Coaching Is a Birthright For Thompson Brothers

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

When Ronny Thompson was making his head coaching debut Nov. 11, directing Ball State to a victory over Northern Colorado, his father, mother and sister were in the stands at Worthen Arena.

His older brother wanted to be there as well. After all, John Thompson III was there in Muncie, Ind., on the day that Ronny was introduced as the Cardinals' head coach, "just being a proud big brother," he said.

But John III was busy with his own game, coaching the nationally ranked Georgetown Hoyas to a win over Hartford. By the time he walked into his postgame news conference, however, he had received three updates on the Ball State game.

Tomorrow night, it will be a lot easier for the brothers to keep tabs on one another; they'll just have to look at the scoreboard inside Verizon Center. The Hoyas will host Ball State, and the two sons of Hall of Fame Coach John Thompson Jr. will begin a new chapter in a rivalry that began in their back yard.

"Dad didn't want us to play it," Ronny said. "Obviously, we don't always listen to him."

Said John III: "As John Thompson, Ronny's brother and John and Gwen's son, it makes no sense. I don't want to do it. But as the coach of Georgetown, all things considered, it makes sense."

It will be an emotional night, to be sure, and not just because the brothers are facing each other for the first time as head coaches. Ronny, 37, is the one who played at Georgetown. He is the one who coached at Georgetown alongside their father. He is the one who chose two Georgetown players -- Michael Sweetney and Tony Bethel -- to be among the godfathers for his son, Dylan. But 40-year-old John III, the Princeton graduate, is the one currently coaching at Georgetown, and the one who has brought the Hoyas back to national prominence.

"It's a little weird that he's there, because I look at it as that's my school," said Ronny, who even has a black Georgetown warmup shirt hanging on a hook behind the door in his Ball State office. "He went to Princeton! He went down Route 95! I met my wife at Georgetown! It definitely is a little odd at times."

Looking for Work

Ronny may be the one who went to Georgetown, but "we are all Georgetown," says Tiffany Thompson, the youngest of John Jr. and Gwen's three children. Tiffany, 31, says she grew up in McDonough Gymnasium, where John Jr. spent 27 seasons building Georgetown into a national basketball power. She first learned the concept of seconds in a minute by watching the shot clock, she did her homework on the bleachers during games, and she listened as her teenage brothers dissected the strengths and weaknesses of the various Hoyas players.

But John III was the first to leave; he went to Princeton, where he played for and later coached under Pete Carril. Tiffany left as well; she attended Brown. Only Ronny stayed at Georgetown -- though it wasn't entirely his decision.

"I went to Georgetown because my dad was worried I wouldn't graduate," Ronny said with a laugh. "That's the very honest truth. My mom and my dad thought that I was the one that they would have to keep their thumb on to get through school. That's the only reason, because John was a far better player than I was."

But Ronny did graduate, in 1992 with a degree in sociology, and he played in 112 games for the Hoyas over four seasons, averaging 2.5 points. After graduation, Ronny, like his brother, didn't go directly into coaching; he spent a year working on Wall Street. When Ronny decided it was time to change careers and get back into basketball, his father wouldn't make a single phone call on his son's behalf. Said Ronny, "He said, 'If you can't get a job, you can't do the job.' That's just how he was."

His first coaching job was on the staff at Oregon; he spent a season with the Ducks and moved on to become an assistant at Loyola (Md.) and then held a scouting position with the Larry Brown-coached Philadelphia 76ers. In 1999, Ronny returned to Georgetown to work for his father. But John Jr. abruptly retired midway through that season, handing over the team to longtime assistant Craig Esherick. Ronny spent three more seasons with the Hoyas before leaving for an assistant's job at Arkansas.

As Ronny was moving around the country, absorbing different ideas from different coaches, John III remained at Princeton, learning from Carril. John III, who became the head coach of his alma mater in 2000, never played for, or coached alongside, John Jr. In fact, he said coaching with his father never even crossed his mind.

So John III's office at Georgetown has pictures of both Carril and John Jr. hanging on the walls, and a copy of Carril's book, "The Smart Take from the Strong," prominently displayed on the bookcase. Inside of Ronny's Ball State office are two Ernie Barnes prints that once hung in John Jr.'s office at McDonough; one is of a basketball player dunking on a wooden basket and the other is of a young man in a cap and gown, clutching a diploma. (Said John III of the two missing prints: "They need to be here.")

"I've been totally blessed," said Ronny, who also keeps a deflated basketball -- one of his father's trademarks -- on his bookshelf. "I always thought that I was the lucky one because I got to spend so much time around [his father] and got to learn and see an intimate side of what he did. Even though it happened by accident, because they were worried about me. That was great. I loved that."

A Large Shadow

When Ronny was named Ball State's coach on April 4, 2006, the Thompson family was thrilled that he was finally getting his shot at a head coaching job. When John III was hired by Georgetown nearly two years earlier, the family was excited, but also worried. John III, after all, was taking over the program that his father made famous.

