Chasing Ghosts: John Thompson's roots still run deep at Georgetown


Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the "Chasing Ghosts" series continues with the Georgetown Hoyas, a team that rose to Final Four-level prominence during the John Thompson era, but has been inconsistent in its pursuit of national relevance since that time.

History | Roundtable: John Thompson's enduring mystique
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana | St. John's | North Carolina | Arkansas | NC State | DePaul

Georgetown Hoyas

Icon: John Thompson

Seasons coached: 1972-1999
Key accomplishments: 596-239 (.714) record, 20 NCAA tournaments, 3 Final Fours (1982, 1984, 1985), 1 NCAA championship (1984)

"He was so good for coaching. No one -- and I mean no one -- could have made Georgetown a national power better than John Thompson did when he became the head coach. Every team he ever coached played hard and together and did what he wanted them to do." -- Dean Smith, upon Thompson's resignation in 1999.

"I am John Thompson's son. I've been John Thompson's son for 38 years. And I'm pretty comfortable being John Thompson's son. No one's going to put more pressure on me than myself. At Princeton I was John Thompson's son, and that's who I am. So if you guys can deal with that, I think I'll be OK." -- John Thompson III, at his introductory media conference at Georgetown in 2004.

"Patrick [Ewing] will get fired if he doesn't win. I would have gotten fired if I hadn't won. Oh, they talk about my graduation rate and Big John, communicate with the kids and all that old kinda stuff they say. But it wouldn't have meant a damn thing if I hadn't have won, here at Georgetown or any other place." -- John Thompson to "HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" in 2017

Ranking the John Thompson chasers

3. Craig Esherick (1999-2004), 103-74 (.582), 1 NCAA tournament -- After playing for Thompson and spending the program's glory years as an assistant, Esherick was elevated to the top role when his longtime mentor stepped aside in the middle of the 1999-2000 season. Though the Esherick era is not remembered fondly by most Georgetown supporters, there were positives.

Esherick reached his only NCAA tournament in 2001, advancing to the Sweet 16 as a No. 10 seed on a team led by freshman Mike Sweetney. He led the Hoyas to the NIT final in 2003, and also recruited the core of the 2007 team that would eventually reach the Final Four under his successor -- Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert both committed to the Hoyas when Esherick was still the coach. But the promise of what was to come wasn't enough. Esherick's Hoyas lost their final nine games of the 2003-04 season, finishing with a record of 13-15, and Georgetown's administration pulled the plug on the eve of a scheduled on-campus protest planned by despairing Georgetown alumni.

2. Patrick Ewing (2017-present), 34-29 (.540) -- There's danger in hiring a former on-court icon as your head coach, especially when said icon lacks coaching experience at the collegiate level -- Ewing was an NBA assistant for 15 years after his Hall of Fame playing career ended. And though Ewing has not yet restored the Hoyas to national prominence, things look promising as he enters his third season in charge.

Last season's run to the NIT included wins over the Big East's top two teams, Villanova and Marquette, and was powered by two quality freshman guards in James Akinjo and Mac McClung. Both Akinjo and McClung return to a group that welcomes back four starters and adds NC State transfer center Omer Yurtseven (13.5 ppg and 6.7 rpg for the Wolfpack in 2017-18), among others. This team has NCAA tournament-level talent -- Joe Lunardi includes them in his latest projection of the 2020 field -- and getting there would be huge (and necessary, you could argue) for the program's momentum under Ewing.

1. John Thompson III (2004-17), 278-151 (.648), 8 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four (2007) -- The second Thompson era at Georgetown had exhilarating highs -- the 2007 team, led by Green and Hibbert, got the program to the Final Four for the first time in more than 30 years -- but frustrations around the program began to pile up in a way that Thompson couldn't survive.

The Hoyas never got back to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in the decade after that Final Four run, and were beaten by double-digit seeds, including Davidson (a guy named Steph Curry was a factor there), Ohio University, VCU, NC State and Florida Gulf Coast. Thompson recruited top players, including Greg Monroe and Otto Porter, but the talent didn't always seem to fit the scheme and some Hoyas fans seethed when D.C.-area players such as Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins went on to star for title teams at rival Villanova.

Through it all, the Georgetown administration clearly wanted things to work out for Thompson, but its hand was forced after the Hoyas missed the tournament three times in four years. Thompson was fired after a 14-18 record in the 2016-17 season.

Roundtable: John Thompson's enduring mystique

This series is called "Chasing Ghosts," but John Thompson is no ghost -- he's had a direct tie to every Georgetown coach that has come after him, and continues to have a physical presence around the program at age 77. Do you think the specter of "Big John" has created real pressure for this program's coaches, or is that a media creation? Do you think Georgetown would have been better off attempting to carve out a non-Thompson identity at some point in the past 20 years?

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I do think Big John's presence in and around the program has impacted the way the Hoyas have done things over the past couple decades. When John Thompson III was on the hot seat a few years ago, there was talk that they would have trouble firing him without Thompson's blessing. And then when it came time to search for a replacement, there was doubt in industry circles that Georgetown would really choose someone without ties to Thompson as the next Georgetown coach. So I think it's very real -- and the fact that his name is on the new athletic facility proves it.

