For those who grew up in the glory years of the Big East conference, when someone said “Georgetown”, you said “Thompson”.
John Thompson II built the Georgetown program from the ground up eventually getting the Hoyas to 3 Final Fours and 1 National Championship title. But as we were heading into the late 90’s, “Big John” and the Georgetown program had taken a step back. Finally, in 1999, when Thompson II stepped aside and longtime assistant, Craig Esherick took over.
For Esherick, the challenge was different. Not only was the Big East changing but college basketball as a whole was changing. The concept of the “super conference” was in motion to enhance college football. This put schools like Georgetown (Div III football school) in an odd position because football doesn’t drive the University. As the Big East expanded from its traditional members, the success of the program dipped. With the exception of the 2000-2001 season, the Hoyas never had better than a 9-7 conference record under Esherick. Despite a 103-74 career record, Georgetown fired Esherick after a 13-15 season in the 2003-2004 season. With DePaul, Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and South Florida heading to the Big East, Georgetown president, John J. DeGioia decided it was time to bring back the iconic Thompson name.
Entered John Thompson III and the “Princeton Offense”. The “Princeton Offense” came to the casual fans eye when 15 seed Princeton almost upset Georgetown in the 1989 NCAA tournament. The offense lives off ball movement and hard, definitive cuts. Over the years, it’s been a ‘catch all’ term for a particular style. It’s the equivalent to the term “West Coast Offense” in football. When you say “Princeton Offense” most fans thought “slow down” offense in an era of college basketball when play was speeding up. However, it didn’t matter because the name Thompson was back in the building.
In his second season (2005-2006) with Georgetown, Thompson III finished a respectable 10-6 in the Big East. It was their best conference record since 2000-2001. The Hoyas made it to the semifinals of the Big East tournament before losing by 1 to Syracuse and then had an impressive showing in the NCAA tournament. After victories over Northern Iowa and Ohio State, the Hoyas faced powerful Florida. No one played the Gators tougher than the Hoyas that night. Despite having chances to beat the Gators the Hoyas eventually fell, 57-53. The loss was disappointing but it had been years since there was this type of optimism on the Hilltop.
It seemingly all came together the next season. Georgetown went 30-7 and won the Big East regular season title. The Big East tournament was their next conquest. After tough games against Villanova and Notre Dame, Georgetown destroyed Pitt by 23 in the Big East finals. The Hoyas took care of business in the first weekend of the tournament that year and then narrowly escaped Vanderbilt on a controversial “travel-no travel” play by Jeff Green.
The Hoyas faced North Carolina with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Despite the fact that the Tar Heels controlled most of the game, Georgetown was still in it and that’s all they needed. The Hoyas erased an 11-point second half deficit and won 96-84 in overtime. That would be the highlight of Thompson III’s reign at Georgetown. The Hoyas would lose to Ohio State in the Final Four and things would never be the same.
The next season, Georgetown won the Big East regular season title and made it back to the Big East tournament finals where Pitt blew them out. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was followed up by a loss to Davidson in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Over the next 9 seasons, the Hoyas would win one Big East Regular season title and no Big East conference tournament titles. In the five trips to the NCAA tournament, they never got past the first weekend. This included a first round loss to Ohio, a loss to play in game winner, VCU and a memorable loss in the first round to Florida Gulf Coast.
The luster of the Thompson name has eroded and all eyes were on the “Princeton Offense”. In the AAU driven era of college basketball, fans were seeing teams get up and down the floor, shooting 3’s, using dribble drive to get to the free throw line. Fans wanted the offense to change, the recruiting to change and eventually the coach to change.
The perception was Thompson III’s unwillingness to change was ruining the program and after missing the tournament the last two seasons, Georgetown did the unthinkable… they fired a Thompson.
Even some former players feel like a change is needed. Reggie Williams said, “It’s not working. In my opinion, we need to make a change. We need some fresh air up on that Hilltop.”
Thompson II’s iconic enforcer, Michael Graham put it on recruiting. “I feel bad, you know, because we helped build that program, and John is a great guy. I like him, but I guess sometimes, right now, the recruiting’s not as good as it used to be.” Another former player said “Georgetown actually looks like the team the Princeton offense was actually built to beat.”
So what’s next? Some have suggested hiring longtime NBA assistant and former Georgetown star, Patrick Ewing. But, isn’t this the best time to get away from the Thompson legacy? Wouldn’t hiring a coach that played or coached for Thompson II look like ‘business as usual’?
It’s time for the Hoyas to look outside the Thompson legacy and start fresh. Paul Tagilabue and AD Lee Reed will lead the search. At the top of their list should be calls to Tom Crean and Tommy Amaker. Crean brings intensity and a modern offensive philosophy. Amaker is a master recruiter who could take advantage of a fertile recruiting area. According to a Washington Post article, the state of Maryland produces the highest percentage of college basketball recruits.
Names like Danny Hurley and Shaka Smart have also been mentioned. Question is would he leave Texas to come to Georgetown? If the answer is “yes” that could be the biggest steal of this year’s coaching carousel.
Like so many other schools, Georgetown has been clinging to history. A history this generation of recruits could care less about. The style of play from the Hoyas Paranoia days looks archaic and outdated to today’s top recruits and the current style isn’t exactly bringing in top recruits either.
Some ex-players commented that the Thompsons have too much power and you have to watch what you say. Those days seemingly came to an end yesterday and you no longer have to ask the question “what’s in a name”?
Marcus “Mook” Washington is the host of Making The Cut. Follow Mook on Twitter: @mtcwithmook and IG: MTCWithMook