A few minutes after his team had easily dispatched Virginia Tech in December of 1989, John Thompson walked into an interview room at Capital Centre for his postgame comments. As he sat down, he heard a security guard out in the hallway carrying on a conversation.

"Bill, Bill," Thompson said, turning angrily toward the school's sports information director, Bill Shapland. And then he began to shout, "I need someone to tell those people to shut up out there. Right now, tell them to shut up."

A moment later, Thompson turned back toward the assembled press corps and calmly dissected the basketball game, laughing and joking about an easy win, the play of his new point guard, David Edwards, and how impressed he'd been by Virginia Tech's Bimbo Coles, one of his former Olympians, whom he now praised as "the best guard in America."

The sudden flash of fury, followed so quickly by this placid, good-humored dissertation, seemed so odd, and somewhat unnerving to anyone who saw it. Yet his friends will tell you that was typical of the John Thompson they have come to know. Many of those same people will also admit they don't really know him at all. They have an idea, a theory, an opinion, on what makes the man, what drives the man, but that's all. He's a very simple guy, says one friend. He's a very complex person, says another. Just when you think he's taking the money and running to the Denver Nuggets, he decides to stay at Georgetown.

It has been that way all of his life, and John Thompson can also tell you what he is not.

"I am not Saint John," he once said. "I do not go to confession seven days a week. I am not a father figure to my players. They all have parents, mothers and fathers, and I think you insult those people when you call me a father image to their sons. It is not my intention to be a crusader for this cause or that cause. I don't want to be a social worker. Let's take this education thing. They all say, 'Thompson is wonderful because he stresses education, education, education.' Well, they hired me to coach basketball. If I say I want my kids to get an education, it's perceived as an extraordinary thing, that I'm a martyr or something. Why should that be?

"Usually, there is a good guy or a bad guy. I'm not interested in being the bad guy. Who is? But I don't know if I'm the good guy either. I make mistakes. I get angry. Sometimes I work the kids too hard. I'm like any other coach -- I'd love to have them concentrate on basketball. I have people on my staff who help me control those feelings. I need that check. I am not trying to be anything other than what I am, and I'm really not certain what that is."

I'm not exactly certain what that is either, but I've got a few opinions on some of the fundamental questions people have been asking me about John Thompson ever since I first met the man 20 years ago.

Is John Thompson a racist?

I do not believe he is.

Many are convinced otherwise. They insist he fields a mostly black team because he has an innate distrust of whites going all the way back to his childhood. And yet the record indicates otherwise. If the measure of a man is taken by the company he keeps, consider the following: His two most trusted aides over the last 18 years have been whites -- Mary Fenlon and Bill Stein. His chief recruiter, Craig Esherick, is white. So are Georgetown's longtime head trainer, Lorry Michel; the team physician since 1974, Carl MacCartee; the radio play-by-play announcer from day one, Rich Chvotkin, and the longtime sports information director, Bill Shapland. His most loyal supporters on campus for most of his tenure -- Father Timothy Healy, the former school president; Frank Rienzo, the athletic director; and Charles Deacon, the director of admissions -- are white. Two of his closest advisers over the years -- Dave Gavitt and Red Auerbach -- are white. So are his agents -- Donald Dell and David Falk -- not to mention his good friend Dan Rather, a loyal supporter of the program who calls more than occasionally. And when Thompson was leaning toward accepting the Denver job, it was Esherick he was pushing as his replacement, not Mike Riley, a black assistant.

He obviously cares very deeply about issues affecting minorities. His stands on Propositions 48 and 42 are testament to that. He also tells his players there is one virtually certain way to overcome racism and escape the inner city: money. But John Thompson a racist? Emphatically no.

If he's not a racist, why are white players so few and far between on his teams?

The same question could also be asked of most of America's major college basketball coaches. Heading into the 1990s, more than 70 percent of the players on major college basketball teams are black, and the percentage is growing each year. The talent pool of white players physically gifted enough to play at the highest level of the sport is rather thin, and competition for the best players is fierce.

In Thompson's defense, many white players would prefer to go elsewhere and not play for a demanding black coach, though it must also be said that he has not gone out of his way to recruit white athletes. Danny Ferry (Duke all-America two years ago) grew up in his own backyard, but Thompson never made an attempt to talk to him. He should have. Still, in recent years Thompson hasn't been doing much recruiting anyway, of white or black players. He hates the process, finds it demeaning. But he does not dislike white ball players.

Is he a bully?

At times he can be. He is an intimidating presence, a 6-foot-10, 270-pound bundle of potentially belligerent rage and retribution who has also learned over the years how to use his size and his bellowing baritone voice to his full advantage. It is not a pretty sight.

