The last time John Thompson stepped away from a prominent Washington job, he did so during a surprise announcement in a Georgetown University gymnasium filled with national media members and NBA all-stars. It sparked headlines and news reports across the country.
Thirteen years after that stunning midseason resignation from the coaching job that made him famous, Thompson wrapped up his second career just after 4 on Wednesday afternoon in a cozy Rockville radio studio. His final interview subject was one of his grandchildren — “If you love people, tell them, don’t keep it a damn mystery,” Thompson told her — before he drank champagne, posed for photos with his longtime ESPN 980 co-workers, and soaked in their applause.
“One last time before I walk out the door,” Thompson, 70, rumbled in his authoritative baritone, before turning to his longtime co-hosts.
“Shut the [bleep] up,” he told them.
This was the Thompson Washingtonians met over the last 13 years, as his one-month assignment to talk about college basketball during the 1999 NCAA men’s tournament morphed into one of the longest on-air sports-radio careers this city has seen.
When he left Georgetown — having coached a once-obscure men’s basketball program to 20 NCAA tournament appearances, three title game appearances and a national championship — Thompson was often described as combative and controversial, a “bluff, outspoken, sometimes difficult man” as this paper described him in a staff editorial. Critics wondered whether racial issues — or profanity — would inject tension into his on-air appearances, while Thompson was such a radio novice that he talked right through scheduled commercial breaks.
As his show wound down on Wednesday, Thompson was singing Bob Marley songs in an absurd Jamaican accent, turning multiple discussions into openings for racial humor, dropping dozens of curse words between segments, and looking thoroughly at ease.
“I’m calling to tell you how much I love you, and I wish you nothing but the best, Coach,” CBS sportscaster and native Washingtonian James Brown said early in the show. “James, I appreciate you calling, but we have to make some money right now,” Thompson later said, cutting off the interview to go to a commercial.
Thompson — the first black coach to win an NCAA men’s basketball championship — and his Hoyas were cultural icons in the ’80s, beloved by many across urban black America and targeted by critics of Thompson’s political stances. He famously launched an on-court protest against the NCAA’s Proposition 42, which limited the criteria for offering athletic scholarships, and dealt with racial taunts in visiting arenas.
WTEM’s then-sports director, Andy Pollin, recommended the station use Thompson on the air just months after his resignation from Georgetown, despite a reputation for being combative with members of the media. Pollin thought Thompson might call in a couple of times a week; instead, the coach introduced a different side of himself, posing as “Joe the Fan,” leveraging his enormous Rolodex and outlasting hundreds of career radio employees.
While Thompson’s show continued to attract younger listeners, it sometimes felt like a window back to his Georgetown days, from the music (Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, George Strait and Alan Jackson) to the guests, who occasionally hailed from Thompson’s age group. Thompson said he wanted his show to capture the feel of the barbershop, “and I loved it for that, and I think a lot of people loved it for that,” said Clay Goldsborough, a 42-year-old native of the area who frequently called into Thompson’s show.
“He was one of my childhood idols, but what I know about life is that our heroes often let us down, and coach didn’t do that,” he said. “He was who he appeared to be, but maybe a nicer version of who he appeared to be.”
Indeed, his second act featured playful banter and frequent laughs, along with entry-level questions about sports outside his expertise.
And along the way, Thompson brought in a caliber of guest rarely seen on local sports shows, from tennis star John McEnroe to basketball legend Bill Russell; from coaching icons Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski to the commissioners of the NFL and the NBA.
Bill Cosby and Spike Lee called in. Michael Jordan gave Thompson his only interview the day he joined the Wizards’ front office. LeBron James went on Thompson’s show while still in high school. Tiger Woods once appeared on Thompson’s program with both his parents.
“We didn’t have to have a guest list,” former co-host Brian Mitchell said, discussing trips to the Super Bowl with Thompson. “They look over, they see Coach, they sit down.”
A few months after Thompson joined the station, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was in the news after helping negotiate the release of three U.S. Army soldiers in the former Yugoslavia.
“I remember you very casually mentioning in your office, that [bleep] owes me,” longtime on-air partner Al Koken told Thompson during Wednesday’s finale. “And I’m thinking, what? And sure enough, there’s the number.”
Jackson was on the program then and several other times, and what was once imagined as an hour-long “Timeout With Thompson” became a full-fledged show. Thompson hardly imagined he would spend more than a decade in an industry he called “as dirty and as ruthless as any business I’ve ever been in,” and early on his name would pop up in connection with NBA coaching and front-office openings.
“This is work; basketball is what I do,” he told The Washington Post not long after joining the radio station.
But while he remained a fixture at Georgetown games after his son, John Thompson III, took over the team in 2004, he never re-entered the coaching profession. And so a man whose towering 6-foot-10 frame and occasional scowl once inspired fear became seen as kinder, gentler, more approachable.
“Really, I don’t care how people remember me,” Thompson said Wednesday, just before leaving the station. “Before, it was just a snippet of me that [Washingtonians] were exposed to. I’ve exposed more of myself. I can’t control how people interpret that, but I was just trying to be me. I love the people in this town. They have more than a soundbite, now. How they interpret that is up to them.”
Thompson has frequently joked that he doesn’t believe in retirement, but he said again Wednesday he doesn’t know what he will do next. He reacted with mock outrage when his coaching son offered to take over the late-afternoon time slot — “hey, the seat’s not even cold yet!” the elder Thompson said — and will continue to make both local and national media appearances.
His unexpected second career as a full-time local radio host, though, ended with thanks and hugs on a rainy afternoon.
“It didn’t matter what John did or what he does” next, said Rick “Doc” Walker, one of Thompson’s original co-hosts. “He’s bigger than every arena he gets in. That’s Coach. He could do it just by being John.”