For all of the 1980s and much of the 1990s there wasn't a question which was the dominant basketball program in town. It was Georgetown.
Georgetown under John Thompson was a national champion, a perennial top-10 team, a shoo-in for the NCAAs year after year after year. Its basketball team was amazingly popular with kids throughout the country. Thompson was a gigantic figure -- literally and symbolically -- in college basketball circles. Georgetown under John Thompson was so preeminent that the chancellor of the University of Maryland once asked Thompson if he could recommend someone to succeed Lefty Driesell.
Now Maryland under Gary Williams has obliterated Georgetown on both the national and local scale. It's Maryland with the national championship, Maryland with the almost automatic NCAA invite, Maryland with the sold-out house. When Georgetown plays at MCI Center the stands are often half-full. Or to more accurately view the decline in the Hoyas' glass, half-empty.
Thompson is long gone. The last four years the Hoyas have been in the hands of Thompson's longtime assistant, Craig Esherick. When Thompson resigned suddenly in January 1999, there was no choice but to deed the team in-house to Esherick. And it was the proper call. Esherick had earned Georgetown's trust, having served it long and well.
Now, though, comes the alarming sound of booing at home games, and a small group chanting "Esherick Must Go" at the end of Saturday's UCLA game. That was Georgetown's fifth loss in a row, and the straw is piling up on the camel's back. Normally, it is no disgrace to lose to UCLA, even at home. But UCLA is genuinely bad this season, a team whose coach will surely be dismissed at season's end. This is a UCLA team with nine straight losses that traveled 3,000 miles to Washington with nothing to play for -- and won.
It's a season of bad losses for Georgetown. The Hoyas seem to get close in every game. And in almost every game they get close, they lose. Lately they've lost by one to UCLA, by one in double overtime to Notre Dame, by one to Pittsburgh, and in overtime to Seton Hall. The Hoyas can't get the other side out in the bottom of the ninth. Last week, Esherick said he'd rather lose a close game than lose a game by 30 points. After a while it doesn't matter by how many you lose, if all you do is lose. That never happened under Thompson. His teams knew how to finish an opponent.
Intriguingly, Georgetown has played its best against the nationally ranked teams on its schedule: Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Duke and Syracuse -- all tough losses. The Notre Dame game was especially painful. Georgetown had the ball for the last 15 seconds of regulation, with the score tied, and couldn't even get off a shot! The Hoyas' season seems to be characterized by their inability to make a play late in games. That's what did in Norv Turner with the Redskins.
Esherick is boxed in now. Earlier in the season, when things were going well, Esherick had a tantrum that was replayed about 1,000 times on national TV. It came immediately after a win against West Virginia. Esherick seized the opportunity to unleash a tirade about how his big man, Mike Sweetney, was being pummeled in the paint -- and officials weren't doing anything about it. Using the word "crap" to describe the unfairness of what was happening to Sweetney (a word a trained lawyer like Esherick knew he couldn't use in a courtroom), Esherick offered to pay the way for any official who wanted to sit next to him on the bench and see first-hand what was happening to Sweetney, and pay the way for any official who actually wanted to stand in the paint and absorb the body blows Sweetney was taking. It was great theater, Esherick advocating loud and strong for his best player. It felt like a turning point.
Since then Georgetown is 1-7. Esherick is unlikely to rant about officials again since his embarrassment in the Seton Hall game, when Seton Hall had six players on the court in the last seven seconds of regulation. True, the officials missed it. But so did Esherick and his staff. Coaches in glass houses can't throw stones.
In Esherick's four seasons the Hoyas have made the NCAAs once; they are unlikely to do so this season -- even with the best player in the Big East in Sweetney. (It could get worse. The Hoyas play at Rutgers tonight. If they lose, they'll be in last place in the Big East's West Division. The last-place team in either division is barred from the conference tournament!) Esherick's record at Georgetown is 81-53. That isn't bad. But it's an enormous drop-off from Thompson's. From 1981 through 1990, as an example, Thompson's record was 247-58. Succeeding Thompson would be a daunting task for any coach. Comparisons might be especially harsh with Esherick having been Thompson's assistant.
After the UCLA game, Georgetown's AD, Joe Lang, said the current 1-7 skid has not affected negotiations about an extension for Esherick, who has two more years on his current contract. But is that extension a priority?
Under Thompson, basketball was a critical part of Georgetown's identity. As the basketball team flourished, so did the school. Even the university's academic reputation was enhanced by the success of the basketball team. (George Washington, a neighbor a few blocks away, openly aimed to recreate Georgetown's success for itself -- and might have had Mike Jarvis stayed.) Any attack on Thompson or his program was rebuffed with passion and righteousness. Georgetown was justifiably proud of being one of the elite basketball programs in the nation, a jewel in the Big East, when the Big East was glorious, and the Hoyas, Syracuse, St. John's and Villanova were always around the top 10. You wonder if Georgetown can be at peace with the prospect of sliding out of prominence, and having to worry about games with Rutgers.