By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009
He has been around college basketball his entire life.
While other boys were playing video games, he was by his father's side, soaking up nuances of the sport that most of his rivals today didn't grasp until they were officially on the coaching track, as graduate assistants or directors of basketball operations for fledgling teams.
As a young Division I head coach, he worked hard to earn his place -- and make his own name -- in the sport. And despite his success, he's not too proud to call up his legendary father for a critique after wins and losses alike.
Before today's game at Verizon Center, that thumbnail biography will fit both head coaches perfectly when John Thompson III strides out to shake hands with Keno Davis of Providence.
Georgetown's 2004 hiring of Thompson, elder son of John Thompson Jr., created the first father-son combination to coach in the Big East. In April, Providence created the second by hiring Davis -- son of the legendary Tom Davis, who coached at Boston College during the nascent years of the Big East (and later Stanford, Iowa and Drake).
"I don't think he looks at it as this huge pressure," said Thompson, 42, who is uncommonly qualified to offer insight into the expectations facing Davis, 36, given his father's achievements. "I think he's just doing what he's very good at, and what he's comfortable with, and what he has been a part of all his life."
Today's game is one both coaches would dearly love to win. For Thompson, it would halt a two-game losing skid by Georgetown (10-3, 1-2). For Davis, it would extend a four-game winning streak by Providence (11-4, 3-0).
When last seen at Verizon Center, the Hoyas suffered a 16-point loss at the bruising hands of Pittsburgh, whose players humiliated them on the boards, posting a 48-23 rebounding edge.
Two days later, on Monday, Georgetown lost again at Notre Dame, undermining its cause with dreadful shooting, particularly from three-point range and the free throw line.
It took no coaxing on Thompson's part to bring the Hoyas down to earth when they regrouped for practice this week. It was back to basics: working hard, drilling the fundamentals and rebounding, rebounding, rebounding.
"Rebounding has been an issue all year, and we want to do that better," senior guard Jessie Sapp said. "We have to play harder, of course. And we're going to play harder."
None other than John Thompson Jr., who coached the Hoyas from 1972 to 1999 (posting a 596-239 record), stopped by one afternoon this week to stress a point about rebounding. Most rebounds are grabbed below the basket, he reminded the players. The message: Rebounding is everyone's job, and more a matter of heart than height.
"We can't just look at things and expect, because we're big and tall, the rebounds to fall in our hands," said Sapp, who took the lesson as gospel, as he does every word the elder Thompson utters. "I listen to everything he says, whether it's to me or to the team. If he's talking to DaJuan [Summers], and I just happen to walk past, I'll just listen to him because I think he has so much to offer."
Thompson III seeks his father's counsel after every game, though he concedes he has a fairly good filter, as most children do, for sorting out the advice he actually wants to hear.
"He's good at his job, and I want any and all input that he has to give," Thompson III said of his father. "And he is not shy about giving his thoughts and opinions."
The Hoyas' current coach seeks other counsel, as well, particularly that of his former coach Pete Carril, 78, the patriarch of Princeton basketball. Carril calls Thompson III each time he watches a Georgetown game and goes over his impressions.
Unlike Thompson III, Davis formally honed his skills alongside his father, serving as an assistant on Tom Davis's staff at Drake for four seasons before taking over as the Bulldogs' head coach last season. He was hardly handed the keys to a Maserati: Drake was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference. But Keno Davis led them to a 28-5 record, won both the regular season and conference titles, and earned the school's first NCAA bid since 1971. His rewards were AP coach of the year honors and the Providence job.
During Big East media day in October, Davis said his goal was to achieve at Providence in four or five months what he and his father's staff before him achieved at Drake in four or five years.
To that end, he calls his father, who compiled a 598-355 record as a head coach, to solicit criticism after each game.
Providence was picked to finished 10th in the Big East despite returning all of its starters, as well as point guard Sharaud Curry, who was sidelined by injury for all but one game last season. After a shaky start, the Friars have won seven of their last eight games with balanced scoring and pressure defense.
"They are a veteran team and extremely experienced," Thompson said. "And now they've embraced Keno's system. They're 3-0 in the Big East, and we're the toughest conference in the country right now. That's all you need to look at."