After 27 Years, Thompson Resigns

Basketball Legend Cites Personal Problems as Reason for Surprise Departure

By Sean P. Flynn Hoya Staff Writer

The news spread like a wildfire on the evening of Jan. 7. The future of a Washington, D.C., institution was at stake, but this story was not the one people were expecting.

In a stunning turn of events, at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 8, John Thompson resigned from his job as head coach of the Georgetown men’s basketball team, effective immediately, due to “personal problems” stemming from a divorce from his wife, Gwendolyn.

“I am not retiring,” Thompson stressed at the cDonough Arena press conference held in front of a backdrop of the jerseys of former Hoyas who have played in the National Basketball Association. “I have resigned as head basketball coach at Georgetown University. Let’s make that very clear.”

Taking over for Thompson is Hoya assistant Craig Esherick (CAS ’78, LAW ’82), a former Georgetown guard who was a graduate assistant under Thompson from 1979-1981 and a full-time assistant since 1982.

“I haven’t slept a whole lot or eaten a whole lot since,” Esherick said at the press conference. “This day is not the type of day I thought I’d have when I became a head coach.”

Meanwhile, the 57-year-old Thompson ended his 27-year association as skipper of the Hoyas, a tenure in which the 6-foot-10 former backup to Bill Russell on two Boston Celtics NBA championship teams transformed a small Jesuit university on the Potomac into a college-basketball powerhouse.

In an emotional speech, Georgetown President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., thanked Thompson for his “leadership, your vision, your commitment and your integrity. Thank you for the innumerable contributions you’ve made quietly, off the court, that no one will ever hear about and that no sports statistic will ever reflect.”

O’Donovan was one of many Georgetown luminaries who surrounded Thompson at the press conference. Sitting behind Thompson were members of the current team as well as numerous former Thompson players, including Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85), Alonzo Mourning (CAS ’92), Dikembe Mutumbo (CAS ’91), Anthony Allen (CAS ’91) and Don Reid (COL ’95).

Thompson’s resignation came in the midst of one of Georgetown’s worst seasons since he came to the Hilltop in 1972. The Hoyas were 7-6 at the time of the resignation, including an 0-4 record in the Big East, with all of the wins coming against minor-conference teams. After beating aryland-Eastern Shore on Dec. 22, Thompson’s Hoyas had lost three games in a row: a 64-63 nailbiter to Miami at MCI Center on Dec. 30, a 87-64 blowout at Connecticut on Jan. 2 and a 72-61 decision to Seton Hall at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutheford, N.J., on Jan. 4. But Thompson as well as Athletic Director Joe Lang insisted that the Hoyas’ recent woes had nothing to do with the resignation.

“I want to be clear that this is John’s decision and we support him fully in his decision,” Lang said.

“There are things that I need to give attention to in my personal life,” Thompson said. “What kind of educator am I if I don’t make a young person understand that the teacher has things he has to address also?”

Thompson filed for divorce in 1997 but has been separated from his wife since 1996. Thompson said the divorce proceedings were taking their toll on him.

“It left me with no attention to coaching here,” Thompson said. “I do not have the ability, at this time, to address the things in my personal life and do my job at the level of excellence I feel it should be done.”

In a written statement released by her lawyer and obtained by the Washington Post, Gwendolyn Thompson said: “I am saddened that John felt it necessary to resign. I am also saddened to hear that this process is taking such a toll on him. But John filed for the divorce – not me.”

Many close to Thompson were shocked by his decision and many tried to convince Thompson to reconsider, but it was to no avail.

“When the news came, I was not prepared at all,” the 42-year-old Esherick said in an interview with The Hoya on Thursday afternoon. “He called me Tuesday night late, before the press conference, and told me he was coming over to my house . He doesn’t just pop into people’s homes, he’s not that type of person. That’s when he said that he was leaving and I was very shocked when he told me that.

“I attempted then to talk him out of it, I attempted the next day to talk him out of it, I attempted the next day to talk him out of it, and I was less successful each time I brought the subject up.”

Thompson said that friends and Temple Head Coach John Chaney tried to talk him out of quitting in favor of a sabbatical.

“A sabbatical was discussed,” Thompson said. “But that would be unfair to Craig. You can’t lend a coaching job. You don’t share it. It’s like a toothbrush. It’s either mine or it’s yours. It’s not ours.”

