We woke up to the news that former Georgetown head coach John Thompson has passed away over night. This came on the heels of Arizona’s former coach Lute Olson passing away late last week. It’s been a rough week for the college basketball coaching fraternity.
Olson’s passing was a shocker and reminded a select few of us about why we loved March Madness. Keith Jennings and East Tennessee State and Steve Nash and Santa Clara sprung to mind as we remembered Olson. That probably isn’t fair. He won a national championship with a 19-9 team, defeating 3 1-seeds in their way. He made 5 Final 4’s. But those of us of a certain age remember those shocking defeats.
Big John’s passing sort of shook me a bit. Hoya Paranoia and his teams of the 1980’s defined the era even with only 1 national title. Big Monday was all about that early Big East game on ESPN. It was must watch TV for college basketball fans and it was during these formative years for me that I fell in love with the sport. Those Hoya teams were mesmerizing.
As a Milwaukee suburban kid, Georgetown was not the team for you or so you’d think. Our local teams were largely irrelevant for most of the decade. Part or me wonders if something of that outlaw DNA of Marquette and Al McGuire somehow made Georgetown attractive to me but I can’t recollect any reason why that would be the case but I digress.
Thompson’s teams embodied many of the characteristics of those McGuire teams nonetheless. They were intimidating and played with a casual swagger. They knew they were good and knew teams feared them. They were cool, right down the t-shirts under the uniforms.
As Patrick Ewing graduated, something 97% of Thompson’s players did, they never matched those 4 years but would sniff a few Final 4’s afterwards. Still, those teams resonate until today. John Thompson and the Hoyas helped create the Big East and college basketball as must see TV, any night of the week. Jim Boeheim and Syracuse were hated and you loved to see them lose but they were more the snobby rich kid getting taken down a peg. Georgetown was the bully.
I suppose that’s why I always found them interesting. They were the bully. They scared people and John Thompson scared people because they weren’t the norm. He wasn’t afraid to be cocky and he wasn’t afraid to challenge the NCAA. He was a black man with a largely black team and it scared a lot of people. That’s the truth. It’s puzzling we haven’t had another John Thompson in college basketball. It’s also sad.
As a Wisconsinite, it gets tiring being lectured about a certain institution doing things the right way. My hunch is a lot of those people would tell me John Thompson didn’t do things the right way. Well, he won big without scandal, graduated his kids and fought for equality but never asked for anything other than the opportunity to fail. There weren’t many that did it better and weren’t many that did it the right way like John Thompson. College basketball needs a lot more John Thompson’s in it. Rest In Peace, Big John and Hoya Saxa