By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007
ATLANTA, March 29 -- The list of men who have led a team from the Big East to the Final Four is an impressive one, filled with Hall of Fame coaches and outsize personalities.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III is neither. He is a young coach, still in the early part of his career: 41 years old and in his seventh season as a head coach. He is most often described by his players and colleagues as "calm." But he is now part of a group that includes his father, John Thompson Jr., as well as Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Lou Carnesecca, Rick Pitino, Rollie Massimino and P.J. Carlesimo.
"To get to the Final Four, you've got to be what you are," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "John is John, and he's very comfortable with who he is. . . . He is comfortable doing things the way he wants to do them. He's very self-assured. You look at a Calhoun or a Boeheim or a Pitino, and the common thread is that they're all self-assured."
In his three seasons at Georgetown, Thompson III has proven to be many things as a coach. He is an excellent teacher of the game, as evidenced by the improvements 7-foot-2 junior Roy Hibbert has made. He is a great tactician, as shown by his team's efficient offense and suffocating defense.
But when his players are asked to identify the one quality that makes Thompson so effective, they point to his cool demeanor or his attention to detail. Tranghese says what stands out to him is how very, very calm Thompson is. And when Fran Dunphy, the longtime coach at the University of Pennsylvania who is now at Temple, is asked to characterize a John Thompson III-coached team, he says: "I think they're going to be very responsible to their team, to playing the game the right way. There will be a great balance to their game. They won't get real high or low, and they'll appreciate the opportunity to compete -- and that goes back to John and his personality."
The Hoyas, who have overcome deficits in each of their past three games, are certainly a reflection of their coach. When they trailed top-seeded North Carolina by 10 points in the second half of the East Region final, Thompson smiled when he came into the huddle during a timeout.
"He's so calm," Hibbert said. "He was smiling and saying, 'We're going to get through this.' Him being calm helped us out. If he was frantic, that might have rattled us. His calmness really helped us out."
Thompson has always been that way. Dick Myers, who coached Thompson at Gonzaga High, said the qualities he showed as an All-Met forward are the same ones that make him such a good coach.
"He rarely got emotional on the floor -- maybe a little bit," said Myers, who is retired and living in Georgia. "John kept his demeanor throughout. When we would have big wins in our league or even tough losses, it'd be hard to tell looking at John. He really was, not stoic, but absolutely under control. I used to tell players that next to the word 'love,' the second best is 'control.' "
Thompson is always in control -- of his emotions and his program. Practices are closed to the media, and he doesn't allow his assistant coaches to be interviewed by reporters, preferring the program to have one voice: his. When asked to explain what it was like getting the Hoyas to buy into his Princeton-style offense during his first season, he responded: "We are an extremely willing group. [But] this isn't a democracy. They don't have a choice as to what we're going to do."
He has myriad superstitions, from the yellow Gatorade he must drink before he gets on the bus to head to the arena, to the blue marker he must have when he draws up plays during timeouts. He is devoted to routine, doing the same things in practice, taking the same bus route to games and feeding the team the same pregame meal (steak or baked chicken and spaghetti and salad, according to Hibbert).
Thompson focuses on the smallest details and demands perfection in everything. He often tells his team that a possession two minutes into a game is just as important as a possession with 30 seconds left, and their goal is to win every possession.
In practice, he wants everything to be done with precision, from layups to chest passes. Otherwise, he'll make his players run. But he never uses a whistle. Instead, " 'Yo' means stop," junior co-captain Tyler Crawford said.
"Little things are what count; little things like that make a team great," freshman Jeremiah Rivers said. "As a player, you're like: 'Man, why are you getting on us about this? It's just lay-ups.' But by the end of the season, you realize how important it is."
"Young John coaches the way that he feels is best for him," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "I think that team is extremely tough. I'm not saying that this is what their old teams did, but toughness is not just hard fouls and being willing to fight people. Toughness is being 10 [points] down and continuing to do what your coach wants you to do. Toughness is being like [junior Jonathan] Wallace, that got a three-point shot. If you miss that shot, you're probably not going to win the game, but he was tough enough to step up and make that shot."
That toughness and self-assuredness was evident when Thompson was introduced as Georgetown's coach in April 2004, on the heels of one of the program's worst seasons in the Big East era. He took over a team that had won just 13 games (only four in the conference) and a program that hadn't won a league title in eight years and hadn't earned an NCAA tournament berth in three. But at his first news conference, he confidently said, "A few people have forgotten we are Georgetown, and we're going to work our tails off to remind them."
The media coverage surrounding Thompson's hire seemed to focus less on his three Ivy League titles and two NCAA tournament berths in four seasons at Princeton, his alma mater, and more on his lineage -- son of Thompson Jr. and disciple of Pete Carril.
"This thing about Pete being his coach and me being his father, as it relates to his coaching, is getting a little old," Thompson Jr. said earlier this month. "We're in the Hall of Fame, two old fossils. It makes me feel good if somebody does things better than I could do it. . . . Let's give him the things that relate to his accomplishments with his peers, which I thought he deserved this year and didn't get."
Thompson III wasn't named Big East coach of the year, but for the second time in three seasons, he is a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year award. And now he has the Hoyas in the Final Four for the first time since 1985.
"Once you get a team to the Final Four, that's an enormous accomplishment, no matter what happens in these next games," Dunphy said. "For our profession, I think that's a phenomenal level to get to. And he's attained that, and he's done it all on his own and been his own man. I'm sure he's learned great lessons from his dad over the years, but right now John is his own man, and I think people who really know the game and know him appreciate that."