On Saturday at Verizon Center, Georgetown and Syracuse will play their last regular season game as Big East foes. Among the founders of what many have deemed the country’s most dominant men’s basketball conference, both are leaving the league at season’s end — Syracuse for the ACC, and Georgetown for a new conference consisting mostly of the Big East’s basketball-only programs. To commemorate their bitter, often brilliant rivalry, The Washington Post spoke with two dozen players and coaches who took part, as well as journalists, fans and others with front-row seats, and asked them to tell the story in their own words.
Six words kick-started the blood feud in the Big East’s inaugural season. They were uttered Feb. 12, 1980, by Coach John Thompson Jr. during the news conference that followed Georgetown’s 52-50 upset of No. 2 Syracuse in the final planned, regular season game at Manley Field House, where the Orange boasted a 57-game winning streak. The Hoyas trailed by 14 at halftime, but with five seconds remaining, Georgetown’s Eric “Sleepy” Floyd hit the free throws that won it. The game gave birth to a rivalry, not just between schools but between two contrasting future Hall of Fame coaches: Thompson, a 6-foot-10 mountain of a man from Washington, and Jim Boeheim, a balding, bespectacled introvert from upstate New York.
John Thompson Jr., Georgetown basketball coach, 1972-99: “You knew the emotion would be high; they’re having a celebration, getting ready to close this place that was very difficult to play in. My nerves were at the highest. [I thought] ‘What the hell am I doing, getting ready to close this place?’ The place was going mad. . . .
“I don’t recollect an awful lot about the game. We probably in those days trailed by 14 a whole lot of times. We probably were too young and too dumb at that point to mind. The atmosphere of excitement, things said to you — I always had a love-hate thing with Syracuse because of the atmosphere. It was competitive dislike, but I respected the fans.”
Mike Tranghese, then the Big East’s associate commissioner: “That was the last Monday night game of the year, and it was a big, big event in Syracuse. What a lot of people don’t remember, when Syracuse had previously closed down Archbold Stadium [its former football stadium, in 1978], there was a full-fledged riot. People were concerned. It was just an incredible, incredible basketball game, but there wasn’t a riot. It was dead silent at the end. Dead. Silent.”
Leo Rautins, Syracuse forward, 1980-83: “That night was weird because I got to the gym, and for whatever reason they were worried about people stealing stuff. All the banners were taken down and everything. So something was different even before the game started. . . . [The rivalry] started with that last game. It then became this crazy, crazy rivalry. Georgetown-Syracuse games, they were nasty.”
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse coach, 1976-present: “We had played well all year and played well in that game. . . . Missed about eight out of 10 free throws going down the stretch. Even our really good free throw shooters missed free throws. Finishing the game and the streak — there was a little extra pressure. Guys got a little nervous at the end.”
Larry Kimball, Syracuse sports information director, 1966-97: “In a couple of seconds — in five or six words — John Thompson started what became the great rivalry between Syracuse and Georgetown simply by saying, ‘Manley Field House is officially closed.’ It’s almost like fighting words — ‘Remember the Alamo’ or Pearl Harbor — like casting bad remarks on your mother or something.”
Thompson: “It was at the press conference, and it was one of those things at the spur of the moment. You walk up there, you open by saying, ‘Manley Field House is officially closed.’ The people laughed a little. Most of them were Syracuse people; they failed to see the humor in it, to tell you the truth.”
Rich Chvotkin, Georgetown radio announcer, 1974-present: “Those words alone set the whole tone for that Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry. Everything was predicated on that.”
Howard Triche, Syracuse forward, 1983-87: “[Thompson and Boeheim] were the patriarchs of the Big East. They started everything together at the same time. They had passion about the sport. They had passion about the league, and about their teams and their players. With Coach Thompson, sometimes it was them against the world in some aspects with the group he had.”
Bill Shapland, Georgetown graduate and senior sports communications director, 1984-present: “Boeheim was called ‘the math teacher.’ He also didn’t suffer fools lightly. So there’s no hero and villain picking between him and Thompson. . . . I think probably [founding Big East Commissioner] Dave Gavitt had a lot to do with cooling them out before it went nuclear. I’m just assuming, but you’ve got two guys who really don’t give a damn what you think of them, in tremendously competitive situations.
Boeheim: “You had two fairly young coaches that were trying to establish their programs as the best program. And you’re going to have moments and battles in those games that are going to get heated. We had those in those first years. At the end, it really mellowed. We came together, got to know each other off the court. And we became friends even at the end of the rivalry when we were still coaching.”
Thompson: “There’s a difference between competitive dislike and personal respect. Regardless of what I felt competitively, Jim Boeheim is a hell of a basketball coach. And that’s what made it better to dislike him. . . .
“Let no doubt be about it: I have always respected their program and Jimmy. And I never could have admitted it — never would have admitted it. But you want a good opponent. That’s what you measure yourself by.”
Liz Clarke, A.J. Chavar, Camille Powell, Barry Svrluga, Gene Wang and Jayne Orenstein conducted the interviews for this story.