Legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., a central figure of Hoyas basketball for decades and one of the most important, prominent coaches in college athletics history has died, according to family statement. He was 78 years old.
“Big John,” as he was affectionately called, led Georgetown to its first NCAA championship in 1984 — a team led by Patrick Ewing and David Wingate. The Hoyas returned the following year as favorites to repeat, but Rollie Massimino’s underdog Villanova squad bested them 66-64 in the title game. It was the second and final time Big John finished as a national runner-up.
Thompson held a career record of 596-239, all of his games at Georgetown. Twenty-six Hoyas were drafted into the NBA under his tutelage. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1999 and into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Here is the statement issued by the Thompson family Monday:
“We are heartbroken to share the news of the passing of our father, John Thompson, Jr. 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. 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 everyday. We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don’t worry about him, because as he always liked to say, ‘….’Big Ace'” is cool.”
Thompson nonetheless had some memorable coaching runs beyond those seasons, taking the Hoyas to three Final Four appearances in the 1980s and to Elite Eight appearances in 1987, 1989 and 1996. He stepped away from coaching abruptly in January 1999 in a resignation that came as Georgetown was flailing, at 7-6. At the time he cited the need to focus on his family and to address a lengthy divorce proceeding. Thompson was succeeded by Craig Esherick at Georgetown after stepping down in 1999, and while the former assistant had the coaching chops as a long-time John Thompson disciple, he ultimately fizzled out after six seasons and only one NCAA Tournament appearance. His son, John Thompson III, took over in 2004.
Listen for more below, as Matt Norlander and Gary Parrish reflect on the legacies of John Thompson and Lute Olson. Be sure to subscribe to the Eye on College Basketball podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
College basketball’s greatest decade arguably came during the 1980s. It was during that era that Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas emerged as the sport’s most intimidating and powerful program (“Hoya Paranoia”), led by the likes of Ewing, followed later by Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. The Big East was formed by Dave Gavitt in 1979, and as the conference rose in prominence, so did Georgetown. Its rivalry with Syracuse bolstered the league and upgraded college basketball.
Before there was a Carrier Dome for Syracuse to play its home games at, Jim Boeheim’s team hosted opponents and Manley Fieldhouse. In 1980, during the first year of the Big East, Syracuse’s final home game of the 1979-80 season came on Feb. 13. The opponent: Georgetown. Syracuse was 20-1 at the time. The on-their-way-up Hoyas upset SU 52-50, prompting the most memorable quote in the history of the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry. Thompson punctuated his postgame press conference by declaring, “Manley Fieldhouse is officially closed.”
Boeheim and Thompson grew from bitter rivals to true friends near the end of Thompson’s coaching career. Their bond strengthened in the two decades since Thompson’s retirement.
“We lost a great basketball coach and a great person with the passing of my friend John Thompson,” Boeheim said in a statement. “He was a leader in the game and in life. John empowered all coaches but especially Black coaches and Black players. Syracuse and Georgetown was the toughest rivalry for about 10-15 years during the early Big East days. There was nothing quite like it. Many of my fondest coaching memories are from Georgetown games, coaching against John — in the Dome, at Georgetown and at MSG.”
As a player, Thompson’s credentials were just as impressive as those on his coaching resume: a high school Parade All-American, he signed with Providence College where he became a star and an honorable mention All-American as a senior. He averaged 19.2 points over three seasons with the Friars and won an NIT championship. As a senior, he averaged 26.2 points and led the program to its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Thompson was selected in the third round of the 1964 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, where he backed up the great Bill Russell and won two championships in two years before moving on to coaching.
His hiring at Georgetown in 1972 was significant; he was one of only a handful of Black head coaches in college sports at the time. Georgetown was a terrible program when Thompson got there, having gone 3-23 the year prior and mired in the midst of a 30-year NCAA Tournament drought.
Thompson, whose sartorial trademark was donning a white towel draped over his big shoulder, was a pioneer and trendsetter for Black success in college basketball. He was the first Black coach to win college basketball’s NCAA Tournament when he did so in 1984, and a larger-than-life figure for many, not just at Georgetown. As Mike Wise wrote in the Washington Post in 2007, his Georgetown teams were “part of the zeitgeist.”
“A rebellious, empowering symbol for the Black community, they were,” Wise wrote.
And the face of that movement was the towering sideline presence of Thompson, who at 6-foot-10, 270 pounds with a permanent scowl could not go unnoticed.
“I was supposed to be grateful because I one was one of the first African Americans coaching,” he told the Post in 2007. “I was supposed to sit there and say, ‘Oh, thank you Mr. White Man for giving me a job.’ God made me human and equal. Now I’m supposed to be grateful because you’re treating me equal and treating me as a human being? No.”
In this era of protests for social justice, Thompson was well ahead of his time, too. In 1989 he walked off the floor before a home game to protest an NCAA rule that was called Proposition 48, prohibiting scholarship athletes from playing as freshmen if they failed to qualify through standardized test scores.
Thompson’s players revered and respected him. Allen Iverson became the most referenced and revealing one, as his tear-filled Hall of Fame induction speech in 2016 included deep gratitude to Thompson — who was seated to his right as Iverson accepted the greatest honor of his basketball career. On Monday morning, Iverson posted this to his Twitter account.
John Robert Thompson Jr. was born on Sept. 2, 1941 in Washington, D.C. He led a trailblazing life, and he almost never apologized for speaking directly and without filter.
The fact he made it to 78 instead of dying at 59 is owed to a remarkable stroke of luck and the respectful gumption of a young television producer. In 2011, on the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Thompson went on “The Jim Rome Show” to reveal a stunning story: he was originally supposed to be on the 9/11 hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Thompson avoided that fate only because of multiple persistent attempts from Rome’s producer, who was trying to make every accommodation to appease Thompson, worked and he relented, delaying his flight by a day.
Here is the remarkable story, told by Thompson nine years ago.
John Thompson year-by-year SeasonSchoolWLPostseason 1972-73 Georgetown 12 14 1973-74 Georgetown 13 13 1974-75 Georgetown 18 10 NCAA Tournament: First round 1975-76 Georgetown 21 7 NCAA Tournament: First round 1976-77 Georgetown 19 9 NIT: First round 1977-78 Georgetown 23 8 NIT: Fourth place 1978-79 Georgetown 24 5 NCAA Tournament: First round 1979-80 Georgetown 26 6 NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight 1980-81 Georgetown 20 12 NCAA Tournament: First round 1981-82 Georgetown 30 7 NCAA Tournament: Runner-up 1982-83 Georgetown 22 10 NCAA Tournament: Second round 1983-84 Georgetown 34 3 NCAA Tournament: Champion 1984-85 Georgetown 35 3 NCAA Tournament: Runner-up 1985-86 Georgetown 24 8 NCAA Tournament: First round 1986-87 Georgetown 29 5 NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight 1987-88 Georgetown 20 10 NCAA Tournament: Second round 1988-89 Georgetown 29 5 NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight 1989-90 Georgetown 24 7 NCAA Tournament: Second round 1990-91 Georgetown 19 13 NCAA Tournament: Second round 1991-92 Georgetown 22 10 NCAA Tournament: Second round 1992-93 Georgetown 20 13 NIT: Runner-up 1993-94 Georgetown 19 12 NCAA Tournament: Second round 1994-95 Georgetown 21 10 NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16 1995-96 Georgetown 29 8 NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight 1996-97 Georgetown 20 10 NCAA Tournament: First round 1997-98 Georgetown 16 15 NIT: Second round 1998-99 Georgetown 7 6 TOTAL 596 239