Nobody knew it at the time, but college basketball needed John Thompson more than John Thompson needed college basketball. He could have remained in the high-school coaching ranks in Washington, D.C., winning games and influencing lives, but the college game needed someone strong enough to sledgehammer the status quo into rubble.
Thompson was that man, 6' 10" and full of fierce conviction. He was a towering, glowering force of change.
News of his death at age 78 circulated Monday morning, and his passing reinforces both Thompson’s pioneering impact at Georgetown and the void of fearless leadership that currently exists among college coaches. He was first, biggest and best in so many ways. If you’re crafting the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches, he’s one of four faces on it. Non-negotiable.
Thompson was the first Black coach to win a national title, at a school that had never dreamed of such a thing after World War II. He did it with an all-Black roster, which unsettled some white people. He elevated the Big East from fledgling league to national power. He (and Nike) helped make the Georgetown brand an urban fashion statement. He walked off the court and refused to coach a game once, in 1989, to protest NCAA academic standards that he believed were discriminatory to minority groups.
And he did it all without waiting for permission or worrying about perception. He did it with a powerful pride in who he was and what his teams were about.
Was there a chip on that broad shoulder, underneath the trademark white towel he slung there during games? Assuredly. A useful chip. Until you got to know him, the Big John many saw was brusque, caustic, profane; upon closer inspection he could be warm, humorous and still profane.
But the approach was always through the front door, without apology, and without waiting for an invitation. If the door needed to be broken down, so be it. Georgetown basketball in its 1980s heyday was the toughest team on the block. Which was exactly the way John Thompson wanted it.
In his third season, 1974–75, Thompson led the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 32 years. They would make 19 more trips during the rest of his tenure, with a zenith from 1982–85. During those four years—which coincided with Patrick Ewing’s time at the school—Georgetown was the best basketball program in America.
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The Hoyas won the national title in 1984, and could have won two others in that stretch if not for extraordinary circumstances. They lost the ’82 national title game by a point, with a North Carolina freshman named Michael Jordan making the winning shot and Georgetown guard Fred Brown suffering a brain-lock turnover in the final seconds. They lost the ’85 title game by two points, thanks to the greatest shooting performance in NCAA tourney history—Villanova made 79% of its shots that night in Lexington, Ky.
Thompson’s ascendance helped change some of the hiring practices in college basketball. John Chaney was hired at Temple in 1982, George Raveling at Iowa in 1983, Nolan Richardson at Arkansas in 1985. The game’s great disconnect—Black stars on the court, white men coaching them—began to fade away.
The transformational moment for Thompson was when he signed Ewing, beating out North Carolina and UCLA for the star from Boston. Ewing’s official visit to Chapel Hill coincided with a Ku Klux Klan rally near campus, according to The Washington Post, and coach Dean Smith—himself a fearless social activist—told Ewing that he would understand if he chose a different school. Smith’s recommendation was Georgetown and his good friend, Thompson.
“The main reason I chose Georgetown was coach Thompson,” Ewing told the Post. “I thought that being a young Black kid who in just listening to a Black man who back then, spoke the way that he spoke, the way that he carried himself, it was someone I could emulate.”
It was the perfect pairing. Thompson had a skilled and experienced team waiting for a dominating force to plug into the middle, and Ewing was it.
Georgetown’s intimidation started the minute the players walked into the gym. The 1981–82 team was a defensive juggernaut: From its last three games of the regular season through the Big East tournament and the first four games of the NCAA tourney, the Hoyas allowed an average of just 45.3 points. And when they took on blueblood North Carolina in the first national championship game played in a football stadium (the New Orleans Superdome), the biggest game in Georgetown history, they brought the intimidation to the lordly Tar Heels.
Under instruction from Thompson not to let a North Carolina shot get to the rim, Ewing goaltended everything in sight to start the game. The Heels’ first eight points were all on Ewing goaltends. It was one hell of a tone setter, serving notice that the Hoyas were not backing down.
Ewing finished that game with 23 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, playing every bit as well as North Carolina standout junior James Worthy and fellow freshman Jordan. His star was ascendant, and he was taking the entire Big East with him. By Ewing’s junior season, the league had enough clout to move its tournament to Madison Square Garden and establish it as one of the premier events of March.
That was the year Georgetown won the national title, making Thompson the first Black Division I head coach to ascend a ladder and cut down the net. Richardson would follow 10 years later at Arkansas, and Tubby Smith three years after that at Kentucky.
And since then? Only Kevin Ollie at Connecticut, in 2014. Opportunities for Black head coaches have stagnated in the college ranks, sending many of the best and brightest minority coaching minds to the NBA.
There also is an absence of thunder from today’s college coaches, of all hues. John Thompson was loud, and occasionally angry. Nolan Richardson was loud, and occasionally angry. John Chaney was loud, and occasionally angry. They assailed the establishment and afflicted the comfortable, speaking their convictions. And they didn’t worry much what anyone thought about it.
In 2015, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association started the Dean Smith Award for coaches who made a profound impact beyond the court. The first winner was a no-brainer: Smith’s old friend, John Thompson. I was president of the USBWA at the time and had the honor of presenting the award to Big John.
The man who accepted the award on a September night in Chapel Hill was diminished a bit physically, and he was humbled. “You’re hitting me in my soft spot,” Thompson said.
For the betterment of basketball, John Thompson didn’t coach with any soft spots. He was the hardened force of change the game needed badly at the time, and could still use today.