"I was more scared," Ronny said. "I was worried of the pressure and what people would want [John III] to do. They would want him to be my dad, they would want him to win as much. . . . I still am worried. But I'm glad he's there."

Ronny has to deal with a different kind of pressure, one that comes with coaching in basketball-mad Indiana, where, he says, "little old ladies in the grocery store tell me what plays I should run."

Tom Collins, the Ball State athletic director, reportedly considered nearly 70 candidates to replace Coach Tim Buckley, and he said that one name kept popping up when he spoke with coaches and athletic directors around the country: Ronny's. He liked that Ronny had worked for several different programs, and he liked the fact that by hiring Ronny, the program would get the entire Thompson family along with it.

"I didn't really know that John Thompson had another son," said Skip Mills, a senior forward for the Cardinals, who were 10-18 last season and haven't made the NCAA tournament since 2000. "I didn't know anything about him. But I thought it was pretty cool that he was here because he'd bring a lot of recognition to the program. . . .

"It's like if someone never heard of a clothing line, but all of a sudden Justin Timberlake started wearing the clothes, and then everyone started wearing it because he's wearing it. It's almost the same thing [Ronny] can do here for our program."

Ronny, whose image is splashed across the Cardinals' media guide as well as promotional posters, has already brought some excitement with his full-court, up-tempo, pressuring style of play -- one that is very different from the grind-it-out half-court style employed by Buckley. It is reminiscent of the way his father's teams played.

"That is what I know most, and what I know best," Ronny said. "That style -- the full court, the pressure -- I played it, I was taught it as a player and I taught it as a coach when I worked there. I'm familiar with it."

But it's more than just that. Ronny, by all accounts, is the one who takes after their father; he is more impulsive and outwardly emotional. John III is like their mother, with whom he shares a birthday; he is more reasoned and deliberate. ("But the misconception is that my brother is mild-mannered," Ronny said. "That is a huge misconception.")

"You'll see in their teams sort of how they deal with people, and sort of glimpse into their personalities," Tiffany said. "Ronny, his coaching style, how he's going to have his players, is much more interactive. John's players are probably going to play more methodically because John is more methodical."

They rely on each other, as any pair of close-knit brothers will do. They talk every day, often multiple times. On Thanksgiving night, they had a lengthy conversation about Georgetown's win over Fairfield and Ball State's loss to UT-Chattanooga. John III has tapes of Ball State practices sitting on his desk.

"A good 40 percent of the postgame comments he has about our games is relative to what [clothes] I have on," John III said. "I've gotten very few 'Well dones.' "

John III had several little suggestions for Ronny, before the Cardinals' season opener against Northern Colorado. The most important, apparently, was to eat a piece of pecan pie the night before the game. That's what John III did before his first game as Princeton's head coach -- which, coincidentally, also was played at Worthen Arena.

"So Ronny's mom ran around trying to find pecan pie," said Erica, Ronny's wife of six years. "She found it, he had a bite before he went to bed, and he won the game."

Just like his older brother.

Sibling Rivalry

Gwen and Tiffany Thompson expected John III's and Ronny's teams to face each other at some point; they just didn't think it would be this season, in Ronny's first month of being a head coach. But John III wasn't so sure; he is quick to point out that the only reason why James and Joe Jones -- the coaches at Yale and Columbia, respectively, and the only other set of brothers currently coaching Division I basketball -- play each other is that they work in the same league.

John III's team is playing Ronny's team this year almost out of necessity. Georgetown was having trouble filling out its schedule, and Ball State was one of the few schools in the country that was able to come to Washington, D.C., on a day when Verizon Center was available. Ronny was eager to play in D.C., because he wants to recruit in the talent-rich metro area, and he was happy his brother agreed to bring the Hoyas to Ball State next season.

"I've said in the past that it's good to have a healthy dislike for your opposition," John III said. "That clearly is thrown out the window in this case. I want him to continue to have success."

The brothers have been on opposite sidelines only once before, when Princeton beat Georgetown in the National Invitation Tournament in 1999.

"That was easy," John III said. "That was no big deal."

It was much harder in 1989, when 16th-seeded Princeton faced top-seeded Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament. John III had graduated from Princeton a year earlier, and Ronny was a freshman at Georgetown, playing for their father.

"That game was maybe harder than any game I've ever been a part of, and I wasn't a part of that game," John III said of the Hoyas' 50-49 win. "You literally have friends and family on both sides, and you cannot do anything about the situation."

Tomorrow night will be different, at least for the brothers. They will be involved in the game. Their families, however, will have to sit and watch. Erica Thompson, who usually roots for her alma mater, will be pulling for Ball State and her husband. Tiffany Thompson isn't sure where she'll sit; she jokes that she'll occupy herself by playing with her nieces and nephews.

Their mother has had T-shirts specially made for the game. There's a bulldog on one side and a cardinal on the other. And written across the shirts is this:

"From the backyard to the hardwood, it's all good between brothers."

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