NEW ORLEANS — John Thompson Jr. sat in a comfortable chair in the lobby of the New Orleans Hilton on Thursday afternoon, looking a little bit like a monarch receiving visitors. His son, John Thompson III, was buzzing around greeting people, as were dozens of others who were just arriving for the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention — which is interrupted by the final three college basketball games of the season each year on Saturday and Monday.
Thompson the elder has long been a starter on the annual all-lobby team that is informally compiled by longtime observers of this event. As private as he was when traveling with his Georgetown team — the first time the Final Four was played in New Orleans, Thompson kept his team sequestered 110 miles away in Hattiesburg, Miss. — he has been a constant presence in the lobby of the coaches’ hotel since his earliest days at Georgetown.
“That’s not always true,” he insisted when his all-lobby status came up. “I’m just sitting here right now because I’m waiting for some people to get into their rooms.”
Did he have a room yet?
Thompson laughed. “Of course I have a room. You know my philosophy of life: I do what the airplane pilots always tell you to do. I put the mask over my face first and then I help the baby.”
Thompson last coached in a Final Four in 1985 and hasn’t coached at Georgetown since January 1999. He is here doing the games on radio but he is also here, like so many of those in the lobby, to renew old friendships and tell war stories.
From his perch, Thompson could see — and could be seen by — almost everyone heading in the direction of the elevators. One coach after another stopped or paused to say hello or pay respects, everyone calling one another by the universal name that is used by one and all this weekend: “Coach.”
“The best thing about it is if you call someone Coach, you’re going to be right 99 percent of the time,” Indiana Coach Tom Crean said. “And if by some chance you’re wrong, no one gets upset. Everyone is either a coach, an ex-coach or wants to be a coach.”
Crean wasn’t in the lobby Thursday. He was in his office at Indiana, having decided that his time this week was better spent getting ready for spring and summer recruiting and organizing his team’s offseason program.
“It’s fun to be there,” Crean said. “But I’d rather be working on getting there with my team.”
Crean’s team came up two games short this year, losing to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Nine years ago, when he was at Marquette, he was here with his team after it stunned Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
“The hardest thing about getting ready is the waiting,” he said. “We had a very mature team that year but staying locked in the way you want to be locked in was tough.”
More and more coaches are taking Crean’s approach to the Final Four. Once upon a time, you had to show a key just to get into the lobby of the coaches’ hotel. Thursday, the massive lobby was full of activity but there was plenty of room to move around and no one checking keys. The ex-coaches — like Thompson — seem to enjoy showing up this week more than those still coaching.
“Less pressure,” said Jim Larranaga, once of George Mason, now of Miami, as he and his wife Liz exchanged hellos with people near the front door. “When you’re coaching, you’re here looking around at your competition. When you’re not coaching, it’s old-home week for everyone.”
It can also be difficult for big-name coaches to spend much time in the lobby because there are always radio producers lurking, hoping to grab any familiar face they see and steer them to radio row.
“The problem with that is that if you say yes to one guy and you go down there, you end up doing six or eight of them,” former Maryland coach Gary Williams said a few years ago after having been corralled. “You don’t want to be a bad guy and say no but if you say yes, you’re done for an hour — at least.”
Williams is one former coach not reveling in being here. In fact, on Thursday he wasn’t here; he was home playing golf. He was planning to fly down Friday to meet his obligations for the Big Ten Network and to do some work in his role as a fundraiser for Maryland.
“Honestly, if I didn’t have work to do I wouldn’t go,” he said. “I did it for a lot of years. After a while it feels like you’re seeing the same faces doing the same things and saying the same things to one another.
“Hey Coach, great year. Or, hey Coach, tough year.”
In fact, that is the universal greeting for those still winning and losing games. That’s followed by a story about getting a player or losing a player and, inevitably, the ritual exchange of rumors.
Thursday, there was very little on the rumor mill. Ohio University Coach John Groce was taking the Illinois job. Southern Illinois had surprised most people by not hiring former coach Bruce Weber and hiring ex-Missouri State coach Barry Hinson instead.
And then there was Larry Brown. The 71-year-old ex-everywhere coach had floated his own name a day earlier as a possible candidate for the vacant Southern Methodist job. Years ago, Brown often told friends that he thought his last job would be as a high school coach. While no one doubted Brown’s sincerity when he made the comment, few thought it likely that would be Brown’s last stop.
“There aren’t a lot of high school jobs that pay $10 million a year,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski joked when he first heard the story.
Krzyzewski wasn’t here on Thursday either. He will be arriving Friday afternoon for NABC meetings and a corporate speech. He will be gone by the time the ball goes into the air at the Superdome on Saturday evening.
His time spent in the lobby will be considerably lower than Thompson’s. When VCU Coach Shaka Smart walked by carrying his 6-month-old daughter in a baby carrier, Thompson waved a hand at him.
“Shaka, be careful,” he said. “You need to keep moving. There are too many reporters around here.”
Actually there weren’t many reporters around. There weren’t even that many coaches. Times have changed.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.