Former Georgetown basketball  Coach John Thompson died on Monday.

He was 78.

His accomplishments, which put him in the Basketball Hall of Fame. will be duly noted over the next few days.

But Thompson was more than a coach, more than someone who molded young men with finished basketball skills AND social awareness that would allow many young black men to compete more fairly in a racially biased world.

"John Thompson,'' said former University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun in a phone conversation on Monday, "was a force of nature. He was a very special guy. I had such deep respect for him, not only as a coach, but as a person.''

At 6-foot-10 inches and with a voice that could come at you as a rumble, John Thompson caught your attention immediately.

My dealings with him spanned more than 30 years, primarily during the 25 years I worked at the Boston Globe covering college sports, including Big East basketball.

The more you got to know Thompson, the more you could peel away the outer intimidating layer, the more you saw the humor. That softer edge made him so beloved by former players such as Patrick Ewing and Alen Iverson, two of the more prominent Georgetown alumni.

I remember watching a Spike Lee documentary on Georgetown and Thompson and seeing a humorous, almost playful side of the man that rarely was displayed in public.

When I ran into him at dinner at a Final Four in Seattle later that season, I asked him why the public never saw the "other'' John Thompson.

He smiled and said, "That's my point.''

"I loved John,'' said former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, who oversaw the birth of a conference into what was arguably the best conference in college basketball over a sustained period of time. "John did social justice on his own 30 years ago and received a lot of criticism for it. But he didn't back off. He felt things should be done a certain way and if they weren't he told you about it.''

Tranghese remembered many conversations he had with Thompson about issued involving not only the Big East, but social justice matters involving the league.

"He could be very intimidating,'' said Tranghese. "He would say I think this is what you should do, and this is what I think you can do.''

Calhoun remembers the yearly jousts between Georgetown and UConn, not only in the Big East, but in the NCAA tournament in more indirect terms. "We had our battles,'' said Calhoun. ""It wore you out, and it wasn't much fun, but it made you better.'' 

In retirement, Thompson switched into the role of mentor, especially to a second generation of former players who had switched to coaching, including his own protege Patrick Ewing, who is now the coach at Georgetown.

""He had such an affect on young coaches like Ed Cooley (now the coach at Providence),'' said  Tranghese. ""He was an enormous influence on the game.

As a coach and to some extent as a person, John Thompson was an "in your face presence'', which caused you to react, whether you wanted to or not.

His trademarks were a towel he kept on his shoulder and his enormous physical presence no matter what he was doing otherwise.

He could be confrontational.

He could also be playful, such as the time he came to Madison Square Garden for a game against St. John's and Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca wearing a multi colored sweater--a Carnesecca trademark.

"There wasn't anyone quite like him,'' said Calhoun.