John Thompson, the big man with the white towel and enormous impact, said yesterday he will remain as basketball coach at Georgetown, thrilling his fans, players and employers.

"Our whole university is delighted to hear the news that this great man will be with us for the future," the Rev. Leo J. O'Donovan, the university's president, said at a news conference in McDonough Gym at which Thompson announced he had turned down a $6 million-plus offer to direct the basketball operations of the NBA's Denver Nuggets.

"For 18 years, John Thompson has built a great tradition of sportsmanship and superior performance at Georgetown," O'Donovan said. "He's been a man of conscience as deep as he is tall, a man of integrity in his profession."

The president was pleased, but so too were some from a younger generation.

"I've been wanting to play for him for a long time, since I became a Georgetown fan in the fifth grade," said Robert Churchwell, a 6-foot-7 forward from Gonzaga who will be a freshman this year at Georgetown. "It's hard to think of Georgetown without John Thompson. When I heard about it, I thought, 'Wow, I might not get to play for him. That's a lot of money. He's got to take that.' I guess he's shown that he is about a lot more than money. He's the kind of man I want to play for."

Thompson spurned a deal that reportedly would have paid him more than $700,000 a year in salary and given him 4 percent of the franchise if he fulfilled the five years of the contract. Though he didn't give any numbers, Thompson said the deal was worth more. Still, he turned it down, in part because "the timing wasn't right" and because he felt strongly about the school and program that he joined in 1972 and transformed into a national college basketball power.

"I never felt that I had nothing left to accomplish," Thompson said. "I've always envisioned the challenge as much broader than most people."

The Nuggets are under new ownership and the natural, and possibly rocky, transition may have been a factor in Thompson's decision.

Peter Bynoe, one of the Nuggets' three primary owners and the managing general partner, said he never thought for sure Thompson would accept.

"We always had serious discussions, but the one thing I've learned since I've been in the NBA, is that you don't have a deal until it is signed," Bynoe said. "For that reason, I never thought we had a deal."

Denver Coach Doug Moe will help team president Carl Scheer and the owners make decisions pertaining to next week's draft. In the last two days the Nuggets made two trades. Thursday they sent point guard Fat Lever to Dallas for the ninth pick overall and its 1991 first-round pick. Yesterday morning they traded that pick and their pick in the first round (15th overall) to Miami for the third pick overall.

Thompson has just five players returning from his 1989-90 squad, but that group includes his son, Ronny, and junior all-American forward Alonzo Mourning. There was speculation that the 6-9 Mourning might leave school early if Thompson left.

"I'm elated," said Fannie Threet, Mourning's guardian, from Chesapeake, Va. "I was just about to drop {Thompson} a card say, 'No, don't go.' I'm very happy he's going to stay. As a matter of fact, I can sleep tonight."

Said former Hoya Jaren Jackson: "He's such a monument. He's as big as the monuments on the Mall. This is his home."

Several students on campus said they were surprised but pleased.

"I honestly didn't think he would stay," said junior Katrina Noznesky. "I'm really glad. Basketball is an integral part of Georgetown. It's a part of the spirit of Georgetown. If he had left, it would have been a deterrent in a way."

University of the District of Columbia Coach George Leftwich was Thompson's teammate at Archbishop Carroll High School and remains one of his close friends.

"I said all along I didn't think he was going," Leftwich said. "He's got something established there at Georgetown, and he won't walk away from that easily.

"It would take a real magnificent deal to get him away. . . . This was close, but John is motivated by more than just money and there must've been something there that wasn't quite right."

Former American Coach Ed Tapscott, now with Advantage International, said he guessed that Thompson wasn't ready to give up coaching.

"When you're a coach, it's not just a job, it's a lifestyle," he said. "We do it for the love of it, and it's very difficult to step away. This is not just a good thing for Georgetown and for college basketball, it's a good thing for Washington."

"As long as John Thompson is in Washington, Georgetown will be one of the top programs in the country," said George Washington Coach Mike Jarvis, who coached former Georgetown star Patrick Ewing at Rindge & Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass. "To be honest, that helps me. The more attention that's focused on Washington, the better for GW."

Staff writers Mark Asher, Mike Wilbon, David Aldridge and Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.