Thompson Is Sweating It At Georgetown

By Vahe Gregorian
Updated: December 9, 2004

John Thompson III

ST. LOUIS — Disheveled and soaked in sweat, John Thompson III was an appalling spectacle as he coached Princeton in a televised game last season. At least to his mother he was.

“She called me up and said, ‘Maybe you don’t want to pick up that towel, or maybe you don’t want to throw that towel over your shoulder because you don’t want the comparisons,’” he said Tuesday. “‘But you’re sweating to death and you look nasty. You look disgusting. You better keep a towel near you.’” A season later, Thompson has confronted any self-consciousness he had about comparisons to his father, who coached Georgetown to the 1984 NCAA men’s basketball title and two other Final Fours as he won 596 games in 27 seasons with the Hoyas.

First, the son relented on matching his father’s fashion of having a towel over his shoulder, at least for parts of games.

“You’ve got to do what your mom tells you,” he said. “And much like Pops, I sweat a lot.”

More substantially, the son also decided to step directly into his father’s considerable shadow by leaving Princeton for Georgetown.

Moving from the Ivy League to the Big East may appear to have been an obvious career choice. It was anything but for Thompson, 38, who spent 13 years at Princeton as a player and coach and had taken the Tigers to two NCAA Tournaments in four seasons as head coach.

“Princeton basketball is such a part of who I am; I could have stayed there forever,” he said. “But as the process evolved, I realized (Georgetown) was something I really wanted. And I am one of the few people who is fortunate enough to leave what I considered home and yet still come home.”

Still, home wasn’t what it used to be – even if aesthetically the offices were so similar to what he had known in childhood that Thompson III made a number of cosmetic changes after taking over in April.

Georgetown last season lost its last nine games under Craig Esherick to finish 13-15, its worst record in 31 years and the first time since the father’s first season (1972-73) that Georgetown didn’t qualify for postseason play.

That made for a thorny scene for anyone to inherit, to say nothing of the complications inherent in a son trying to resurrect what his father had built.

Former Princeton coach Pete Carril, as much a mentor to Thompson as Thompson’s father, had jumbled feelings about the move. Not because he didn’t want Thompson to reach higher, but because he wondered if the Georgetown job might be a sinkhole.

“But he had better reasoning,” Carril, now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings, said Wednesday. “He saw it as a challenge he wanted to take on.”

But the challenges, it seems, will come from everywhere. After the Hoyas lost to Temple 75-57 in their opener, for instance, the father reportedly assessed the night thusly on his radio show: “I don’t think I ever coached a team at Georgetown that couldn’t beat this one. He’s got to get athletes.”

Thomson III will “achieve his own identity, and they’ll forget about ‘Big John’ and think about ‘Little John’ and ‘Friar Tuck’ and the rest of those guys,” Temple coach John Chaney told reporters after the game. “He has a way about him that’s really going to be helpful here. … You guys are going to see a great coach in him.”

Certainly, JT III has the pedigree for it. His father and Carril are enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Thompson finds it hard to distinguish what he learned from each man he considers similar despite notable differences: “One is a little white guy who coached predominantly white teams noted for precision on offense, the other is a big black guy who coached predominantly black teams noted for their defense.”

Thompson III, in fact, has an aura apart from Carril or his father, whose size and manner can make him seem menacing. The son is recognized as passionate but also magnetic and engaging. While an assistant to current Northwestern coach Bill Carmody at Princeton, JT III was the “most-liked guy in the (athletic) department,” Carmody said Wednesday.

John Thompson Jr. was not available Wednesday for a phone interview with the Post-Dispatch scheduled through the radio show. But the son knows he enjoys the support of his father and knows that coaching at Georgetown doesn’t make it any more or less complicated to be his flesh and blood.

“I’ve always been John Thompson’s son,” said JT III, whose brother, Ronny, is an assistant coach with Arkansas.

As such, the Georgetown basketball office once was his playground.

“A lot of times, in an effort to spend time with Pops, it was here,” he said.

“It became a part of you without knowing it.”

At Princeton, his knowledge was so evident that Carril and Carmody nearly immediately believed he would coach. “Nothing to do with genetics,” Carmody said.

“He saw everything. That’s a gift,” Carril said. “You couldn’t teach that.”

Thompson graduated from Princeton in 1988, fortunately a year before the epic Georgetown-Princeton clash in the 1989 NCAA Tournament. The Hoyas eked out a 50-49 victory over the Tigers, the closest a No. 1 seed ever has come to losing to a No. 16.

“That was probably the most difficult game that I’ve ever been a part of, and I wasn’t a part of it,” said JT III, who then was working in business. “You literally had loved ones on both sides.”

In 1995, Carril called Thompson, who was working in sales and marketing, and said, “You tired of wasting your time? You ready to come back and coach?”

And Thompson was, despite his dad’s sentiments.

“‘You’ve got a Princeton education, and you’re a basketball coach? You’re a fool,’” JT III recalls his father saying numerous times. “He still thinks that.

But it was what I enjoyed. I don’t listen to everything he says.”

Just everything his mom says.