John Thompson Jr. hasn't coached Georgetown since 1999, but his success remains central to program’s profile nationally. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

On Day 1 post-Thompson, Georgetown basketball faces two prominent questions, and they might have wildly different answers.

What do the Hoyas see themselves as?

What is realistic?

It’s not 1985 anymore, far from it, and that won’t change even if Patrick Ewing makes his long strides back into town. The merits of Ewing returning to replace the fired John Thompson III — the son of his former coach from the halcyon days — are debatable. What’s not: The old Big East is gone and isn’t coming back. The tectonic plates that spent a decade shifting underneath the foundation of college athletics largely have settled into place, and Georgetown is where it is: In a perfectly fine, basketball-only conference that almost certainly will never be the best conference top to bottom and year to year, even if it produces a national champion on occasion.

As the Hoyas begin what promises to be a fascinating coaching search, this is a time for serious, department-wide — perhaps even schoolwide — introspection.

Any college athletic program with a history of success, no matter how long ago it came, inherently believes it is capable of replicating those experiences, those emotions, those championships. That should be embraced, of course. History fuels loyalty, sells jerseys and keeps the tills full. There’s no downside to that.

But just because success came once doesn’t guarantee it will return. The Georgetown basketball brand has been damaged, and not just by Thompson’s back-to-back losing seasons that led to his dismissal Thursday.

This was a slow erosion, barely perceptible to those who watch the program day-to-day. Show up at Verizon Center on a Monday night in January, with St. John’s in town, and the empty seats are just jaw-dropping.

Athletic department officials will tick off a long list of reasons — school night, early start, dog ate my homework, yadda yadda yadda — but at the end of the year, the Hoyas averaged 8,062 fans over 16 home dates. Even removing the Arkansas State game played on campus at McDonough Arena— and oh, how Hoyas fans would like to remove that one — the glass isn’t even half-full.

That’s not just a snapshot, either. In 19 seasons since moving downtown from the old Capital Centre out in Landover, the Hoyas have never averaged more than 13,000 in attendance at Verizon Center, bad optics in a building that can hold 20,000 a night. The Hoyas just aren’t a hot ticket. They weren’t under Thompson. There’s just no guarantee they will be under a new coach.

And where will a new coach come from? Ewing, the Hall of Fame Georgetown center from the elder Thompson’s best years — three Final Four appearances and the 1984 national championship — helped create the idea that this is a top-10 program, which it inarguably was. But “was” is the correct tense. Ewing is a respected assistant in the NBA. But put him aside. What established college coach would want to leave his job to take this one?

Here’s a quick list of jobs that are easily better than Georgetown: North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, UCLA, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Arizona, Florida. Argue with one or all. I think they’re unassailable in terms of current relevance, recent success, strength of athletic department and enthusiasm of fan base. That doesn’t even broach the idea that any of the following could be better, too: Syracuse, Notre Dame, Connecticut, Maryland, Texas, Virginia, Villanova, Oklahoma and Oregon. And don’t laugh, but given their current conference affiliation (Big East), don’t we have to discuss Butler (nine NCAA tournament appearances and two Final Fours in the past 10 years) and Xavier (15 tourneys in the past 17 years, with seven Sweet 16s)?

Take a deep breath before calling any of those absurd and ask, honestly, whether Mark Turgeon would leave Maryland or Tony Bennett would leave Virginia to come to Georgetown. Not whether Georgetown would want them. But whether they’d come. The answer has to be no.

Some jobs have inherent advantages over others. The massive state schools listed above can count on fan bases determined by geography, not by whose parents paid tuition long ago. Those schools, too, can count on football money to prop up the entire athletic department. Georgetown, for better and worse, has none of that.

So the job, then, becomes whatever the person in it can make of it. We have no recent evidence of what a non-Thompson acolyte can make of Georgetown. But look to Villanova and the disparate results — and, therefore, completely different profiles — under Steve Lappas and Jay Wright. This can go either way.

Ewing could consider the job differently, of course, because he’s family. But be wary of keeping this job in the family. You don’t even have to look past the Hilltop to realize the perils of that pursuit, because John Thompson Jr. handed things off to longtime assistant Craig Esherick, who stumbled and was replaced by the ultimate family member, John Thompson III — a Princeton man by résumé, but with Georgetown in his blood.

When Dean Smith retired, North Carolina became obsessed with keeping its job in the family, and the program deteriorated under two coaches before Roy Williams rebuilt it. Is more deterioration possible at Georgetown?

Let’s not find out. This job must go to the best possible candidate, someone who understands — realistically — what Georgetown is, and what it can be. That person’s new office will be in the brand-new John Thompson Jr. Center, replete with its namesake’s statue in the foyer. So that person must get an honest answer to the following question: What is John Thompson Jr.’s role with the program going forward?

If a new coach has real, unfettered autonomy — and that’s impossible to know — then the Georgetown job could, realistically, be viewed as the following: a program with a meaningful tradition, a large-but-impersonal off-campus home court, and a frustrated fan base. But to build it into what Thompson Jr. once did — a national power and a national brand — the next Hoyas coach must not become caught up in notions of what once was and concentrate only on what can be.