It has been a long, sweet run for John Thompson. His Georgetown University basketball teams have won 423 games, a national championship and 12 straight NCAA tournament bids. But, as he enters his 19th college coaching season, Thompson says he can foresee the day when he'll tell his superiors: "Thank you. I enjoyed my stay. I think I'm going to move on to something else."

These last 24 months have been unsettling for Thompson. He discovered two of his players palling around with a murderous drug kingpin. He learned one of his players was breezing around town in rented Cadillacs and Mercedes. Four players have transferred -- with Thompson's blessing -- and all-American forward Alonzo Mourning is pondering an early move to the National Basketball Association.

So the question looms: Is John Thompson long for the college basketball world?

Thompson signaled his willingness to join the pros when he considered an offer in the spring to become the highest-paid general manager in NBA history. His negotiations with the Denver Nuggets were serious enough that a deal worth as much as $8 million was struck, possible player and coaching acquisitions were discussed and a job for Thompson's longtime aide-de-camp, Mary Fenlon, was assured.

"John made it pretty clear to me that perhaps this would be a good time to step down, that he was looking for other challenges," said Nuggets majority owner Bob Wussler.

"He was intrigued and surprised that we talked to him about being our general manager as opposed to coach," said Peter Bynoe, the club's managing general partner. "He said, 'This has caught my interest.' "

Three recent interviews with Thompson and an examination of his month-long negotiations with the Nuggets -- held in Washington, Chicago and Las Vegas, largely without the knowledge of Georgetown officials -- offer fresh insights into the coach's closely guarded business life, his exacting requirements for accepting a pro job and his frustrations with the changing college basketball environment.

Though Thompson, 49, insists he is still enthused with his job, he spoke in one interview of his roller coaster life as a college coach. "You could have one positive experience with a kid that could give you enough energy to want to work for 10 more years," he said. "You could have another experience with a kid that discourages you, and you say, 'This is the damnedest situation in the world.' "

Furthermore, Thompson said he no longer has an "obsession" with winning championships. "I strive for that, aggressively . . . but those are not the only things that gave me satisfaction in relation to my job," he said. "There's a lot of things, and I don't think it's just the kids' education. There are things economically I've tried to accomplish -- because this is America, a capitalist country, and that's the name of the ballgame."

At Georgetown, Thompson has a salary of about $350,000, a large, university-bought house in Northwest Washington and a national platform from which to speak out on issues confronting college athletics. He also earns an estimated $600,000 each year from endorsements, speaking engagements, a TV show and summer camp.

But during the negotiations with the Nuggets' owners, the name of the game was control. "I want to control those things that directly affect what I'm going to be evaluated for," Thompson said.

Thompson was assured he would report only to Bynoe, a Chicago real estate developer who last fall teamed with broadcast executive Bertram Lee to form the first black NBA ownership group. Thompson seemed willing, even anxious, to work for Bynoe, whose group owns 37.5 percent of the Nuggets. But since Wussler's Washington-based Communications Satellite Corp. is the club's majority owner, Bynoe does not have final say in team matters -- a fact that troubled Thompson.

Thompson also was troubled by Wussler's style. Three weeks into the negotiations Wussler told a USA Today reporter that the Nuggets were close to signing Thompson. When the story broke, Thompson was furious.

"John hadn't even notified Georgetown that the discussions were going on . . . that's why he was so angry," said Thompson's lawyer, David Falk. "He was very, very upset that the opportunity for him to voluntarily visit with the powers-to-be at the school was taken away." Thompson said he had mentioned the offer to Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo, but only in passing.

Wussler, a former CBS president and Turner Broadcasting System executive, said he now wonders if he could have worked effectively with the strong-willed Thompson.

"I went into all of this -- not knowing the man personally but knowing the reputation -- very much wanting him to be part of the Denver Nuggets," Wussler said. "I came away feeling somewhat less about that. . . . John is a larger-than-life quantity that you have to say to yourself, 'Gee, you know, for goodness sakes, what am I going to do when he wants to do something that I think is wrong?' "

Wussler added: "Sometimes people get into their own ways. Sometimes we jump outside of our bodies and we lie down on the railroad tracks in front of ourselves. I think sometimes John -- well-meaning though it may be -- jumps out of his body and stands in the doorway, preventing John Thompson from walking through."

