Beating Coach John Thompson’s Hoyas remains a sweet memory for former VCU Rams

Fred Jeter | 9/10/2020, 6 p.m.
One of Virginia Commonwealth University’s most memorable basketball victories came at the expense of one of the sport’s iconic coaches …

One of Virginia Commonwealth University’s most memorable basketball victories came at the expense of one of the sport’s iconic coaches — the late Coach John Thompson Jr. of the Georgetown University Hoyas.

On March 1, 1978, the VCU Rams posted their first-ever, postseason triumph, an 88-75 win over the Hoyas.

It came in the semifinals of the East Coast Athletic Conference, or ECAC, South playoffs at the Smith Center on the campus of George Washington University in the nation’s capital.

“That’s what got it started for VCU,” recalled point guard Ed Sherod. “That put us on the map. And you couldn’t miss that big guy (Coach Thompson) over there with the towel on his shoulder.”

Coach Thompson, a towering 6-foot-10 leg- endary figure in basketball, died Aug. 30, 2020. Coach Thompson, who played from 1964 to 1966 with the NBA’s Boston Celtics, went on to coach the Hoyas from 1972 to 1999, taking the team to the NCAA Tournament 20 times, including three NCAA title games in the 1980s and winning the national championship in 1984.

Coincidentally, Coach Thompson recruited Sherod when he was among the state’s leading scorers at John Marshall High School under Coach Frank Threatts.

“I was a shooting guard and Coach Thompson was really looking for a point guard,” Sherod recalled. “But then I wound up at the point for VCU.”

VCU did not gain full NCAA Division I status until the 1974-75 season. The Rams were a distinct underdog playing in D.C. against the Hoyas, who were building a national reputation under Coach Thompson.

“We shocked a lot of people,” recalled Chip Noe, a senior forward on the VCU team at the time. “It was a huge victory. I’d rate it in the top five all time for VCU. Well, at least the top 10.”

At the time, Coach Thompson was in his sixth season as Georgetown coach. By that time, his Hoyas had been to the NCAAs in 1975 and 1976 and to the NIT in 1977.

By contrast, VCU, then under second-year Coach Dana Kirk, had never been to any post- season event. All previous VCU seasons had ended with the final game of the regular season. The Rams were still playing some home games in the tiny Franklin Street Gymnasium.

Both VCU and Georgetown were basically independent in 1977-78, but loosely affiliated with the far-flung ECAC. Many VCU fans didn’t even know of the conference affiliation.

VCU joined the Sun Belt Conference while Georgetown entered the Big East, both prior to the 1979-80 season.

For that VCU-Georgetown postseason game in 1978, the Rams rode up to D.C. with three freshmen starters, Sherod, Penny Elliott from Clearwater, Fla., and Danny Kottak from Louisville.

The headline in the March 2 daily city news- paper after the Rams’ victory read: “Rams Rip Hoyas with Freshmen.”

Other starters were Gerald Henderson from Richmond’s Huguenot High School and Ren Watson from Buckingham, who were recruited to VCU under previous Coach Chuck Noe, team member Chip Noe’s father.

A catalyst off the bench was Wes Carmack, a left-handed transfer from Buffalo State College in New York.

“Wes was flying all over the place,” Sherod recalled of the night the Rams beat the Hoyas. Others seeing time were Tony DiMaria, Greg Ringo and Tim Harris from Henrico High School.

Henderson, who played against Georgetown with an injured knee and scored just four points, and Sherod went on to play in the NBA.

Watson, who remains VCU’s all-time shot blocker, had 11 points and 10 rebounds against the Hoyas.

Still, star of the night honors went to Kottak, a slender 6-foot-5 wing forward who was playing with a heavily taped left ankle.

“For two days leading up to the game, we didn’t know if Danny would play,” Noe recalled. “He was on crutches. Then he went out there and went freakin’ nuts.”

In scoring 29 points, Kottak, aka “The Instamatic,” hit 13 of 15 from the floor—mostly from long range, three of three from the foul line and, surprisingly, collected 11 rebounds.

Sherod was 9-for-12 from the field, scored 26 points and choreographed an efficient offense. The always excitable Carmack added 14 off the bench.

The Hoyas were one man down as starter Derrick Jackson was ill and did not play.

Coach Thompson made no excuses.

“We played a good ball club and they beat us,” Coach Thompson told the media. “It’s unfortunate that he (Jackson) wasn’t there, but those are the breaks of the game. It would be unfair to say he was the difference.”

Coach Thompson posted a 596-239 record at Georgetown in 27 seasons and was the first Black coach to win an NCAA Division I national title in 1984.

Rams vs. Hoyas Part II

Like his father, Coach John Thompson III, who coached at Georgetown from 2004 to 2017, had little success going up against the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams.

In the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Rams defeated the Hoyas 74-56 at Chicago’s United Center.

The Rams went on to defeat Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before falling to Butler University in the NCAA semifinals in Houston.

The 1978 season didn’t end that night for either squad.

VCU lost soon after that to St. Bonaventure in the ECAC finals in Rochester, N.Y., and was denied its first ever NCAA berth. From there, the Rams traveled to the University of Detroit where they fell in the first round of the NIT.

Georgetown also was invited to the NIT and defeated the University of Virginia and the University of Dayton before falling to North Carolina State University in the semifinals.

Had VCU defeated Detroit and one more opponent, the Rams and Hoyas would have had a March rematch in the NIT semifinals.

Still, Rams fans will forever recall the winter of 1978 more for the groundbreaking win against Coach Thompson’s Hoyas than for the two losses to close the campaign. VCU finished 24-5.

“After that game,” Sherod said of the Georgetown matchup, “we knew we could play with anyone. I’d say that victory carried us for seasons to come.”