Don’t bother asking John Thompson III about unwinding or getting away. He has been coaching collegiate basketball for more than 20 consecutive years, but don’t bother wondering whether he might step away from the game temporarily or institute a forced separation.
And “if you’re looking for ‘Oh, I went fishing’ stories, no, none of that,” Thompson said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, take some time. Take a step back. Hit the refresh button.’ And you know, I think that worked for me for the first three weeks. I’m not one just to kind of sit back. I have to be doing something; I have to be involved; I have to be part of something; I have to be contributing in some way. And so the thought of stepping away from basketball? No. No. Not at all.”
It has been 75 days since Georgetown announced a change at its most prominent on-campus position, a move that made Thompson a free agent for the first time since he joined Princeton as a volunteer assistant in 1995. On the day the Hoyas announced the move, Thompson released a three-paragraph statement in which he praised the school and said he looked forward to his next step. Then he set about determining what that might be.
The unusual timing — the announcement came March 23 — made another collegiate coaching job in the 2017-18 season unrealistic. Thompson clearly wasn’t in the mood for a basketball sabbatical. So, facing at least a temporary break from the family business, he began exploring the other family business.
Dad, John Thompson Jr., turned into a terrific broadcaster after he left coaching, both with his one-of-a-kind local radio show and his color commentary for Westwood One. Brother Ronny Thompson became a staple on Comcast SportsNet after he left coaching. JTIII isn’t making any long-term decisions just yet — “I’m not closing any doors, so let’s make that clear,” the 51-year-old said. But for now at least, he’s ready to find his voice in a completely different format.
Thompson and longtime agent David Falk met recently with Sandy Montag, the industry veteran whose sports media clients have included some of the most prominent coaches-turned-stars: people like John Madden and Jay Bilas, Steve Mariucci and Hubie Brown. As a Syracuse product, Montag said, he was plenty familiar with the Thompson family aura, “but when you meet these [Georgetown men], it’s not what you thought it would be,” Montag said. “I found him to be extremely engaging, well-spoken, analytical, and I just came away from lunch feeling that he has the ability to be a really good broadcaster.”
The Montag Group signed on to represent Thompson in broadcast work — the news was first reported this week by SportsBusiness Journal — and the agent said he expects to talk to every national outlet that carries college or pro basketball, that “there’s room in the national broadcast world for John.”
That likely will put Thompson in a position that demands openness and warmth, traits that aren’t always the trademarks of the head job at the Hilltop. Again, there is a precedent here: Within a few weeks after resigning from Georgetown and joining WTEM, John Thompson Jr. began morphing from the imposing coaching icon into a lovable if irascible media personality, with then-operations manager Tod Castleberry telling the New York Daily News that listeners were “pleasantly surprised that he’s been able to open up and show more of himself.”
The elder Thompson’s radio show wound up running for 13 straight years, and his son already is hinting at a similar transformation, arguing that sports fans “see such a small snippet of any of us.”
“I think we’ll get a chance for people to see and experience a different side of me,” he said Tuesday. “As a coach, when you’re talking about the team to the media, you’re more guarded. You’re worried about protecting the players and the team. You give a lot of generic, vanilla statements. …
“As a listener, as a viewer, you want to hear the coach come in after the game and completely critique his team to you, tell you exactly what he thought, what he felt, what he wanted to happen. And a lot of time, particularly at the collegiate level, the fan forgets that they’re kids, and a lot of what our responsibility is to protect the kid. … And so a lot of your opinions, your thoughts, your feelings don’t come out. Whereas as a broadcaster, they can, and they will. I’ll be able to open up a lot more, be a lot more insightful, than at least I felt comfortable doing as a coach.”
Which doesn’t mean Thompson is ready to pour out his feelings about his previous job, at least not in this format. He declined to discuss his departure from Georgetown, other than saying that his successor, Patrick Ewing, is well-prepared to be a head coach, and that “I think he’s going to do a great job.”
Meantime, Thompson said he spent those first three weeks after the move plotting life “after the next three weeks.” He asked himself questions: Where could he find success? What else could he be good at? Where could he add value? The public and the media, he said, “want more insight, you want more thoughts,” but as a coach, he was focused on shielding his program, and that meant “consciously not going into too many details when you didn’t have to.” That might be putting it lightly. So there’s an appeal in now being able to unscrew the clamps, to explain what’s going through the minds of the people on the court, to analyze why decisions were made and why strategies didn’t work.
Just as he did in coaching, he has ideas of whom he’d like to model himself after, people such as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, James Brown and Doris Burke. And just as in coaching, he also has some family members who might be able to answer the occasional question, should he decide to ask.
“You know, I’m a lot of things, but I don’t think foolish is one of them,” Thompson said. “And I would be stupid not to. I mean, they have decades of experience in this. And so without a doubt I would reach out, absolutely, to them and a lot of other people in this industry.”
If this all makes you think back to his father’s transition, you aren’t the only one. “I don’t know how far this will go,” John Thompson Jr. explained just a few weeks after beginning his media career, before it was certain that he would turn into a broadcasting star. Media work, he said, “occupies a part of my mind that would have had a need for something competitive, something exciting.”
Now ask his son why he’ll succeed in this other venture, no matter if it lasts for one year or many.
“You know, I’ve been around this game literally my entire life,” Thompson said. “Who knows what tomorrow holds, but I’m going to throw myself in with two feet where I am now.”