With the Georgetown basketball team in the midst of its second straight losing season; fresh off four straight losses, including two to Big East basement-dwellers St. John’s and DePaul; devoid of hope for a post-season appearance; and the fan base drowning in its own toxic frustration, firing off a “Put John Thompson III In The Trash Can” take should be easy.
It could sound like this one, from Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya:
We can tolerate a losing season or two, but how the program responds in this moment is crucial. Letting our angst continue without acknowledging the problem will inevitably breed apathy.
Indecision risks further apathy. The time to make a change is now, and the school has only one choice: Fire JTIII.
Or this, from the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, published before Georgetown’s Tuesday night loss to Seton Hall:
The Hoyas finished 15-17 last year, and, with the losses to Depaul and St. John’s, they now stand at 14-15 this year with just two games left in the regular season. The last time Georgetown had consecutive losing seasons was in the 1970-1971 and 1971-1972 seasons. The coach was fired after the 1972 season and replaced by — wait for it — John Thompson Jr.
While the regular season losses are new, Thompson III has long struggled to return the program to its former glory. After a run to the Final Four in 2007, Thompson III has watched his often-highly-ranked teams implode in the NCAA Tournament. It has been a decade since Georgetown made the Sweet 16; the team has lost to the likes of Florida Gulf Coast, Ohio University and Davidson over that.
And now the fan base and alumni — of which I am one — are turning on Thompson.
Or this, from a student petition to fire Thompson:
We acknowledge the immensely valuable contributions Coach Thompson and his father John Thompson, Jr., have made to this University, including to the personal development of players and to the integrity of the Athletic Department. Unfortunately, we have also seen the Athletic Department drift further out of touch from students as the men’s basketball program has continued to falter. This can be clearly seen in the continued downward spiral of attendance, both in the student section and in the crowd at large. If this university chooses to maintain a tradition of excellence in both athletics and academics, it should hold its highest-paid employee accountable.
Or it could be as simple as this sign, spotted in Madison Square Garden during Georgetown’s loss to St. John’s:
It should be easy to call for Thompson III’s job. But it’s not.
There is a single, immensely complicating factor Georgetown must consider when weighing whether to fire John Thompson III: his name.
As the son of John Thompson Jr. (or Big John as he’s known around campus—and he’s always around campus), the man who forged the greatness of the Georgetown basketball program in the 1980s, coached stars like Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo, and won the 1984 national championship, Thompson III is a permanent link to the height of the program’s glory.
He is his father’s son, and his father is Georgetown basketball incarnate.
Thompson Jr. is an icon, and since he resigned in 1999, in the middle of a poor season, his legend has only grown. He shows up to watch Kenner League games in the summer, and sits in his own special, straight-backed wooden chair on the baseline at every home game during the season. Recruits are drawn to Georgetown by his legend and the promise of his involvement. The shiny, brand-new athletic facility on campus bears his name, and a bronze statue of his likeness towers in the building’s entrance. Footage from Georgetown basketball’s 1980s heyday still features prominently in hype videos played at basketball games.
I went to Georgetown. I covered the basketball team for the student newspaper, and I still attend most home games at the Verizon Center. I’m not exaggerating when I say that depending on who you talk to, you might hear, if you asked around, that John Thompson Jr. is as integral to Georgetown’s identity as the Catholic Church.
And so firing his son as head coach would be, to say the least, a fraught undertaking. A bitter severance between the Thompsons and Georgetown basketball would leave the program, and indeed the university, in a vulnerable position. Potential recruits could lose interest without the magnetism of the Thompson family lore; it’s not impossible to imagine nostalgic donors closing their checkbooks upon hearing the news.
Thompson III’s defenders, dwindling though they may be, will point to his full record at Georgetown: 11 postseason appearances in 12 seasons (8 NCAA tournament berths and 3 NIT appearances), 2007 Final Four appearance, 65 percent career win rate, and tell you this slump is temporary. That could be. But one losing season is bad enough, and two is unacceptable. The reputation of the Georgetown basketball program is on the line, right now.
In a statement to Deadspin, Thompson III said:
First and foremost, our fans are terrific and have been terrific. They’ve experienced some good times with us, and now, with the stretch we are having, I understand their frustration. There is no one more frustrated than I am. We are accustomed to winning. I know that our players and staff are working hard and playing hard. No one cares more about this program and its tradition than I do.
At any other program, Thompson III would be replaced. But Georgetown is not any other program. At another school, the risk of dumping a losing coach for a new direction is low. At Georgetown, that’s not so; losing is bad, but firing Thompson III could be worse.
And this is why, barring an intervention from the university president perhaps, Thompson III will likely be back on the sidelines next season: The Thompson legacy simply means too much to Georgetown.
At this point, it seems Thompson III’s tenure can only end in resignation.