Remembering the Career of John Thompson: Program Builder, Trailblazer, Champion

by Mike Ferguson
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Photo courtesy of Georgetown University

The world said goodbye to a college basketball legend on Monday morning as former Georgetown head coach John Thompson died two days shy of his 79th birthday.

In 27 seasons as the head coach at Georgetown, Thompson won nearly 600 games. Thompson led the Hoyas to the NCAA Tournament 20 times. That included three trips to the Final Four and four others to the Elite Eight. In 1984, Georgetown won its only title under Thompson.

The Legend

Georgetown saw success for most of Thompson’s legendary career, but the most prosperous decade was the 1980s. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Thompson starred at Providence before being selected 25th overall in the 1964 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics.

A member of two title teams, Thompson spent just two seasons with Boston. After spending time as a high school head coach, Thompson was just 30 years old when he became the head coach of the Hoyas.

When Thompson took over for the 1972-73 season, Georgetown had just one winning season in five years. The Hoyas had appeared in the NCAA Tournament just once ever at that point.

Georgetown went just 12-14 during the 1972-73 season, but would never have another losing season under Thompson. After three first-round exits in the NCAA Tournament over Thompson’s first seven seasons, the Hoyas hit new heights during the 1980s.

Hoyas Hit New Heights

As the decade turned to the 1980s, Georgetown became a force to be reckoned with. With stars such as Patrick Ewing, Fred Brown, Sleepy Floyd, David Wingate and more, the Hoyas reached the national championship three times in a 4-year span.

Georgetown won just one title, but could have easily won all three. The lone championship for Thompson came during the 1983-84 season. After a close call against SMU, the Hoyas won four straight games by double digits. Georgetown capped their title run with a 53-40 victory over a Houston team led by center Hakeem Olajuwon. In the process, Thompson became the first Black head coach to win a Division I national title.

Although Georgetown lost its two other title game appearances, they came by just a combined three points. In the 1982 title game, the Hoyas held a 1-point lead late over North Carolina, but a jumper by a freshman named Michael Jordan put the Tar Heels ahead for good in a 63-62 victory. On Georgetown’s final possession, Floyd mistakenly threw the ball right to North Carolina’s James Worthy.

In 1985, Georgetown faced a Villanova team it had defeated twice in the regular season. The Wildcats shot 78 percent from the field and 9-for-10 in the second half to stun the Hoyas, 66-64.

The loss to Villanova would mark Thompson’s last appearance in the Final Four, but it remained a force. From 1978 to 1991, Georgetown made the NCAA Tournament each season. The Hoyas reached the Elite Eight in 1987. 1989 and 1996, but were unable to cut down the nets.

The Twilight Years

An 86-62 loss to No. 1 seed Massachusetts in the 1996 Elite Eight would mark the last time that Thompson’s team would make any noise in the NCAA Tournament. The Hoyas made the tournament the following year as a No. 10 seed, but were easily defeated by Charlotte.

Thompson’s final full season resulted in an NIT appearance. During a 16-15 1997-98 season, the Hoyas edged Florida before falling to Georgia Tech by a single point. Thompson resigned 13 games into the following season after a 7-6 start.

Thompson was succeeded by his former player and assistant Craig Esherick, who led the Hoyas to just one NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons. Succeeding Esherick would be Thompson’s son, John Thompson III.

The younger Thompson never had the same success that his father did, but spent 13 years as head man of Georgetown. His first 11 were winning seasons. The younger Thompson led the Hoyas to eight NCAA appearances over that stretch, including a Final Four berth in 2007.

The elder Thompson spent much of his time post-retirement as an analyst for TNT and other television networks.

A Trailblazer

Thompson was not only the first Black coach to win a national championship, but he opened the door for others to coach at college basketball’s highest level. At the time of Thompson’s hire, it was rare for African-Americans to be given head coaching jobs.

Thompson was known for not only molding talented players to include Ewing, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and many more, but former players spoke profoundly of who Thompson was as a man. An outspoken opponent of racism, Thompson was unafraid to bring racial issues to light. His 97 percent graduation rate speaks for itself.

In addition to Georgetown, Thompson was the first Black man to coach the United States’ mens basketball team in the Olympics. After winning a pair of gold medals as an assistant and part of the team’s selection committee, Thompson coached the Americans to a bronze medal in 1988 — the final Olympics before NBA players were eligible.

Although it remains an issue, Thompson dispelled the myth that Black coaches could not succeed at the highest level. Since Thompson’s Hoyas cut down the nets in Seattle, Tubby Smith and Kevin Ollie have joined Thompson among the ranks of Black coaches to win national titles.

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Fewer than 25 percent of Division I head coaches are Black, but two of the teams to finish in the AP top 5 this past season were led by Black head coaches.

When it comes to Thompson’s legacy, former player Fred Brown may have summed it up best. Brown spoke of Thompson’s impact during an interview his university’s magazine in 1997.

“Coach Thompson taught me a great deal and broadened my horizons,” Brown said. “I still remember him spending whole practices just discussing things with us. It was a great classroom, and one of the most important things he taught me involved a perspective which goes beyond the immediate.”

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.

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