John Thompson has rules. His players wear suits and ties. They go to class. He secretes his team away from the game site. Not even the trainer talks to the press without permission. Whenever Patrick Ewing is interviewed, a Georgetown functionary tape-records the transaction. If a senior doesn't have a seat, a freshman gets up.
Another rule: players don't talk to newspaper people very long. The coach's helpers interrupt interviews to get players away. So on Saturday the school's publicity man said, "That's enough, the players have to go now."
"No, it's all right," Thompson said, looking at reporters interviewing two players after Georgetown University's second-round NCAA tournament game.
Thompson had an idea. "Is Mr. Mooney here?"
John Mooney, the venerable columnist of the Salt Lake City Tribune, is one of a guerrilla army of sportswriters taking shots at Thompson and his team. Because he sensed arrogance and authoritarianism in Thompson, and heaven knows the coach wouldn't deny either charge, Mooney tied Thompson into a sentence with Idi Amin. All in fun, no doubt, if you think it's fun comparing a basketball coach to a genocidal African dictator.
"Will somebody," Thompson said with a smile, "tell Mr. Mooney I'm being nice today?"
A good college coach serves two masters. He is in show business. He also is an educator. Only the best coaches come close to satisfying those tyrants. John Thompson comes close, and if part of the price he pays is an uneasy relationship with the media, he pays it gladly.
Still, even a newspaperman winces at some stuff.
As a dear reader once said to me, "Some days I wish the paper boy would get lost."
Has Georgetown become America's villain? In New York, a columnist characterized Georgetown as "The Question Mark and the Mysterious," wondering what will happen "when they need some good ink some day." In Boston, a paper said Georgetown would have beaten St. John's by 50 if it had Boston College's Tom Davis as coach. In Hartford, the crowd at the Big East tournament turned on Georgetown with virulence when the Hoyas engaged St. John's in scuffles.
A New York newspaperman asked St. John's star Billy Goodwin, "What about Ewing? The way he went after Kelly (a 6-foot-1 guard)? And always squaring off like that?"
Goodwin's answer, unless my paper boy got lost, has not appeared in print yet.
"Times like that, you don't think about how big you are," Goodwin said. "Ewing may be 7 feet tall, but he's a human being."
Goodwin meant that big guys are allowed to get angry. As for "always squaring off," and even Ewing's friends say he must rein in his temper, Goodwin saw no problem. "I'd like to have him squaring off for my team. You saw what happened after that."
The next nine minutes, Georgetown's two-point lead grew to 12.
The insult is now Georgetown's burden. "Hey, Pat," called a cretin in a Villanova T-shirt, "how do you spell SAT?"
Ewing ignored him regally. The dogs bark as the caravan passes.
Ed Spriggs, a senior center for Georgetown, blew the kid a kiss.
This trash is exacerbated by the media's conception that Thompson, the ogre, is making everyone's job impossible by hiding his players and protecting them from interviews, especially, as Mooney wrote, "the tender Patrick Ewing."
What we have is a conflict of attention spans. The voracious press wants its news right this instant. Thompson wants to make his players good at life as well as basketball. That can't be done right this instant. It takes years, not 10 minutes with a notebook.
When Thompson had players you never heard of, he had the same rules as today. John Duren, as a freshman, didn't talk to the press until January, the same rule Ewing worked under. Georgetown stayed away from the hubbub of a tournament long before anybody thought it would win one.
More than most coaches, Thompson becomes part of his players' lives. He is an educator in the best sense of exciting a student to learning. He creates situations to inspire a student and tries, as best he can while serving two tyrants, to limit situations that can hurt someone.
So he allows locker room interviews with Ewing, but won't bring him to mass interviews on a stage facing scores of voracious newspaper people wanting to know answers to questions they couldn't have answered coherently at 18.
"We have a rule," Thompson said at the Big East tournament, "that if a senior doesn't have a seat, a freshman must give him his."
"Even Ewing?" a reporter said.
"That's a misjudgment of Patrick," Thompson said. "Patrick's an extremely humble person. That's where you misjudge him. But that's not your fault. That's my fault. I have the responsibility for Patrick, and you don't. So if you don't know him the way I do, it's my fault."
It's a fault that doesn't keep Thompson awake many nights.