Thompson, asked during three hours of interviews how he he felt about Wussler's comments, said without hesitation: "I feel I turned the job down, that's how I feel. That summarizes all of that bull you just read me." Casting a Large Shadow

Thompson the tyrant. The control freak. These are images the 6-foot-10 coach cannot shake; nor apparently does he want to. As Thompson is fond of telling his players: "If democracy breaks down, the dictator takes over. And I am the dictator."

At Georgetown, America's oldest Roman Catholic university, John Robert Thompson might not reign supreme, but nobody seems to get in his way.

"I have a habit of controlling my environment," he said with a knowing smile. That means outsiders cannot enter the Hoyas' basketball office without an appointment. Practices are closed. Interviews are carefully screened. And when his players venture off campus, Thompson usually knows where they have been and whom they have seen. (His informants range from playground coaches to Drug Enforcement Administration agents.)

But in recent years, Thompson's environment has become increasingly difficult to control -- a point he made during the Nuggets negotiations.

"He said the things that were most difficult and challenging were recruiting and then getting these kids to graduate -- you know, just working with them," Bynoe said.

"He said, 'It's one thing to get these kids in school; it's another thing to keep them there,' " Wussler said.

Thompson's ballyhooed graduation rate -- 61 of his 63 athletes who played four years at Georgetown have diplomas -- presumably has been helped by his policy of encouraging players to transfer if they aren't fitting into his program, academically or otherwise.

"This university will go on; it's been here since 1789," Thompson said. "But the student has only one shot. He has to make the best of it. So if things aren't working out here, you make referrals. You don't wait until there's a catastrophe."

Thompson, an all-American at Washington's John Carroll High School who later played for the Boston Celtics and coached here at St. Anthony's High, said he can think of several Georgetown players "over the years" who would have been "better served going elsewhere." He declined to name them.

Since January three players have transferred: forward Michael Tate (now known as Michael Venson) to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.; guard David Edwards to Texas A&M; and forward Milton Bell to Richmond. Last year forward John Turner departed for Phillips University in Enid, Okla.

Venson said he transferred because "there were too many distractions in the Washington area," Edwards because Thompson showed "no gratitude for what I'd done" by signing three additional guards, Bell because he wanted to play more and be closer to his widowed mother.

Turner, who was charging Cadillac and Mercedes rentals to an overextended American Express card as a Georgetown sophomore, said he was forced to transfer because he disobeyed Thompson's orders to disassociate himself from Rayful Edmond III, a Washington cocaine kingpin and playground basketball hero.

Mourning also had befriended Edmond, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for operating a cocaine enterprise. But, unlike Turner, he obeyed his coach's command to sever all ties. A 6-10 junior, Mourning recently said "it's up in the air" whether he'll enter the 1991 NBA draft.

Although the influence of fast cars and fast company is an obvious concern, Thompson said there have been more subtle changes in the college basketball landscape.

There was the letter he received from an agent purporting to represent a high school athlete. "This shows you the permissiveness," Thompson said. "The guy was telling me, 'If you want to recruit this kid, you've got to come through me.' "

On the recruiting trail, athletes have become more demanding, Thompson said. "When a student is being recruited, he asks how many times we're going to be on TV," he said. "He wants the instant gratification. He wants exposure.

"Years ago, a kid was glad when you took him to a game in New York. Today, these kids are traveling all over in high school. And when they get to college they're bored with what we used to be excited about."

In the spring Thompson watched in wonderment as the 19-year-old Venson (then Tate) called a news conference to reveal his choice for a new college. Site of the announcement: Duke Zeibert's power-lunch restaurant in Washington. "I wanted to have it somewhere nice," Venson explained. The restaurant did not charge Venson for its services.

"My mother used to say she was living in a world that was faster {than before}," Thompson said. "Now, it's much, much faster. What's the speed limit? I don't know. We are all part of the big rush. And there really doesn't seem to be much radar detection out there." Nuggets Set Sights High

At a meeting in Chicago on May 19, the Nuggets owners decided to make a run at Thompson, hoping maybe, just maybe, he was ready for a change.

NBA clubs don't usually make multimillion-dollar offers to general managers. Thompson was worthy of such an investment, Bynoe said, "because of his commitment to winning and excellence, his knowledge of personnel and his contacts in the basketball world. If you combine all those things, a person is going to be successful."

