Was there anything better in college sports than the 1980s and 1990s? No.

Football had the University of Miami Hurricanes and the “outlaw” image under the tutelage of Jimmy Johnson (I’m still a Michigan supporter, by the way). The Hurricanes circa 1991 are the reason there is now a penalty for overzealous celebration.

Notre Dame was cool to watch, especially Raghib Ismail before he became the highest-paid player in Canadian Football League history and, at the time in 1991, the highest-paid football player on the planet.

Basketball had the better rivalries, though. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, UConn (University of Connecticut), Michigan, Michigan State, Syracuse … every single one of those teams had a legitimate shot at winning the national title every year back then.

photo courtesy of Georgetown University
John Thompson patrolled the sidelines for Georgetown University’s men’s basketball team from 1972 to 1999. He took a terrible team and turned it into one of the most formidable ever seen.

Georgetown was another school that was a threat every time they took to the court and the main reason was because of John Thompson, the school’s head men’s basketball coach from 1972 to 1999. He took over a program that was one of the worst in the country at the time and turned it into a powerhouse seemingly overnight.

Thompson died on Aug. 30 at the age of 78 and the response to his death was unanimous: sorrow. Thompson was beloved by everyone in the basketball community not only because he was a great coach but a father figure to anyone who ever played under his tutelage.

Upon becoming head coach, Thompson instituted the policy of not allowing the media to talk to freshmen players in their first semester. The reasoning was that they didn’t need that pressure right off the bat and I agree with that. You want to talk to someone? Talk to the coach. The coach is the one who should answer for their team. If a player wants to talk, great. I love talking with players as often as I can, especially if the coach makes them available.

Thompson’s trademark character trait was the towel over the right shoulder. He was an imposing man – 6 ft., 10 in. tall – but it was the towel. Even if you didn’t know anything about Thompson, you knew about the towel.

Another character trait was his rather liberal use of profanity, something a lot of coaches will tell you they do but don’t like doing. Thompson never shied away from it. In putting this together, I read a story about how Jaren Jackson, one of Thompson’s former players, jokingly thought his name was “motherf—–r” for the first few practices. Dikembe Mutombo, another Georgetown alumni, apparently laughed when someone asked him about Thompson’s use of salty vernacular.

Thompson didn’t care. He didn’t care about the language, didn’t care what you thought about his team, didn’t care what you thought about his coaching style. That’s why I like him – the sort of person whose last crap was given a long time ago and if you look hard enough, you’ll find it running down the highway somewhere.

Thompson was a huge believer in education; according to the school’s athletic department, 76 of the 78 players who played all four years of their eligibility under Thompson graduated with a degree. He also kept a deflated basketball on his desk to remind players that a basketball career rested on a “tenuous nine pounds of air” but the degree was a necessity.

He wasn’t shy about protesting, either. Recall when he walked off the court one night in 1989 to show his displeasure against Proposition 42, a rule brought in that would deny athletic scholarships to students who didn’t meet certain academic requirements. Thompson felt it would hurt students from poorer backgrounds.

Count me in among that group. People who don’t get how scholarships work will tell you the reason players want the scholarship is so they can screw around for a couple of years, enter the draft and make a killing in endorsements. I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: you need to assume that your child will not make it in professional sports. It’s not impossible but it’s close to such. A lot of student athletes hope for the scholarship because it guarantees them a chance to get a four-year education with a degree at the end of it so they can make something of themselves.

Oh and if a player was late for practice, they would feel his wrath. Thompson told the story about how his father woke up for work every morning at 5 a.m. without an alarm clock and if he could do that, the players should have no problem dragging themselves in on time.

But the one story I always love reading about was when Thompson confronted Rayful Edmond III, one of Washington, D.C.’s most notorious drug kingpins.

It was in 1989 and Thompson got wind of Edmond III befriending some of Thompson’s players. Thompson, who had contacts all over, sent a message to have Edmond III come to see him at his office at the McDonough Gymnasium on the Georgetown campus. It all apparently started out fine – Thompson merely asked Edmond III to leave his players alone.

Edmond III tried to sweet-talk Thompson into believing everything was fine and the players weren’t doing anything illegal.

Thompson wasn’t satisfied with that explanation and, as the story goes, proceeded to go postal on Edmond III to the point that he stood up, stuck his index finger between Edmond III’s eyes and, using the most tender-loving verbiage, gently suggested that he didn’t care about his reputation and that he wouldn’t allow Edmond III to ruin his players’ lives.

The message was received and Edmond III is now serving life in a federal institution.

Thompson won just one national title in his career, that coming in 1984, but he deserved more. He also bristled at the notion of being the first black head coach to not only win the national title but the first one to lead his team to the Final Four (1982) because he felt it implied he was the first black coach capable enough to do it, which most rational-thinking people will tell you is absolute garbage. His defensive style of basketball was copied by many teams, the thought being if it worked for Georgetown, it will work for them. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, the same year he retired from coaching, a fitting final chapter to someone who was the face of Georgetown basketball for a generation.

So like the headline says, if you want to be a good coach, learn from John Thompson. He not only knew how to win at basketball but he won at life and a lot of people won because of him.


James McCarthy

After being a nomad around North America following my semi-debauched post-secondary days, I put down my roots in Yellowknife in 2006. I’ve been keeping this sports seat warm with NNSL for the better...

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