By John Feinstein
Saturday, March 31, 2007
When Georgetown takes the floor Saturday evening in the Georgia Dome for its Final Four semifinal game against Ohio State, two men who played a critical role in the Hoyas being back on college basketball's biggest stage will be watching . . . from several hundred miles away.
Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, Georgetown's two most important players, signed letters-of-intent to play for Georgetown in November 2003. At the time, Craig Esherick was Georgetown's coach and Chuck Driesell was his No. 1 assistant. Saturday evening, Esherick and Driesell will be in their homes watching the game on television.
"In many ways, it's a good feeling to see how well they've done," Esherick said Friday afternoon. Now the vice president for athletic relations for CSTV, he was sitting in New York's JFK International Airport on Friday waiting to return to Washington while the Hoyas went through their Final Four practice session. "I'm happy for both of them because they're both good kids, and I feel good that my belief in them as players was proven to be correct."
Driesell, who joined Gary Williams's staff at Maryland this past season, was in Atlanta on Friday, in town for the coaches convention, but he flew home to spend the weekend with his children.
"I might have played some role in finalizing their recruitment," he said. "But the credit should go to Craig. He's the one who first spotted them and began recruiting them."
As often happens in recruiting, it was a tip from a friend that started Esherick down the path that led to Hibbert and Green becoming Hoyas. In the case of Hibbert, Esherick got a phone call from Dwayne Bryant, a former Georgetown player who had become the coach at Georgetown Prep.
Hibbert already was a Georgetown fan. He knew about the school's reputation for producing great big men. In the spring of his junior year, he orally committed to Georgetown.
But that wasn't the end of his recruiting story. At the end of that season, Esherick shook up his coaching staff. One of the changes involved the departure of Ronny Thompson, the younger of John Thompson's two sons. When Ronny Thompson left, Hibbert and his family no longer were certain Georgetown was the place for him. After Esherick hired Driesell, the two of them had to re-recruit him.
"I think we just treated it as if he was a kid we were trying to get to sign with us," Driesell said. "We went to his games that summer; he made a number of unofficial visits to campus and when November came around he ended up signing. The bottom line was that we got him to sign."
Someone with ties to Maryland first pointed Esherick in the direction of Green.
"I had played summer league ball in the '70s with a guy named John Bowie," he said. "We had stayed friends through the years. In the summer before Jeff's senior year, he called me to say there was a kid at Northwestern High School I need to see play. John's wife works there, so he knew about Jeff."
John Bowie has been Maryland's equipment manager dating from Lefty Driesell's days there as coach. But he was friends with Esherick, Chuck Driesell and Ed Spriggs, who also was on Esherick's staff. Esherick went to see Green play in an AAU tournament at Maryland the day after the call from Bowie.
"It took me about two minutes to realize he was a special player," Esherick said. "He was 6-9 and he could shoot NBA threes with ease. But he wasn't one of those big guys who wanted to be a point guard. He liked going inside and rebounding and blocking shots."
Green never played on the national summer circuit while in high school. As a result, none of the big recruiting services ranked him among the top 150 players in the country. Still, word began to get out about him by the end of that summer and the start of his senior year. Troy Weaver, an assistant coach at Syracuse who originally was from the Washington area, began recruiting Green hard. Maryland and George Washington also were involved.
"I think there was some pressure on Jeff to not sign early, to wait and see if more national schools would see him during his senior season," Esherick said. "I think he liked us. His parents liked us. Plus, Jeff, for a kid with so much talent, has never been a big ego guy. I don't think he wanted a recruiting circus and he felt comfortable with us. That's why I think he signed early."
Esherick and Driesell were convinced they had signed two players who were destined for big things.
"Hibbert had such a great work ethic," Driesell remembered. "Whenever he could, he came over to work out at Georgetown. He was always trying to learn about the game, trying to figure out how to get better. Jeff was more of a natural. He was so quick off the floor and he really could shoot. I think we were excited about the idea of coaching them."
Of course, they never did because Esherick was fired at the end of the 2003-2004 season.
"I always thought with Roy, it was just a question of when, not if, he would become a player," Esherick said. "When you make a mistake in recruiting it's usually with a player who is at a certain level but doesn't get better. You could always see with Roy that he was going to get better, and he has. As good as Jeff already was, he's gotten better too."
Driesell had the chance to see Hibbert in the hotel lobby in Atlanta and spent a few minutes with him.
"I'm thrilled for all of them," he said. "I was only there a year so, for me, there are no hard feelings. I like John [Thompson III], and I think he's a terrific coach. I've enjoyed watching what they've done, especially the kids we were involved with."
It isn't as easy for Esherick. He played at Georgetown under John Thompson Jr. and then coached under him for years before succeeding him in 1999 when the elder Thompson suddenly retired with Georgetown 0-4 in Big East play. He had been told his job was safe in March 2004 and then was fired a week later. He never will publicly admit to hard feelings, but it is impossible to believe that it is easy for him to watch his alma mater and former employer play these days.
"I'm not sure what word I would use," he said. "I am very happy for those kids that we recruited; there's no doubt about it. So to call it bittersweet would probably be too strong a word."
Regardless, it can't be easy for Esherick or Driesell, the ones who provided the two main building blocks for this March's joy ride. Maybe they will hear their names mentioned on CBS during Saturday's broadcast.
At the very least, they deserve some credit for Georgetown being here this weekend. Even if they aren't.