With the pleas of his colleagues unsuccessful, college basketball, the Big East and Georgetown lost a legend and one of the most important coaches of the last quarter century.

On the court, many of his tactics have changed the game. He popularized the frequent, non-stop substituting of players during the game. His Hoyas perfected the press defense and proved that defense did win championships. The big men he recruited made an impact at Georgetown and still haunt the NBA.

On a higher level, his Georgetown successes, often just single games, led to the elevation of the Big East and even all of college basketball into the big time. In 1980, Georgetown stunned No. 3 Syracuse 52-50 in their last game at anley Field House, thrusting Georgetown into the mainstream, creating one of the greatest rivalries in college hoops and certifying the Big East as a conference that deserved recognition. In 1983, Georgetown and Ralph Sampson’s Virginia clashed at the Capital Centre in the “Game of the Decade,” a game televised by TBS in the first cable television event of this magnitude. This, as well as a Big East contract with fledgling ESPN, allowed the Big East to become one of the premier conferences in the nation as well as perhaps the most visible.

While Thompson is known for his winning ways, including the 1984 NCAA championship, his losses may be even more famous. In the 1982 NCAA final, Georgetown lost to North Carolina in what some consider the greatest college basketball game ever. After freshman Michael Jordan hit a go-ahead jumper with 16 seconds left, Georgetown’s Fred Brown mistakenly threw a pass to North Carolina’s James Worthy and the title was the Tar Heels’. Thompson’s supportive hug of Brown remains one of the enduring images in basketball history.

Villanova’s “Perfect Game” against the Hoyas in the 1985 NCAA final is possibly the biggest upset in college basketball history. The No. 1 Hoyas were supposedly unbeatable, but Villanova shot an ungodly 78.6 percent from the field, missing just one shot in the second half, and making of 22 of 27 shots from the free-throw line to pull off the impossible in Patrick Ewing’s last college game.

To some, the most disappointing loss in Thompson’s career was when he was head coach for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. The only U.S. men’s basketball team not to earn a gold besides the 1972 debacle against Russia and the 1980 boycott, Thompson’s squad was upset by the Russians in the semifinal and had to settle for third place. The1988 team was the last American team supplied with no professional players.

Despite the great games, Thompson’s off-the-court stances against key issues may have given him the most notoriety. Thompson was an outspoken and highly respected leader of the black community for a number of reasons. Thompson’s success opened doors for black coaches. When Thompson got the Georgetown job, there were four black coaches in Division I; today, there are more than 80.

Thompson’s recruiting methods were largely directed towards the inner cities and giving a chance at a good education to black kids about whom quality education was said to be impossible. Thompson was often criticized for being a racist and using lenient academic standards for basketball players as compared to rest of the school. Nevertheless, 75 of the 77 Thompson pupils who stayed four years graduated. Patrick Ewing, whose acceptance into Georgetown drew the ire of some in 1981, is now the head of the NBA Players Association. Alonzo Mourning has found success in life despite problems with drugs and gangs in high school. In one of Thompson’s most famous public appearances, a 1989 edition of Nightline, he described to the world how he brought one of the most powerful gang leaders in the Washington area into his office and told him to stay away from Mourning. In January of 1989, Thompson boycotted two games in protest of new freshman-eligibility rules that he found discriminatory. His symbolic gesture was one of the reasons those rules were repealed a year later by the NCAA.

“Him breaking the color barrier here, that had a major impact on a lot of people’s lives,” Mourning said.

But in the last several years, Thompson’s successes have been fewer and further between at Georgetown. The only top-of-the-line recruit to come to Georgetown since Alonzo ourning was Allen Iverson, who fell into his lap after Iverson’s mother pleaded with Thompson to take her son. Since 1996, Iverson, Victor Page, Eric Myles, Jerry Nichols, Shamel Jones, Ed Sheffey, Kenny Brunner and Shernard Long have all left Georgetown early. Iverson became the first Thompson player to leave early for the NBA in 1996.

At the same time, the quality of Georgetown’s play slipped. Last season the Hoyas were 15-14 in the regular season, barely qualifying for the National Invitational Tournament. This season, the Hoyas under Thompson did not beat a major-conference opponent and almost suffered an embarrassing defeat against lowly Bethune-Cookman Nov. 30.

Winning or losing, the torch is now passed to Esherick.

“I’m not happy for myself,” Esherick said. “But I’m looking forward to the challenges of this job.”

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