Craig Esherick has stood in a very large shadow.

At the outset of his fourth full season as head coach of the Georgetown men’s basketball team, the shadow of legendary Head Coach Emeritus John Thompson has started to fade away. The last player to play under Thompson graduated last year, and no current Georgetown students were enrolled when Thompson was coach.

“The players are comfortable with me being their head coach. I recruited most of them. I didn’t have to worry, `What will they think of me being the head coach,’ which is what scared me to death for two months,” he said, referring to the two months after Thompson shockingly retired mid-season in 1999, leaving Esherick at the helm.

Esherick, the tall man with a slight Southern drawl and warm sense of humor, now has his own approach to leading the team – some of it borrowed from Thompson, some of it his own. He retains Thompson’s belief in education. He holds the players to the same standards of class that Thompson did, enforcing a dress code of jacket and tie for media events and road trips.

“I don’t think the things that John Thompson emphasized have changed. Most of that is still present,” Esherick said.

But Esherick has also crafted his own style. Co-captains junior ike Sweetney and senior Courtland Freeman report that Esherick quizzes them on “current events” when he sees them in the hallway or the locker room. Sweetney said he talked to the team frequently about Sept. 11 and the recent sniper shootings.

He made news at the beginning of the 2000-01 season when he hung the Hoyas’ NIT banner above the urinals in the locker room. The motivation worked, as Georgetown went all the way to the Sweet 16. He has also been known to give players who make a mistake on the court a quick hook.

“On the court, he treats us like he’s the boss, and we’re the businessmen,” Sweetney said. But in true Thompson style, Esherick plays a role in his players’ lives off the court as well. Freeman and Sweetney both consider him a friend and have been to his home in Arlington, Va., where he lives with wife Theo Stamos, deputy Commonwealth attorney for Arlington County and his two young sons, Nicholas and Zachary.

He’s not overbearing, they say. “Basically he just lets me take care of myself,” Sweetney said. “He wants me to be a man.”

But Esherick certainly tries to have a role, and a somewhat traditional one, in what kind of men his players become. “I don’t think an earring is a good thing. I don’t think a tattoo is a good thing,” he said at this season’s Big East Media Day. And he realizes his character-building battle is being waged in a different environment these days – one that has been changed by lucrative NBA contracts, corporate sponsorship, agents and television.

That climate works against a mission that Esherick considers central to the Georgetown experience: getting an education. “Kids leaving school early has not been good for any level of the sport,” he said. And he takes this into account when recruiting players: “Every coach has got to understand where he coaches. I coach at Georgetown. It’s not a smart thing of me to go out and look for people that just play basketball. I have two degrees from this university. This university means something to me.”

The Hilltop has been home to Esherick for almost 30 years, and he seems to have become comfortable with his now-central role in its community.

He came to Georgetown in 1974 as a freshman to live in Darnall Hall and play for Thompson, who had just arrived on the Hilltop two seasons earlier. Esherick accompanied Thompson on his first trip to the NCAA tournament. He rarely started, and his greatest moment on the court came when he hit a 40-foot buzzer-beater against George Washington in 1978 to send the Hoyas to overtime and a win.

But Esherick learned Thompson’s lessons well. He adhered to Thompson’s admonition that every player get an education. He graduated in 1978 with a degree in finance and entered Georgetown’s Law Center. While at law school, he was an assistant coach at St. Anthony’s High School in Washington, D.C., and then a graduate assistant for Thompson. He passed the District Bar exam in 1982, expecting to leave college basketball and become a lawyer.

But after a five-day vacation, Thompson called to offer Esherick a full-time assistant position. The unexpected offer left Esherick with a decision to make: “In one hand, you have a Georgetown law degree; in the other hand, you’re a member of the D.C. bar. No one’s going to be able to take those away from you. If you change your mind, you can always go practice law, but if you find that you hate practicing law, are you ever going to be able to coach Georgetown again?”

But for the next 17 years, Esherick did not change his mind. He stuck with Thompson through Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85), through Alonzo Mourning (CAS ’92) and through Allen Iverson. He was there for the 1984 NCAA championship, as well as the 1982 and 1985 Final Fours. Thompson and the entire team showed up at the funeral of Esherick’s brother Doug in 1983. Esherick stood in for Thompson in 1989 when he walked out for two games in protest of NCAA Proposition 42, which limited financial aid to athletes and, in Thompson’s view, hurt minority students.

But none of that could have possibly prepared him for what happened the evening of Jan. 7, 1999. On that night, Esherick’s boss, mentor and friend told him something that would change his life forever: Thompson was resigning. Between that meeting at Esherick’s home and the next morning’s historic press conference in McDonough Gymnasium, Esherick did not get much sleep. He tried to convince Thompson to change his mind, to no avail.

“I was thrown into this job. I did not know when Coach Thompson left that he was going to leave. I was shocked when he came over to my house and told me he was retiring,” Esherick said.

Thompson’s announcement sent Esherick’s life into a whirlwind. It was the middle of a season in which the Hoyas were off to their worst conference start in 27 years, and they were facing Providence the next day.

But they won. The months that followed were shaky for Esherick and the Hoyas, but they passed. And now, almost four years later, the team is Esherick’s. He may not cast as big a shadow as Thompson did, but he is their leader, and he loves it.

“The transition from being an assistant coach to head coach – that has solidified my decision even more that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And if you asked me a month after I got the head-coaching job, you know, maybe I would have wobbled a little bit, but not now,” he said. “I love my job, and I don’t want to do anything else.”

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