Q&A: Former NFL Commissioner on JTIII, Ewing

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY Former NFL commissioner and Georgetown Board of Directors Vice Chair Paul Tagliabue (COL ’62) discussed the process of hiring Patrick Ewing (COL ’85) as men’s basketball team head coach.

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
Former NFL commissioner and Georgetown Board of Directors Vice Chair Paul Tagliabue (COL ’42) discussed the process of hiring Patrick Ewing (COL ’85) as men’s basketball team head coach.

The university fired former men’s basketball team Head Coach John Thompson III March 23, ending his 13 years of leadership.

Ten days later, the university hired Patrick Ewing (COL ’85), who helped Georgetown win the 1984 NCAA championship, following a hiring process led by Athletic Director Lee Reed and board members Kevin Martin and Paul Tagliabue.

Thompson was fired March 23 and Ewing was hired only 10 or 11 days later.

In an interview with The Hoya, Tagliabue discussed the hiring process and how his past as commissioner of the NFL influenced the hiring process.

Can you just describe the process that you went through to hire a new coach so quickly?

A: Basically, the process we followed was to develop a list of four or five dozen coaches who we were aware of who we thought might have an interest in the Georgetown position, and then we very quickly narrowed that down to about one dozen. The goal was to come down to about three or four at the bottom of the filtering process. And then at that point we would be in a position to do a bunch of research and then try to make a recommendation as to who would be the three or four candidates with the best qualifications and the best fit for Georgetown. From there we would get to a final decision.

How did you define what you were looking for in a Georgetown basketball coach?

First and foremost we wanted someone who would reflect and embrace the values of Georgetown — someone who believes strongly that there is a balance between academics and athletics that has to be respected and that academics are an important component of a student athlete. We also felt that it had to be someone who respected Georgetown’s values of diversity, commitment to service to others, and so the first thing was we wanted people who could lead at Georgetown and properly represent the university, not just winning basketball games but recruiting young men who would be assets not only athletically but also academically. The next thing was that we wanted someone who had a demonstrated success and experience in coaching basketball at the collegiate or NBA level. We wanted people who clearly understood the game as it is being played today.

What was it about Coach Ewing that made him stand out to you?

He in some ways defines Georgetown basketball in terms of tradition of success on the court with athletes who came and for the most part stayed for an academic experience, not just for a one-year experience. But the other thing is he’s got this unique personal quality of setting his goals very high and this confidence, and it’s not over-confidence and arrogance — just a confidence that when it comes to playing basketball, teaching basketball, coaching basketball, leading a program, that he can achieve at the highest level. He did that as a player, as a professional player. He’s developed those skills in coaching four different teams in over 14 years, and he just seemed to be a person who would redefine the program in terms of goals and levels of energy. And he has demonstrated over his career — when he came to Georgetown at 17 or 18 years old and now he is 54 years old, which is a 37-year interval — he has demonstrated that he is really a leader and someone who likes to be personally accountable for success and failure — is someone who embraces responsibility and leadership, not someone who shirks from that. So in the end he had all of the qualities we were looking for. There were three or four people we were still evaluating when it came to the final weekend before we announced the decision on Monday, but then Patrick emerged on the final weekend.

How did your experience as a basketball player at Georgetown influence your thinking about a coach?

My own experience was pretty irrelevant since it was 50 years ago, but what we really needed to focus on was how the game is played today: the style of play, fast-paced game, three-point shots, mobile athletes. So it was a mixture of personal qualities, institutional and personal leadership skills and understanding of the game of basketball today — not only how it’s played but how the athletes have to be recruited in a competitive environment. I would say those are the major things [we looked for].

How did your experience in the NFL influence your thinking about a coach?

I don’t know if it influenced my thinking as much as it made me familiar with what I would say best practices and good standards that you need to apply and the kinds of processes that have been proven to be the best because we had done a lot of work in the NFL involving the processes for hiring coaches, for hiring staff — how do you reach out in a quiet phase and identify candidates, some of whom may be obvious, or you may have to talk to other people involved with the sport, either in football or basketball. And we did that. We had a search firm working for us. They had lots of contacts at the collegiate level with coaches, lots of contacts with professional coaches in the NBA. So I’d say my experience in the NFL was mostly about the process for identifying a diverse pool of candidates, a deep pool of candidates, how do you go about vetting them, getting information about them without their name being displayed, minimizing public disclosure because most everyone that you’re considering has opposition where he’s employed. There were a few exceptions, but you want the process to respect the privacy of the candidates who may not even know you’re considering them. So my experience in the NFL was mostly about process, but we marry that experience with how President DeGioia hires the leaders of Georgetown and his processes which involve starting with a large group and narrowing it down. I would say the NFL experience and the Georgetown experience kind of merge, compliment and blend together well in this situation.

Some people thought that Georgetown would want to move away from the Thompson legacy, but the new coach was John Thompson’s greatest player. Did that thought enter into the hiring decision, and if so, how?

We discussed that. I had met with Coach Thompson and talked to him on his perspective on where the program was. I and the other members felt that Patrick demonstrates that he is his own man. He reaches out to people for advice. He’s got great relationships with former teammates and coaches, but he also understands that accountability and leadership is a personal matter and not something where he is going to be overly reliant on someone else. Some people think the Thompson legacy was a burden, and contributing to some of the dissatisfaction with the most recent Coach Thompson. But when you look at it in the proper perspective, it’s not a burden; it’s an asset. It’s a tradition of excellence, which became a standard for lots of universities all over the country. We talked amongst ourselves about what kind of steps you take, what kind of things you do, to make it clear that the Coach Thompson tradition, which included breakthroughs in terms of minority employment and diversity, breakthroughs in terms of academics like Proposition 48 — I mean he was one of the giants of the evolution of college basketball in many different dimensions, not just in terms of winning and losing on the court, but in terms of the societal effects of diversity and minority employment and academic fairness and academic standards. So that’s a tradition that we thought should be respected and built upon and not just be ignored.

Correction: This article previously quoted Tagliabue incorrectly. Ewing is 54 years old, not 64.

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