In the early '80s Thompson got job offers from several universities. More recently, there have been coaching inquiries from eight NBA clubs, according to Falk. But Thompson, who has hypertension, does not seem interested in pro coaching.

"In terms of a challenge, John has been a coach for 20 years," Falk said. "To do the same thing at the pro level, where you'd probably have a lot less control over the players, might be a step down for John. I think he'd like to take it to the next level."

On May 26, Thompson met with Bynoe in an American Airlines lounge at Chicago O'Hare Airport. "John's concern with the job was being able to make the final decisions," Bynoe said. "I told him I think it's important that if you hire good people, you must give them control."

Thompson has often said he will stay at Georgetown "as long as the Jesuit fathers will have me." But he scrutinized the Nuggets offer with the same intensity he goes after Big East opponents.

"John had a lot of intelligent questions," Wussler said. "He wanted to know about my role with the club. Did I want to take an active role? Did I want to be totally inactive? Why did Comsat put money into the team? How was Comsat financed?

"He also threw some basketball questions at me . . . trying to test me. He asked if he'd heard correctly that I was at the Final Four this year. I said, 'I always go to the Final Four.' He said, 'Why do you go to the Final Four?' I said, 'Because going to the Final Four is how you meet people and make deals.' "

Early on, Thompson set the record straight with Bynoe. "John said, 'Peter, you don't know anything about basketball. Do we agree on that?' " Bynoe recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, I know I'm not an expert on basketball.' "

Thompson -- an economics major at Providence, class of '64 -- told the Nuggets owners there would be drastic changes if he managed the club, according to Bynoe and Wussler.

"John talked about what he needed in terms of the staff, practice facility, office space, equipment, scouting," Bynoe said. "He was very specific. He needed space. He's basically a workaholic. You know, he works 24 hours a day. It was clear he was going to spend a lot of time in the office."

"There was a passing reference by John to controlling people going in and out of the office," Wussler said. "The inference was: You need doors and locks and keys that work." Wussler said the Nuggets were willing to redesign their facilities. "You don't hire a John Thompson and not accede to his wishes," he said.

Thompson also assessed the Nuggets' roster, as well as college and pro personnel. "He said, 'A John Thompson-managed club would be different than you have now,' " Bynoe said. "His whole thing was, 'Really, you have to change the whole team. . . . You've got to get young and stronger players.' "

"John said to us, 'I would do anything I could to get Chris Jackson,' " Wussler said, referring to LSU's high-scoring guard. "And we set about the next day to put that in motion."

Wussler was intent on firing his coach, Doug Moe, and he asked Thompson for suggestions. Thompson's first choice was a college coach. "I'm not going to name him, but his name would surprise you and probably most of the world," Thompson said. "He's somebody who'd make one heck of a pro coach."

In the end, the Nuggets replaced Moe with Loyola Marymount Coach Paul Westhead -- not one of Thompson's choices -- and selected Jackson with their first-round draft pick.

Wussler praised Thompson as a highly capable administrator. But he hinted he was, at times, uncomfortable with Thompson's manner.

"John uses his size to great advantage," Wussler said. "Body language, John's the living embodiment of that. He's an imposing guy. Very forceful. He's got the voice. He's got a very good command of the language. On one hand, he's a class act. And on the other hand he is -- he's very forceful.

"There were several times when he put his hands on the coffee table" -- Wussler thumped his hands on a table to demonstrate -- "and said, 'This is how I think it should go. This is what we're going to do.' " Battle for Control

To make the deal, the Nuggets were prepared to hire Fenlon -- Thompson's close friend, academic coordinator and chief assistant -- as their vice president-administration/basketball operations, according to Wussler.

Fenlon attended each of the Thompson-Nuggets meetings. One session began at a casino hotel in Las Vegas, Thompson's favorite getaway spot, and continued as the coach gave Bynoe a late-night tour of the Strip.

Thompson has a passion for dollar slot machines, and on this night, "John wasn't feeding the machines -- they were feeding him," Bynoe said. "He knocked off a couple thousand dollars while I was there. Mary hit a couple of jackpots, but John was the big winner. I mean, she was collecting his money. The money was coming out so fast, he needed help carrying it around."

Thompson left the financial details to Falk, who opened negotiations with Bynoe over a leisurely dinner in Chicago. "A couple of bottles of wine helped it," Bynoe said with a smile. "And good food."

