Georgetown parted ways Thursday with John Thompson III, its men’s basketball coach for the past 13 seasons, in a painful separation from a family coaching tradition that built a national power in the 1980s and guided the program for more than four decades.
Thompson, 51, led Georgetown to eight NCAA tournament appearances, including a run to the Final Four in 2007, since taking over in 2004. The program had faltered in recent seasons, however, finishing the past two with losing records and missing out on the NCAA tournament for three of the past four. Students, alumni and others within the fan base had called for Thompson’s dismissal from the program, which had not compiled consecutive losing seasons since 1971-72 and 1972-73. The latter season was the program’s first under Thompson’s father, Hall of Fame coach John Thompson Jr., who transformed the Hoyas into a college basketball power over more than 26 seasons.
“It is with profound regret and deep appreciation that I informed John Thompson III this morning that the university will no longer be retaining his services as head men’s basketball coach,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said in the statement. “Our tradition of excellence will forever be inextricably linked with John and his family.”
The decision was particularly uncomfortable for DeGioia given his long-standing friendship with Thompson Jr., who directed Georgetown to the 1984 national championship as part of three Final Four berths over four seasons. With Georgetown as a national brand, Thompson Jr.’s teams helped the fledgling Big East ascend to among the most decorated conferences in the country.
Thompson Jr., 75, remains a towering figure on campus, a sideline presence at nearly every Hoyas home game. He maintains an office on campus at the John Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, a 144,000-square foot athletic facility that opened last year at a cost of approximately $62 million. Substantial donations from former players such as Patrick Ewing, who starred for Thompson Jr., as well as Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, both from the Thompson III era, funded portions of the project.
The program’s downturn, however, had some of Thompson Jr.’s well-known former players signaling a change was needed.
“It’s a mess up there right now,” Michael Graham, a starter for the Hoyas’ national championship team, said Wednesday on a radio show hosted by former teammate Reggie Williams, whose son, Riyan, played for Thompson III. “I feel bad, you know, because we helped build that program, and John is a great guy. I like him, but I guess sometimes, right now, the recruiting’s not as good as it used to be.”
Said Reggie Williams: “It’s not working,” referring to Thompson III’s motion offense with principles incorporated from his previous coaching stint at Princeton. “In my opinion, we need to make a change. We need some fresh air up on that Hilltop.”
A petition drafted last month asking university officials to consider firing Thompson III was signed by more than 1,400 students and alumni. An on-campus protest over the administration’s perceived lack of response had been planned for Friday afternoon.
Thompson III had been one of two active coaches in the Big East to appear in the Final Four, but since then Georgetown has not advanced out of the first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He was paid more than $3.6 million by the university in 2014, the most recent year tax returns were available.
“I am grateful to fans of Georgetown for their tremendous support,” Thompson said in a statement released through his agent, David Falk. “Georgetown basketball has been a party of my life since 1972, which makes this moment even more impactful, but I look forward to my next chapter.”
The search for a replacement is to begin immediately, DeGioia said. It’s unclear if any candidates have emerged as front-runners for the position held by a member of the Thompson family or Thompson Jr.’s staff since 1972. Paul Tagliabue, vice chair of Georgetown’s board of directors, and Athletic Director Lee Reed will lead the national coaching search, according to a university spokesperson. Tagliabue is a Georgetown graduate and served as NFL commissioner from 1989 until 2006.
The announcement also comes following multiple player departures from Georgetown, including most recently guard L.J. Peak forgoing his senior year after signing with an agent and declaring for the NBA draft, according to people familiar with the situation.
Peak was the Hoyas’ second-leading scorer this past season, averaging 16.3 points and starting all 32 games. He became the fourth player to leave the program this season.
Junior forward Trey Mourning announced he was transferring last week. The seldom-used reserve is the son of basketball Hall of Famer and former Georgetown standout Alonzo Mourning, who played under Thompson Jr.
Junior forward Isaac Copeland transferred to Nebraska after playing in just seven games and sitting out the remainder of the first semester.
In August, junior forward Paul White announced he would be transferring, eventually winding up at Oregon. White missed all but seven of the Hoyas’ 33 games two seasons ago after undergoing an abdominal procedure.
Peak’s departure leaves Georgetown with eight scholarship players on the roster. Only guard Tre Campbell remains among Georgetown players who came in as part of the freshman class in 2014-15.
The Hoyas had been awaiting the arrival of highly regarded recruit Tremont Waters next season, but the point guard reopened his recruitment process after recently decommitting from Georgetown amid uncertainty regarding the status of Thompson III.
Thompson had acknowledged fan frustration regarding this season, which included consecutive losses to rebuilding DePaul and St. John’s. Thompson’s final game at Georgetown was on March 8 in a 74-73 loss to the Red Storm in the first round of the Big East tournament.
Georgetown finished in ninth place out of 10 teams in the conference this season and has lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament in three of its last five appearances.
Thompson led the Hoyas to a record of 278-151 after taking over the team ahead of the 2004-05 season from Craig Esherick, a longtime assistant at Georgetown who became head coach after Thompson Jr. stepped down in 1999. In addition to the Final Four appearance, Thompson led Georgetown to eight NCAA tournament appearances, three Big East regular season titles and one Big East Tournament title.
“Our tradition of excellence as a university will forever be inextricably linked with John and his family,” DeGioia said. “I remain deeply grateful for all that he has done on behalf of Georgetown University.”