In his own Big East Conference, Thompson has feuded with fellow coaches Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Rick Pitino (formerly of Providence) and Paul Evans (Pittsburgh), though all three insist they no longer have a problem with the head Hoya. His disdain for Brent Musburger has been well documented. He also tried to bully another old colleague, Bill Raftery of CBS, when the former Seton Hall coach criticized his team's roughhouse style during a game against Pittsburgh in 1987 that degenerated into a brawl.

Can John Thompson coach?

No question here. His record speaks for itself -- 423 wins going into this season, a national championship, three Final Four appearances, four Big East Conference regular season titles, 14 times in the NCAA tournament, including 12 straight, 16 consecutive postseason appearances.

His teams are disciplined, incredibly conditioned and thoroughly relentless, particularly on defense, where Thompson truly excels. The Hoyas have never been a sophisticated offensive team, and only when Patrick Ewing left the program and turned professional did he become a major scoring force. The same may also hold true for the team's current star, Alonzo Mourning, who has struggled adjusting to Thompson's offense.

Thompson was not a great offensive player, and he is not a gifted offensive coach. But he does get results. Mitch Kupchak, the assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers, also points out that very few of the 18 players drafted by the NBA from Thompson's teams have been stars in the professional ranks. Ewing is an all-star for the New York Knicks. Sleepy Floyd is a solid pro for Houston. But many of Thompson's best players -- Craig Shelton, John Duren, Bill Martin, David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Charles Smith -- have struggled in the NBA. Kupchak believes it's a testament to Thompson's ability that he can keep his teams at the highest levels of the game without the best athletes.

Thompson's pursuit of the dollar has been almost as intense as his quest for a national championship. Money makes men free, Thompson is fond of saying, and it also allows him to have the kind of control he covets -- complete, absolute authority to do it his way, just as Auerbach and Bill Russell taught him so many years ago.

Thompson believes money is the root of all power. "I think more change has come about because of economics, because people totally disregard color barriers if you have economic value," he has said.

In America in 1990, it's hard to argue that philosophy with a man who pulled himself all the way up from poverty.

Some rivals believe Thompson has a competitive advantage recruiting players because of his ties to Nike and a $200,000 a year endorsement contract with the company. Mourning is the primary case in point. Thompson first met him on campus at a Nike-sponsored tournament. Mourning's high school team wore Nike products. He attended a Nike-sponsored summer camp, where his high school coach was a paid counselor there for two years. The summer league Mourning played in used sneakers supplied by Nike, and specifically by Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike executive who is also a good friend of Thompson's. Thompson, Vaccaro and Mourning have all previously denied that Thompson's business connection with Nike and friendship with Vaccaro had anything to do with Mourning going to Georgetown.

But there is growing concern among college athletic officials -- and even among coaches themselves -- that shoe companies are influencing the recruiting process by offering free shoes, equipment and stipends to high school coaches, who then may steer top prospects toward college coaches affiliated with those very same shoe companies. Because of such concerns, the NCAA says it will soon be looking into the issue.

There are those who believe that college coaches under contracts to shoe companies should give back part of their earnings to their schools, perhaps even sharing endorsement money (in the form of a stipend) with their players who wear the shoes. Dean Smith has been an advocate of sharing the wealth, but that is now prohibited by the NCAA.

Thompson sees nothing wrong with the big money paid to coaches by the shoe companies, and finds it ironic that he's being criticized at a time when so few high-profile black athletes or coaches receive endorsement deals. He also says shoe contracts allow many smaller schools to keep high-profile coaches from moving to bigger institutions.

"Would P. J. Carlesimo have stayed at Seton Hall {without his shoe money}?" Thompson said in a previous interview. "No. Would John Thompson have stayed at Georgetown? No. Would Rollie Massimino have stayed at Villanova? No. In a competitive marketplace, the big state schools, particularly in the West, could have recruited the coaches with their big-time boosters."

Is John Thompson loyal to his former players and coaches?

Some of Thompson's players, particularly from his pre-Ewing days, are extremely bitter and haven't spoken to him in years. His first three big-name signings from his own high school team -- Greg Brooks, Jonathan Smith and Merlin Wilson -- want nothing to do with the program, mostly because they believe Thompson lost interest in them once they stopped playing and left school. And yet their teammate Aaron Long, a seldom-used reserve, to this day remains a close Thompson confidant and speaks in glowing terms of his old coach.

Thompson's relationship with his stars is somewhat intriguing -- and inconsistent -- as well. Patrick Ewing is still very much a presence in the program. Thompson speaks with him often, uses him to help recruit and gives him carte blanche to use Georgetown's facilities in the offseason.