The result was a five-year package that included an $800,000-plus annual salary and 4 percent ownership in the club if Thompson stayed the full term of the contract, a source close to the negotiations said. The deal would be worth $8 million if the Nuggets, purchased last year for $54 million, increased in value to $100 million by 1995 -- a reasonable projection, the source said.

But two weeks into the negotiations the control issue had not been resolved. "You know, I am stubborn, but I've never had a problem working for anybody," Thompson said. "I worked for five different nuns at St. Anthony's. I just don't want to get involved in any situation where the policy or lines of authority are not spelled out very clearly. Because that does not work."

Bynoe said he told Thompson that, although he's empowered to sign off on major decisions, he must first confer with his partners. Wussler, in turn, said he must report 10 times a year to the Comsat board of directors.

"John came away with a doubt as to whether the structure of the Nuggets' decision-making would enable him to make quick decisions," Falk said.

On June 10, Thompson turned down the offer. Several days later Bynoe asked him to reconsider. Thompson did, and agreed to meet with Bynoe, Wussler and Lee June 17 at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington.

Thompson told the owners he would be more receptive to an offer next summer, according to Bynoe and Wussler. "He said if we came to him next year, it would probably be a less trying decision, because he really wanted to spend the next year with Alonzo and {center Dikembe} Mutombo and the team," Bynoe said.

"It would have been easier next year because I could have prepared my players for me leaving," Thompson explained. "Having a year to prepare them is a lot different from me walking out the door now . . . leaving them high and dry."

Thompson said he had an understanding with the Nuggets' owners that the negotiations would not be revealed publicly. But during the late-night meeting at the Marriott, he learned that a USA Today reporter was in the lobby. "John was clearly upset," Bynoe said. "He said, 'Peter, this is not the way to do business.' "

Wussler said he advised USA Today of the meeting because, "I don't believe in hiding things from the press when it's obvious."

"That's Bob's style," Bynoe said. "I think you have to deal with the media. But you don't have to have the media as part of the process. That's something on which Bob and I disagree."

Thompson seemed embarrassed that his players learned of the negotiations through the media. When several players asked him if he was leaving Georgetown, Thompson said he responded: "If I were to leave here, you would know about it -- from me -- before you read it in the newspaper."

On June 22, four days after the negotiations became public, Thompson told the Nuggets he would remain at Georgetown. Three weeks later, former Seattle SuperSonics Coach Bernie Bickerstaff accepted the general manager's job.

"John turned down a very, very lucrative offer because he wasn't approached in the most effective way," Falk said. "John didn't apply for the job. He was recruited. And in recruiting him, the strategy was backward. Instead of doing it according to John's rules -- privately -- it was broadcast." Teacher-Student Relationships

Despite the manifold problems of college athletics -- and don't get him started on NCAA academic legislation, which he calls "scary" -- Thompson said he still enjoys working with young athletes.

"The greatest satisfaction I got this summer was visiting Patrick Ewing, going over financial statements with him, seeing how he's grown and listening to him teach me some things," Thompson said of his former center, now a New York Knicks star. "The roles had changed. He was the teacher. I was the student. That was a tremendous feeling, knowing I had made a small contribution to that."

But in his next breath Thompson said he resents people who portray him as a selfless educator who has dedicated his life to "the poor little children" and "these kids who don't have fathers."

He recalled a newspaper story last summer: "I was quoted as saying I turned down the Nuggets because 'I am an educator.' After that was quoted and requoted, I got a lot of letters from people who were very sweet and well-intending, saying they were so glad I stayed here because I'm dedicated to education. But that's not what I said.

"What I said was: I am an educator and an educator does not not allow his students to form a dependency on him. These kids have got to understand that the reality of life is that I could leave."

In the coming years, Thompson likely will receive more tempting offers, from NBA clubs and major corporations, Falk said. "I think John will be at Georgetown for the foreseeable future," Falk said. ". . . But when you're a person as successful as John, you always look for new challenges."

So is John Thompson long for the college basketball world? Thompson laughed. It was 11 o'clock on a Friday night, and he was still in his office, preparing for his 19th Georgetown season, which begins Nov. 23.

"You know, I could stay at Georgetown University or I could leave next year or the year after," he said. "And when I walk out the door probably less fuss will be made than was made over the Denver Nuggets job. Everybody will be less surprised when I say: 'Thank you. I enjoyed my stay. I think I'm going to move on to something else.' "