Thompson died late Sunday night, just days short of his 79th birthday. No cause of death has been released, but family and friends said the Hall of Fame coach had been dealing with health issues for months and required hospitalization.
The towering presence — Thompson stood 6 feet 10 — on and off the court coached Georgetown from 1972 to 1999, amassing a 596-239 career record and becoming the first African American head coach to win the national championship when the Hoyas defeated Houston, 84-75, in 1984.
Thompson also was a central figure in the rise of the original Big East, founded in 1979, to perhaps the premier conference in college basketball.
Georgetown’s games against Syracuse, St. John’s and Villanova, in particular, featured dozens of future NBA players and became showcase television events. In 1985, the Big East produced three Final Four teams, Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova. No other conference has sent that many representatives to a Final Four in one season.
“He made all the coaches better because you either stepped up or you got rolled over,” said longtime Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, originally a bitter rival who became close friends with Thompson. “They had to measure up to Georgetown.”
The native of D.C. who attended Archbishop Carroll High not only transformed Georgetown into one of the sport’s iconic programs but also used his platform to advocate for social justice and speak out against policies he deemed unfair to African Americans.
He famously walked off the court before a game at Capital Centre, then Georgetown’s home arena in Landover, to protest an NCAA rule that would deny financial aid to recruits who failed to meet minimum scores on standardized admissions tests.