As for the second part, it's hard to say the Hoyas should have picked someone besides JTIII following Craig Esherick. Even taking away the familial connection, he'd won three Ivy League titles in four seasons at Princeton and gone to two NCAA tournaments. And then he had a ton of success early on at Georgetown, including a Final Four. Now, could the Hoyas have gone in a different direction with JTIII's replacement? Absolutely. And they did try. Chris Mack was linked to the job, Mike Brey, Shaka Smart, a number of coaches. And Dan Hurley was also under consideration. They ultimately went with Ewing -- and to be honest, it's looked like a pretty decent hire through two seasons.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: It's not a realistic question. The only way for Georgetown to possess a non-Thompson identity would be to have never hired "Big John" in the first place. He is as iconic at the school as John Wooden, Dean Smith and Bobby Knight are to theirs. There is no changing the past, only adapting to it.

The real pressure at Georgetown came not from the specter of "Big John," but from an expanded Big East that required beating not only the Carneseccas and Massiminos but also a revolving cast of Louisville, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Miami and still-imposing Pitt. For a time, JTIII actually outperformed his dad against that mega-conference.

One could even argue that JTIII's Final Four team in 2006-07 was the best of any of the Big East Catholic schools, after the league added its football members. And his dad's presence -- or at least his history coaching some of the giants of his generation -- was said to have helped land the team's lynchpin, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Both Jeff and Joe nailed it. Big John's position as a Big East legend and an undeniable presence who still keeps an office in the practice facility matters. And anyone who thought Georgetown was actually moving forward with a new coach without Big John's input was fooling themselves. But let's talk about John's physical presence, because that matters too. I'm not intimidated by much. But the first time I met Big John, I was nervous. He's a force, even at 77. When he enters a room, everyone turns to him and kinda waits for him to speak. He's a legend, especially in the African-American community.

In the late 1980s, Rayful Edmond was a legit drug kingpin in D.C. who attended Hoyas games and befriended former Georgetown players. Big John found him and, per reports, threatened him with serious consequences if he continued to talk to his players. That's not some scene from a movie. That's just Big John. I've covered JTIII media conferences where you could hear Big John yelling about subpar officiating from the back of the room. It's not just his legacy or his power. It's the mood whenever he's in the building. That's the pressure that comes with coaching at Georgetown. Big John has a unique presence.

John Thompson III looked to be so close to restoring long-term glory to this program -- the Hoyas were an NCAA tournament 4-seed or better six different times under his watch, they went to a Final Four (which his dad had failed to deliver for the last 13 years of his tenure), and they won the Big East three times. If you had to identify one culprit that kept the younger Thompson from being a 25-plus-year presence at Georgetown like his dad, what was it?

Medcalf: His name and the timing of his Final Four run. When John Thompson III won 30 games and reached the Final Four in 2007, it was the first time Georgetown had won 80 percent of its games in nearly 20 years. The narrative then was that JTIII had come to extend his father's legacy. The truth? Georgetown hadn't been a contender since Allen Iverson left the building. And the end of his father's run and the bulk of Craig Esherick's reign were filled with NIT appearances and first-weekend exits in the NCAA tournament.

So when JTIII reached the Final Four with NBA talent on the roster, the instant assumption was that Georgetown was back and could pick up where it left off in the late '80s. Never mind the 20 years that preceded that Final Four run. That hurt JTIII. He never repeated that feat. He never used that Final Four run to build the powerhouse many wanted. It happened in his third season so the rest of his run seemed to fall short. You add the name and the expectations attached to it and that's a tough position. Still, he coached 13 seasons and won 65 percent of his games. If his name wasn't "Thompson," I don't know that folks would have the same perspective on his Georgetown tenure.

Borzello: I think the mix of his style of play and lack of recruiting locally ultimately did him in. Thompson III was a proponent of the Princeton-style offense, and it brought early success with the likes of Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert -- both of whom signed under the previous regime back in the 2004 class. But as seemingly every team in the country was trying to play faster, Georgetown consistently ranked near the bottom of the country in pace and tempo. When the wins stopped coming in, especially in the NCAA tournament, the backlash against the Princeton-style offense increased.

Recruiting was also a major factor. Villanova hammered the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area for players, with guys such as Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins and Phil Booth helping lead the Wildcats to multiple NCAA titles. Maryland beat the Hoyas for Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan Jr. Gonzaga College High School, which Thompson III attended, produced at least four high-major point guards in the span of several years and Georgetown didn't get any of them. There's one eye-opening stat I came across while working on a Georgetown piece a few years ago: the Hoyas haven't had a guard selected in the NBA draft since 1996. That's obviously not just on JT3, but it can be considered an indictment on both style of play and recruiting.

