It took Ed Cooley six minutes of his introductory speech as the men’s basketball coach at Georgetown to bring up the name that simultaneously matters the most to the Hoyas and the one from which there must now be some distance: John Thompson Jr.
That’s where Cooley landed on his first day leading the Hoyas, simultaneously embracing the legacy of the man who allowed Black kids who grew up in poverty to believe they could be basketball coaches and build basketball programs while making it clear that the entire current operation needs an overhaul. It is a needle with the tiniest of holes. On Day One, Cooley threaded it.
“There’s a history here,” he said. “There’s a tradition here that I think you have to respect. But it is a new era.”
At an event held in the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, where a statue of a glowering, cross-armed Thompson greets every visitor, Cooley won the day. This was a cross between a news conference and a pep rally — reporters asked questions; cheerleaders and boosters chanted “Hoya Saxa!” — and the 53-year-old had answers for all comers. Among his pledges: Meet every student on campus. Demand his players say “please” and “thank you” and open doors for others. Welcome back all former Hoyas players. Make Capital One Arena “the spot.” Get 80 percent of the student body at every game.
Oh, and win a national championship.
“We’re not going to be good,” he said. “We’re going to be special.”
The cynics at Providence College — and, given Cooley’s final season ended with four straight losses and his house had been put on the market before it was over, they are coming out of the woodwork — would point out he said the same things about the school in the city where he grew up. Did it happen? Kinda sorta. He pulled the Friars from irrelevance and took them to seven of the past nine NCAA tournaments. Once there, he went 3-7.
Debate the merits of that record all you want. What’s undeniable: It’s legions better than what has happened at Georgetown of late. Patrick Ewing’s six-year tenure included one (unlikely) NCAA bid and ended with two seasons in which the Hoyas’ combined Big East record was 2-37. (Still makes you blink, doesn’t it?)
As the greatest player in Georgetown history was flailing in his attempt to return the Hoyas to where they were during his playing days, Cooley was going 27-10 in the Big East over those same two seasons, winning a regular season conference title and reaching a Sweet 16. In the two seasons before Cooley’s arrival, the Friars went 8-28 in conference play.
You can wonder whether Cooley can restore Georgetown to its halcyon days. You don’t have to wonder whether he can coach a game or build a program. He has done both.
The task before him is monumental. The Hoyas play in an off-campus arena built for an NBA team that is hard for a private school with an alumni base scattered around the globe to fill with any regularity. The students have been increasingly disengaged. Cooley is here to engage them. He talked about walking through campus and eating in the cafeterias and checking on his players in the classrooms.
“What do y’all students think?” he asked. “You got my back?”
There’s an energy here, and even before he has assembled his first team, that matters. It happens to coincide with renewed energy that you can find if you go east on M Street and up Rhode Island Avenue into College Park. Kevin Willard battled Cooley for the last 11 of his 12 seasons at Seton Hall. He just completed his first season at Maryland. Wouldn’t it be great for basketball in D.C. — not to mention for the two fan bases — for these programs to play … if not annually then, say, every other year? At least?
Willard should expect a phone call. “I’m not just playing you because you’re up the street,” Cooley said. “It’s got to have a purpose for Georgetown. We’ll have a conversation. … I won’t rule it out.”
Promising national titles might be a hair bold. Thompson, for all his legend, won one in 27 years, and his three Final Fours came with Ewing as his center. Just the basketball part of it is hard.
At Georgetown, it’s about more than basketball. It’s about restoring a reputation and a fan base while walking the tightrope of respecting the past without allowing it to dictate your future.
“It was a dream of mine to be here,” Cooley said. “And it all started because somebody looked like me, spoke like me and was big like me. That’s what gave me the opportunity to be here today.”
So important. But Thompson’s impact on Cooley’s career choice can’t morph into an influence on the choices he makes about Georgetown’s program. He can admire the statue of Thompson that he’ll walk by on his way to work. He can’t genuflect at its feet. It’s his program now.
“If I’m the head coach at Georgetown,” Cooley said, “anything’s possible.”
That’s what anyone who takes the head coaching job with the Hoyas has to believe. A 20,000-seat arena filled every night. A student body that fights for tickets. A season-ending interview that’s conducted not with neck bowed but with a net hanging from it. Anything’s possible. On a Wednesday in March, with the first game more than six months off, it sounded great. Now all Ed Cooley has to do is back it up.