tee boxes and convention halls. The fascination boils down to one question: What the hell is going on at Georgetown?
The program fired John Thompson III on March 23, nearly two weeks after a sputtering 14-18 campaign drew to a close. The gap between the Hoyas’ season-ending loss to St. John’s in the Big East tournament and the news of Thompson’s dismissal was the first hint of the administrative dysfunction, political infighting and general cluelessness permeating this athletic department. Georgetown not only canned Thompson III way too late, losing out to N.C. State on a top candidate like Kevin Keatts. It did so with no real plan in place.
Instead of a stealth-and-seek search like the ones executed at Washington and Missouri, Georgetown stalled, boxing itself out from coveted names and then starting a hiring process with a ready, fire, aim approach. “If you’re going to fire him, you’d think you have it dialed up with a No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 candidate,” said an industry source. “How do you open yourself up to that? It leaves you vulnerable and in a position of weakness.”
Some coaches still consider Georgetown, as a pure basketball job, the best in the Big East. But the Hoyas are operating from a position of weakness in this search, as coaches are fretting the gutted roster, tortured politics and influence of John Thompson Jr. Can he really be thrilled that his son just got fired? In what bizarre universe could Big John have signed off on his son’s ouster?
Georgetown’s coaching search has been so misguided, ham-handed and naïve that it’s offered a perfect window into just how sideways things are there. The program already has been rebuffed by Texas’s Shaka Smart, Xavier’s Chris Mack and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey. It has kicked the tires on Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, who has privately expressed little interest in dealing with the politics involved. There’s been buzz over the weekend that Georgetown could make another run at Amaker, but it appears that, if there’d been significant mutual interest, something would have materialized long ago. Providence’s Ed Cooley didn’t turn the Hoyas down, per se, but he made it known after the job opened that he didn’t want to go anywhere. Sometimes you can’t put a price on goodwill with your fan base and administration.
No schools have announced extensions yet for the coaches Georgetown has publically whiffed on. But is there a better leverage point available for your next contract than turning down a marquee job where they’re waving around $4 million salaries like fliers for a Times Square comedy show? The Georgetown search has been so thoroughly mishandled that President Jack DeGioia may earn White House recognition for the national economic stimulus he’s creating around the country. The Hoyas are viewed in the industry as a trust fund kid trying to throw money at their problems, but the issues at Georgetown aren’t fiscal.
One of the cruelest ironies among the plot twists at Georgetown is the looming presence of Thompson Jr., whose success there gave birth to the Hoya Paranoia mystique. After observing how the program spent years operating with closed practices, taped windows and media suspicion, the coaches considering the job have developed their own case of Hoya Paranoia. How much will Big John be around? How angry is Big John that Georgetown fired his son? And the biggest question is one nobody can answer: Who is actually in charge?
A gentleman by the name of Lee Reed is Georgetown’s athletic director, but everyone knew that Thompson Jr. made all the big decisions in the athletic department. Even with this search, which got handed over to the Korn Ferry search firm, the names Paul Tagliabue and Big John come up far more often in conversations than Lee Reed. In an era where alignment is the buzzword among coaches, the Hoya Paranoia has boomeranged back to haunt them.
Are you working for an anonymous athletic director or a jilted Hall of Fame coach? Will former players with close ties to the Thompsons rally around a new coach of whom Big John doesn’t approve? The bronze statue of Thompson Jr. at the entrance to Georgetown’s sparkling new, $62 million practice facility functions as a stop sign for potential coaches. (And the fact that Georgetown took about 15 years too long to build a state-of-the-art facility is a telling sign of both its arrogance and ignorance to the realities of modern college basketball.)
Whoever gets the job, it will be clear how far it has fallen to them. That could be Rhode Island’s Danny Hurley, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, Duke assistant Jeff Capel, USC’s Andy Enfield or South Carolina’s Frank Martin. (Former Indiana coach Tom Crean has been told he’s not a candidate.)
And, of course, it could be former Georgetown star Patrick Ewing, currently the associate head coach for the Charlotte Hornets. Ewing’s candidacy is the most intriguing, as it would show that instead of Georgetown splitting from Big John, the Hoyas are doubling down on him. Ewing is certainly a strong coach, as he’s received significant NBA interest in head jobs. But his insertion into Georgetown’s political climate would lead to near unanimous forecasts of doom, as there’s not a strong track record of former NBA stars with no college coaching experience coming back to college and crushing it. Just ask St. John’s how Chris Mullin is faring. How’d that Clyde Drexler experiment work out at Houston? Ewing has exponentially more coaching experience than those two, but none of it has come in college.
Modern college coaching is 80% player acquisition, navigating the complicated spaces of AAU programs, agents and middlemen. Ewing has the name and cache to get an audience, but he’d need a staff of sharks to help him tiptoe through the country’s most intricate AAU scene. Georgetown is a tricky place to learn on the job. Plus, wouldn’t he be smarter to wait and take an NBA head job in the next few years?
A debacle of a search doesn’t always translate to a disaster of a hire. Nick Saban at Alabama is proof of that. But at this point, there are no easy answers for Georgetown as it faces the cold reality of a flawed search. While Georgetown sifts through its B-list for a replacement for Thompson III, the Hoyas are relevant again for all the wrong reasons. Hoya Paranoia has emerged from the program’s coaching pool, as Georgetown’s decades of reclusion have opened the doors for everyone to have a chuckle at its expense.