But Sleepy Floyd, Thompson's first all-American, says he's lost touch with his old coach, for no particular reason other than the fact that he plays ball in Houston and was never that close to him to begin with. Similarly, Reggie Williams, Thompson's last all-American, hasn't had any contact with the program virtually since the day he graduated.

Thompson can hardly be expected to have close relationships with every athlete who came through the program, but several former players (especially Craig Shelton) have complained that Thompson, in addition to being inaccessible, has done virtually nothing to show his appreciation for their past contributions. Many schools, for example, bring back players from the past for special halftime or pregame ceremonies. Not Georgetown. "It's like we were never there," said one former player. "They don't even invite me to the team banquet, and I live 10 minutes from campus."

Thompson's relationship with many of his old friends has also been inconsistent. While people like Fenlon, Stein, Auerbach and Gavitt have been constants in his life for years, many others who played significant roles in his success have fallen by the wayside. Jim Wiggins, the barber who was Thompson's closest confidant in the early years, is now a bitter enemy. Ron Watts, his pal from the Celtic days and the man he named his son after, hardly ever talks to Thompson. Bob Dwyer, his old high school coach, desperately wants to make peace with Thompson, but Thompson won't even return his telephone calls.

Has Georgetown sold out to big-time college sports?

Of course it has, just as any school that maintains a high-profile, nationally ranked athletic program sells out, despite all the pious pronouncements to the contrary. As Murray Sperber wrote in College Sports Inc.: "Athletes are the only group of students recruited for entertainment -- not academic -- purposes, and they are the only students who go through school on grants based not on educational aptitude, but on their talent and potential as commercial entertainers. If colleges searched for and gave scholarships to up-and-coming rock stars so that they could entertain the university community and earn money for their schools through concerts and tours, educational authorities and the public would call this 'a perversion of academic values.' "

Georgetown's decision to allow marginal students into its program is a sellout as well. But what can we say about other sports at top "sports colleges" in America? Clearly Michael Graham had no business at Georgetown. Neither did John Turner. Professors who have these and other students in their classes can only shrug their shoulders. One psychology professor told me that he learned a long time ago it would be wise to simply accept the fact that some athletes did not belong in his class, and do the best he could to get them through. It's the price you pay for a Top 20 basketball team. And the evidence suggests that Thompson's record is better -- far better -- than the records of most other coaches in big-time college sports in this regard.

But there is no question that Thompson has been a godsend for Georgetown. His basketball program funds most of the school's athletic programs, and helps balance the department's budget. A good portion of the money earned from NCAA appearances goes into the school's scholarship fund and some also is used to improve athletic facilities. With NCAA Final Four teams scheduled to earn $3 million in 1991, that contribution to university coffers has the potential to be staggering.

More important, his teams' constant success over the years has increased the school's national visibility and fueled intense interest in the university, particularly among minority applicants. Last year alone, the school had more than 1,000 applications from black students around the country. When Thompson took over the program, there were fewer than 100 black applicants a year. Similarly, the number of total applicants also has risen dramatically over the years, and school officials say the basketball team's rise to prominence in the national polls has played a significant role.

A successful athletic team also helps draw a college community together. It becomes a rallying point for students, faculty and far-flung alumni, particularly when the team does well. Father Timothy Healy, the school's former president, spoke frequently about the "great pride and joy" the basketball team provided the Georgetown community -- how successful teams were also part of the educational process, giving students an outlet to vent their emotions and blow off steam after a tough day in the classroom and the library.

John Thompson works long, hard hours and expects the same from everyone around him. Accept it or leave. That's how he runs his life, that's how he runs his program. He makes no promises to his players. He sets down the rules and expects them to be followed. Coats and ties on the road. Freshmen carry the basketballs. You will sign John's (class attendance) book or face the consequences. Miss a class, don't bother to practice. Miss a bunch of classes, don't bother to come back at all.

The secrecy, the security, the paranoia are also part of the package. So are Thompson's pursuit of the dollar, his silly little fusses and feuds with so many people, his almost fiendish fetish for the privacy of his family and his team.

And yet the system works for Georgetown, and especially for John Thompson. He wins basketball games, and does it within the rules. He makes a ton of money for his school, and has given Georgetown more exposure than anyone thought possible when he was first hired in 1972. Almost all of his players graduate and go on to productive lives.

But John Thompson's own life has been the greatest success story of them all: He began his life as a poor youngster from the inner city who rose above poverty and prejudice to reach the very top of his highly visible profession, earning a small fortune along the way and becoming a widely respected spokesman for his school, his sport, and his people, just as Anna Thompson always told him he could.