OPINION | Dear Georgetown and Maryland: Just shut up and play

John Feinstein
Columnist February 25, 2012

Georgetown and Maryland should play each other every year. Period.

There should be no debate about it, no bogus excuses about scheduling issues or grudges that go back 30-plus years.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

Just shut up and play.

Does winning a game against a cross-town rival save a coach’s job if his team isn’t consistently playing in the NCAA tournament? No. Does a loss cost a coach his job if his team is consistently making the field of 68? Of course not. But beating such an opponent has meaning.

So who is wrong right now?

Everyone. To paraphrase Mercutio: A plague on both their houses.

Whoever told Kevin Anderson that publicly calling out Georgetown and saying that Maryland won’t play in the sandbox with the Hoyas at all until the men’s basketball teams start playing each other should have his or her head examined. No one responds well to bullying.

That said, most of the responsibility for the lengthy gaps between Maryland-Georgetown games lies with Georgetown.

It actually dates from a game played in December 1979 at the D.C. Armory. During a tense, well-played contest, emotions between Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. and Maryland coach Lefty Driesell spilled over and Thompson screamed a profanity at Driesell. Furious, Driesell refused to shake hands after the Hoyas won.

As luck would have it, the teams played again that season in a Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia. During a news conference that week, Thompson apologized to Driesell for what he had said. That led to one of Driesell’s all-time classic lines. Asked if he accepted Thompson’s apology, Driesell said: “ ’Course I do. Everyone knows to err is human, to forgive divine and I’m divine.”

His team wasn’t quite as divine in the game a couple of nights later. Georgetown won again.

The Hoyas ruled the town for most of the 1980s. Led by Patrick Ewing, they won a national title, went to three Final Fours in four years and reached the Elite Eight six times in 10 years. Maryland never went past the Sweet 16 and fell on hard times after Len Bias’s death and Driesell’s forced departure. It wasn’t until Joe Smith and Keith Booth arrived in the fall of 1993 that the Terrapins became a factor again.

During that time, Georgetown stopped playing just about every local team. Thompson, who has a long memory, never forgot DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten not scheduling Thompson’s St. Anthony’s teams in the 1970s and Driesell not being terribly eager to play Georgetown when the Hoyas first began to play well. Once he wielded the hammer, he stopped playing all locals, including George Washington, which for many years was Georgetown’s biggest rival.

American, coached by Ed Tapscott, upset the fifth-ranked Hoyas in December 1982 and almost beat them again four years later. After that game, Thompson told Tapscott in a Capital Centre hallway, “That’s the last time we’re playing.”

Power-conference coaches never want to play local rivals from non-power leagues. Gary Williams hated playing GW in the BB&T Classic because he knew how important the game was to the Colonials and that if his team lost, his fans would be asking him constantly, “How could you lose to them?”

Williams lost four times to GW in the BB&T Classic. Last I looked, the court is still named after him at Comcast Center.

Maryland and Georgetown have nothing to lose by playing each other, but the Hoyas won’t play. The teams did meet at what was then USAir Arena in November 1993 and Maryland, back on the rise under Williams, won a wonderful game in overtime. There was supposed to be a return game but Thompson refused to schedule it, claiming Maryland wouldn’t give his school enough tickets and he had voluntarily given up control of the tickets to the ’93 game to promoter Russ Potts.

This is where the BB&T Classic came into play. This is the disclaimer part of the column: I have served on the board of the Children’s Charities Classic since it was formed in 1994, and my main responsibility has been persuading coaches to bring their teams to play.

When the event was conceived, the idea was to have Maryland and Georgetown co-host and bring in two national teams for a two-day tournament. That would mean Maryland and Georgetown might play on the second day. Williams instantly said yes to the idea. Thompson didn’t return a phone call from Bob Whitmore, the former Notre Dame star who is now a lawyer in town and a founding board member. Whitmore volunteered to call Thompson because they had known each other since high school.

The tournament went on without Georgetown, as GW stepped in as co-host. In 17 years, the event has raised close to $9 million for children’s charities in the D.C. area. The board, mostly through Chairman Peter Teeley, has tried repeatedly to get Georgetown to play. Every approach has been rebuffed, including an offer, after the BB&T became a single-day event in 2005, to play Holy Cross — a team Georgetown initially said it would be willing to play.

Thompson insists that he has nothing to do with Georgetown’s insistence on not playing. He told me on the phone in December that Georgetown’s initial refusal to play did have to do with long-held grudges involving Maryland, but “I’m out of it now. I do not tell John [Thompson III, his son and current Georgetown coach] or anyone how to schedule.”

A year ago, Teeley and I met with Anderson and Williams to discuss a plan to get Georgetown to play: the idea was to play the event one year at Verizon Center and one year at Comcast Center. The long-owed game would be forgiven and forgotten.

We then approached Georgetown alumnus Ted Leonsis about using his influence at Georgetown to try to make this happen. His initial response was, “Let me talk to Jack,” as in Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. For several months we heard nothing further. Finally, when I asked if any progress had been made, Leonsis responded with an e-mail: “Not going to happen.”

DeGioia did not respond to a telephone call seeking comment.

That’s where it is now: completely stalled. Anderson has set the process back with his public declaration. Georgetown is now dug in even further and can justify not playing Maryland by saying, “We won’t be bullied.”

It never should have come to this. They should have been playing each other every year and, in my biased opinion, they should have been donating one-third of the proceeds to charity.

It’s a shame when egos and politics blind people. I don’t want to hear any more blathering or excuses from either side.

Shut up and play.

For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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