The John Thompson era at Georgetown is over. It ended Monday, after 51 years, when the school named Ed Cooley to replace Patrick Ewing as its men’s basketball coach. In a twist, Cooley comes to Georgetown from Providence — Thompson’s alma mater.
The hiring of Cooley, an outsider, was both inevitable and necessary. The 53-year-old is a proven program builder, first for five seasons at Fairfield and then for 12 at Providence. That school’s Rhode Island city is his home, so his decision to leave could not have been an easy one, not after establishing the Friars in the top half of a very competitive league for the last 10 winters.
But Providence last reached a Final Four in 1987 — under Rick Pitino — two years after Thompson’s last Final Four appearance. The team the Friars beat in the regional final? Georgetown.
Which is a reminder that Thompson’s impact on Georgetown can’t be measured. When he was hired in 1972, the Rev. Robert J. Henle, the school’s president, told him, “If you can go to the NIT every few years, I’ll be very happy.”
Everyone knows what happened after that. Thompson built Georgetown into a national power, going to three Final Fours and winning a national championship in 1984 — thanks in part to Ewing. Thompson coached the U.S. Olympic team in 1988 and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, not long after he stepped down as Georgetown’s coach.
He was succeeded by Craig Esherick, his top assistant, who was succeeded by John Thompson III — Thompson’s oldest son. Thompson III was then succeeded by Ewing. Thompson’s feelings about Ewing were best summed up when Georgetown lost a first-round NIT game to Harvard in 2019. As he shook hands with Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker, Thompson said, “You know you just beat my son, don’t you?”
The building that houses Georgetown’s athletic and basketball offices is the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center. A massive statue of Thompson stands inside the building. Thompson, who died in August 2020, still looms over all things Georgetown.
It was Thompson who insisted that Ewing replace his real son — Thompson III — after the 2017 season. Ewing had been an NBA assistant for 15 years after his Hall of Fame playing career ended, and Thompson badly wanted to see him get a chance to be head coach.
Other than four magical days in 2021, when eighth-seeded Georgetown won the Big East tournament, Ewing’s six years at his alma mater were a disappointment. The Hoyas were 75-109 overall and 28-81 in regular season Big East play, including 2-37 the last two seasons. Ewing recruited a number of good players, but many transferred, leaving the program in a constant state of flux.
Regardless of Ewing’s iconic status, it was clearly time for Georgetown to move on — not just from Ewing but from the Thompson dynasty.
And Cooley is a good hire. Fairfield was 13-19 in his first season and then won 23 and 25 games his last two seasons. He went 4-14 in Big East play his first season at Providence, but by the 2022 season, the Friars were 14-3 and finished first in the league before reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997. He won a Big East tournament (in 2014) and that Big East regular season title (in 2022). This season’s NCAA berth was Providence’s seventh in the last nine tournaments. His record in 12 seasons at Providence was 242-153.
Now, after a five-decade dynasty — which included the presence of Ronny Thompson, Thompson III’s younger brother, as Ewing’s “chief of staff” — Georgetown will start over. And it will start from rock bottom. During the glory years, it didn’t seem to matter much to recruits that the Hoyas were playing their games away from campus — first at the Capital Centre in suburban Maryland and then at Capital One Arena in downtown Washington. With losing have come massive attendance drop-offs and marginal student support.
When the Big East was formed in 1979, Commissioner Dave Gavitt wanted his teams in NBA arenas wherever possible, and Georgetown was part of the trend. An on-campus arena would surely help recruiting, but that’s not happening. Georgetown made that decision years ago.
The transfer portal will help, but Cooley has to remember the foundation of the program was recruiting great high school players who wanted to play big-time basketball at an elite academic school. Anyone who expects Cooley to turn things around in a year or two is naive at best, foolish at worst.
But Cooley’s hiring is a major step. It is an admission that the time has finally come for change. If Thompson were still around, he would almost certainly agree.
Of the three coaches who have succeeded Thompson, only his son had previous experience as a head coach — four years at Princeton, his alma mater. After Esherick was fired in 2004, I asked Thompson if he thought his son would want to coach at Georgetown.
“He wants to coach someplace where he can get past the first round of the tournament consistently,” he said — which answered my question.
Three years later, JTIII proved the point when Georgetown made the Final Four for the first time in 22 years. But his failure to get out of the first weekend in subsequent years led to muttering from alumni and boosters, which eventually led to him losing his job after the two losing seasons.
Now, Georgetown people would swoon if Cooley can put together a record comparable to the younger Thompson’s. Still, he is what Georgetown needs: someone who has proved he can build a fallen program.
In fact, it could be argued that no major program has fallen further than Georgetown in recent years. The climb back up began Monday. It will be both steep and difficult.