Lunardi: I would go the other way in assessing Georgetown's fade from relevance. The expanded Big East was the first culprit, followed by the disappearance of iconic big men -- first on campus and ultimately from the game itself. Hoya Paranoia thrived in the Ewing-Alonzo Mourning-Dikembe Mutombo era, but became a lot less intimidating with the likes of Henry Sims and Jessie Govan.

All of which forms, for me, the great irony of Patrick Ewing's head coaching tenure. He is tasked with restoring his alma mater to its former glory, but in all likelihood will never get to coach a player with anything close to his collegiate skill set. Is Ewing willing to fully embrace the modern game and take the Hoyas to the next level?

Step one has been to regain relevance in the new Big East, with the early signs suggesting slow and steady progress. We shall soon see about the rest.

Georgetown (along with St. John's and Chris Mullin) was ahead of the curve -- it hired Patrick Ewing before the current feeding frenzy on ex-NBA stars with no collegiate coaching experience: Penny Hardaway at Memphis, Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt and Juwan Howard at Michigan. Do you believe in Ewing? What's your review of his tenure to date?

Borzello: Ewing has exceeded expectations so far. I don't think it's really up for debate. There were so many questions when Georgetown hired him, considering he had zero college coaching experience and zero head coaching experience during his time at the NBA level. Would he be willing to grind on the recruiting trail? Would he develop relationships quickly with the DMV power brokers? He has answered those questions and more heading into year three, as Georgetown is now positioned as a potential NCAA tournament team next season.

He has landed some talented recruits, while also hitting the transfer market hard. And when talking to Big East coaches, the thing that impresses them about Ewing is the identity his teams have. Opponents know the Hoyas are going to play hard, push the ball with tempo and attack aggressively. And now that Ewing is getting more players to fit that system -- joining guys like James Akinjo and Mac McClung -- Georgetown could be ready to take the next step into the NCAA tournament.

Medcalf: He's certainly exceeded expectations. Maybe even his own expectations. I covered his first Big East media day. And during some down time, he mentioned that he had to fly from New York City to recruit a prospect across the country after the event. Didn't seem too thrilled about it. But I think he's had a solid start. And it started with a wise decision he made early in his tenure.

When Georgetown canceled its appearance in the PK80 tournament in 2017, many wondered if it was the right move. But Ewing avoided the stacked tournament and instead went with an easier start to his tenure. The team started 8-0 and finished .500 in Year 1. I initially wondered if Ewing took the job only because Big John called. But it seems like he's enjoying it. I believe Ewing can get the job done.

Lunardi: Count me among those pleasantly surprised by Patrick Ewing's tenure to date. My initial reaction was that far more could go wrong than right with his hire. Instead, Georgetown's singular legend -- some say Allen Iverson, but it's Ewing by a mile -- has rolled up his sleeves and done the dirty work of program building.

Obviously an NCAA bid this coming season would be a huge positive. I'll be watching even more closely for better nonconference scheduling and ultimately some success in that area. Ewing has played just three P5 opponents in two seasons, beating Illinois and losing twice to Syracuse. He'll need a whole lot more to make the Hoyas NCAA regulars.

In other words, he shouldn't be asking "Big John" for St. Leo's phone number.

Georgetown's bitter rival, Villanova, owns two of the past four national titles, so we don't even need to ask where the Hoyas are setting the bar for program success. Is it realistic for Georgetown fans to aspire to national titles in this era of college basketball, and if so, what's the formula for getting there?

Lunardi: Let's get to the tournament and win a game or two first. Like it or not, Villanova is the wrong measuring stick. The Wildcats' staggering five-year run (2014-2018) isn't likely to be repeated by anyone in any league any time soon. More realistic for the Hoyas is to approach a Xavier-like level of success, but first they must catch Marquette, Providence and Seton Hall on an everyday basis.

It sure looks like Ewing can get there, but, much like his hiring, more can still go wrong than go right. The good news is that a lot of people in basketball are rooting for him.

Medcalf: I don't think anyone attached to Georgetown can talk national titles yet. Villanova is a powerhouse. Five players from those title teams are in the NBA right now and Jay Wright's first star, Kyle Lowry, just won a championship. I do, however, think it's reasonable to hope Georgetown can consistently compete for NCAA tournament berths. That seems reasonable.

But fans who went from the Final Four in 2007 to the NIT two years later understand that, I think. The next step, however, is recruiting the brand of talent that blossomed at Villanova. Having the right eye on the recruiting trail will be key for Ewing going forward.

Borzello: I think Georgetown is a long way from competing for national titles, but they're taking the requisite steps to at least getting the program back in the national discussion. Like I said earlier, Ewing has stamped this program with the identity he wants and has them back in the NCAA tournament mix. Last season, the Hoyas finished tied for third in the Big East -- which came after four of five seasons in the bottom half of the league.

The next step is getting enough talent to start competing for conference championships, as well as keeping top players from the region home for college. NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven is immediately an all-league player. UCF graduate transfer Terrell Allen fills a need in terms of defense and leadership. Akinjo is terrific and McClung is better than expected. Ewing will need to get more players like that in order to really get back in the upper echelon of college basketball programs. But they're at least on the right path now.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: Georgia Tech