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To preserve John Thompson’s legacy, Georgetown must finally move past it

Georgetown's season ended in the first round of the Big East tournament. A day later, the Hoyas parted ways with Patrick Ewing. (John Minchillo/AP)
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Georgetown borrowed against the John Thompson Jr. legacy for too long. It has been heartbreaking to watch the incompatibility of past and present, a prolonged decay that kept spoiling beloved relics of the Hoyas’ tradition.

Thompson announced his shocking exit from coaching 24 years ago, and since then, three men close to him struggled with maintenance of the men’s basketball program. Craig Esherick, the loyal Thompson lieutenant and logical successor, lasted 5½ seasons and made one NCAA tournament. In 2004, he got called home from a recruiting trip in Kansas to receive the news of his firing. He hasn’t coached since. John Thompson III, Big John’s son, left Princeton to replace Esherick, made the NCAA tournament eight times in 13 seasons, led the Hoyas to the 2007 Final Four and posted a respectable .648 winning percentage. In 2017, he was fired after back-to-back losing seasons. Other than serving as a Team USA assistant during a FIBA World Cup qualifier, he hasn’t coached since.

Patrick Ewing, the greatest player in program history, took over for JTIII. On Thursday, he exited after a sad six-year run that produced a .408 winning percentage, one winning season, one surprise NCAA tournament appearance after a miraculous week in the 2021 Big East tourney — and a 13-50 record over the past two seasons.

Georgetown parts ways with Patrick Ewing

For some reason — perhaps nostalgia, perhaps finances, perhaps troubling laxity — the Hoyas brought Ewing back after they lost all 19 of their Big East games last season.

They improved dramatically. They won two conference games this year.

On Wednesday, the worst Georgetown season since the previous one ended with an 80-48 loss to old rival Villanova in the conference tournament. For certain, this was not 1985. As Ewing took in his final game from the sideline, looking disappointed and bewildered, there wasn’t much anger left for fans to feel. This is the program now, in a perpetual free fall, no ground in sight. Such resignation is reality.

Make it stop. Please. Georgetown doesn’t have to worry about breaking from tradition anymore; there’s nothing but memories holding it together anyway. The merciful thing, for Ewing and everyone who loves him unconditionally, was to let go. The Hoyas were a year too late already. The longer they waited, the more of a joke they became. President John J. DeGioia and athletic director Lee Reed were neither honoring Big John nor respecting Ewing’s importance by holding on. They were making Hoya Paranoia obsolete.

Contrary to popular practice in college athletics, the preservation of tradition doesn’t necessitate re-creating old glory through legacy hires. Everyone seems to love the concept of these sports families, and they prefer to keep jobs in the family because of either a lack of imagination or a bizarre provincial fear that outsiders couldn’t possibly understand, let alone conjure, the magic of their programs. Those notions of coaching succession are fine as long as a plentiful family tree exists, but stubborn adherence can kill a program.

There isn’t enough good, familiar blood left to sustain Georgetown. The Hoyas need help from the outside, and they need it desperately. The best way to honor Thompson’s legacy is to create something new. It won’t be easy: The college landscape is dominated more than ever by athletic departments with ascendant, money-printing football programs. The systemic disadvantages that Georgetown overcame during Thompson’s 27 seasons are more pronounced today, but competent coaching and recruiting are undefeated solutions. As long as the region remains a hotbed for prep basketball, the right leader can always unlock the potential.

But the administration must have the vision and desire to find that person. In that sense, the next few days aren’t about moving on from Ewing. They are about acknowledging that Georgetown basketball is in the gutter, abandoning the haughty mind-set that the 1980s and ’90s were just an eye-blink ago and committing to both an aggressive national coaching search and a thorough reboot of the program.

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Big John died in 2020. It doesn’t seem this long, but in August, three years will have passed since the community celebrated his wonderful, complicated, revolutionary life. For years, people theorized that Big John kept the program in the past, painting him as an overbearing figure that the university was reluctant to anger. The last time I interviewed him, he bristled at the perception that he was an intimidator, especially as he aged.

“I say what’s necessary, but one thing I learned is when to shut up,” Thompson said four years ago. “People measure intelligence too much by what people say. Because a lot of stupid stuff is said. Sometimes you’re intelligent by shutting the [expletive] up. You know what I mean?”

His voice can’t be heard anymore, and so the university is left alone looking fearful of change. It seems that public pressure and program disinterest will force Georgetown to act this time. And after three legacy coaches combined to produce just 10 NCAA tournament appearances this century, there’s not a nostalgia hire that could energize the program, not even to win a news conference. The Hoyas must step into the unknown, and they must take that step confidently and with crystallized thoughts about finding a coach with cutting-edge strategies that could rebuild the program and give it an attractive new identity.

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Does Georgetown still believe in itself enough to make a compelling pitch? For a long time, its actions — and its inaction — have suggested a lack of confidence. The Hoyas have been flailing and seeking comfort in the familiar, making it seem as if they are celebrating the richness of their history. Instead, they have created a most painful line of succession. Esherick, JTIII and Ewing endured endings that clouded their greater impact. They were all upsetting outcomes that, while necessary, broke the heart of the program.

Sometimes a message must be delivered with cruelty. Georgetown can’t go back in time. And the Hoyas can’t get to the future until they ditch sentimentality and show they have the passion to create a navigable path.