Quantcast

Legendary basketball coach John Thompson succumbs at 78

9/3/2020, 6 p.m.
Coach John Thompson, the imposing Hall of Famer who turned Georgetown University into a “Hoya Paranoia” powerhouse and became the ...
Coach Thompson

WASHINGTON - Coach John Thompson, the imposing Hall of Famer who turned Georgetown University into a “Hoya Paranoia” powerhouse and became the first Black coach to lead a team to the NCAA men’s basketball championship, has died. He was 78.

His death was announced in a family statement released by Georgetown on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. No details were disclosed.

“Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on but, most importantly, off the basketball court. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else,” the statement said. “However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day.”

One of the most celebrated and polarizing figures in his sport, Coach Thompson took over a moribund Georgetown program in the 1970s and molded it in his unique style into a perennial contender, culminating with a national championship team anchored by center Patrick Ewing in 1984.

At 6-foot-10, with an ever-present white towel slung over his shoulder, Coach Thompson literally and figuratively towered over the Hoyas for decades, becoming a patriarch of sorts after he quit coaching in 1999.

One of his sons, John Thompson III, was hired as Georgetown’s coach in 2004. When the son was fired in 2017, the elder Thompson—known affectionately as “Big John” or “Pops” to many—was at the news conference announcing Ewing as the successor.

Along the way, Coach Thompson said what he thought, shielded his players from the media and took positions that weren’t always popular. He never shied away from sensitive topics—particularly the role of race in both sports and society— and he once famously walked off the court before a game to protest an NCAA rule because he felt it hurt minority athletes.

“I’ll probably be remembered for all the things that kept me out of the Hall of Fame, ironically, more than for the things that got me into it,” Coach Thompson said on the day he was elected to the Hall in 1999.

Coach Thompson became coach of the Hoyas in 1972 and began remaking a team that was 3-23 the previous season. Over the next 27 years, he led Georgetown to 14 straight NCAA tournaments (1979-92), 24 consecutive postseason appearances (20 NCAA, four NIT), three Final Fours (1982, 1984, 1985) and won six Big East Tournament championships.

Employing a physical, defense-focused approach that frequently relied on a dominant center — Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo were among his other pupils — Coach Thompson compiled a 596-239 record (.715 winning percentage). He had 26 players drafted by the NBA.

One of his honors — his selection as coach of the U.S. team for the 1988 Olympics — had a sour ending when the Americans had to settle for the bronze medal. It was a result so disappointing that Coach Thompson put himself on a sort of self-imposed leave at Georgetown for a while, coaching practices and games but leaving many other duties to his assistants.