I once met a Georgetown University basketball coach who was about 7 feet tall, had played in the NBA, spoke bluntly, told colorful stories and cussed a bit. He had stern principles and an intimidating stare, liked to schedule weak foes for easy wins, wouldn’t play local rival Maryland, demanded hard-nosed players who craved an NBA career and, in meetings, demanded that everybody cut out the social media junk and “put all your darn phones in this basket.”
No, not Hall of Fame coach John Thompson Jr.
I mean new Hoyas Coach Patrick Ewing — earlier this week.
In discussions of Ewing’s arrival to coach the Hoyas, one point is often missed. If you searched the globe, you could not find anyone who resembles Big John in appearance, work ethic, coaching philosophy and blood, sweat and tears commitment to Georgetown more than Pat Ewing.
Ewing is not Big John. There are plenty of differences. But in a basketball sense, Ewing is more similar to Thompson than John’s own fine son John Thompson III, who was fired last spring after 13 seasons in his dad’s old job.
In the four months since Ewing was hired, many people have wished him luck on the Hilltop. But many of the same people also seem to believe he will fail.
Ewing has never been a head coach at any level, much less college, where you are supposedly naked when you go after top recruits if you don’t know every shark in the AAU tank. Ewing was an assistant coach in the NBA for 13 years, just a couple of seasons short of “eternity.” Yet at 55, he had not been offered a top job.
As additional handicaps, Ewing is considered honest and unlikely to cheat to get players; he’s too demanding to countenance slackers and too old-fashioned to do the “I’m hip” backflips of some coaches. “I’m not a social media guy,” he says.
Although he does carry three phones in separate pockets, answers calls on them regularly and appears to have one exclusively for “my players.”
Worse, to some, Ewing is perfectly open that Big John was the force behind him considering the Hoyas’ job. The 75-year-old Thompson didn’t just endorse him. He recruited Ewing — again.
“When Coach Thompson called, I had to think about it,” Ewing said during a lunch Thursday at The Washington Post. Thompson suggested Ewing put himself up for the Georgetown job, and Ewing had some hesitation.
“How long have you been an NBA assistant? They haven’t given you an opportunity up there,” Thompson said, according to Ewing. “Why not here?’ ”
“He was right. . . . Why not try?” Ewing said. “This is the only place I would have done this — my alma mater.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Ewing noted that Big John’s influence at Georgetown remains substantial and shows no sign of changing.
“I’ve been working at this craft [of coaching] for a lot of years. It’s not like I just stopped playing [in the NBA]. . . . I’m my own person. It’s my program,” Ewing said. But if he feels like phoning Thompson or sometimes just walking down the hall of the $62 million Thompson Center — why wouldn’t he?
“I’ll never let anyone come between [us],” said Ewing, who contributed $3.3 million (his number was 33) toward the building.
Some wonder whether Ewing can connect with 16- and 17-year-olds, their parents, their AAU coaches or shadow reps. Some are concerned that none of his assistant coaches are under 40 or that his entire experience since 1985 is the NBA. They wonder how he will withstand constant scrutiny as an NBA Hall of Famer returning to coach his old school.
These doubters don’t give Ewing any pause. “You know who I am?” he says, bemused, when asked about being put under a microscope and picked apart. “That’s been every day of my life. . . . Now, as a head coach, I’m the CEO of the program, every move I make criticized.”
Ewing chuckles, thinking back to his 15 seasons with the New York Knicks. “To play in New York City, to be a star in New York . . . you need tough skin. I know D.C. very well. But I don’t think it’ll be New York.
“I don’t even think about failure,” Ewing said, going on a voluntary riff that may show the true depths of his drive in the Georgetown job. “I think people [at Georgetown] are more afraid of me succeeding — do well and go back to the NBA.
“ ‘Damn, Patrick can really coach,’ ” Ewing said, imitating an NBA exec.
Ewing, who earned $118 million in the NBA just in salary — not counting endorsement deals — isn’t coaching for the scratch.
Rather, he is coaching to scratch an itch — to teach. Anybody might be an NBA assistant for a few years to land a head job. Nobody in their right mind does it for 13 years unless they love instructing, seeing improvement and analyzing film.
“Coaching is something I never thought I’d do. . . . But Michael Jordan talked me into trying it [with the Wizards], and I got hooked. . . . I love it,” Ewing said. “You do miss playing. But teaching others and watching them do it right is just like playing — except you’re not out there.”
Ewing, like Big John, has sore subjects he doesn’t even bother to hide. Annoy him and you give him fuel. “They always say I’m a ‘big man’s coach.’ . . . As if I can’t coach guards,” he says incredulously.
Ewing will have no trouble lining up early-season victims such as St. Leo’s in ancient days. They will line up to lose for a payday and exposure. But it’s not the 1970s anymore; current RPI rankings will not reward the Hoyas for such wins when NCAA tournament bids go out. Ewing’s bigger issue will be recruiting to a generation that was born just when the Hall of Famer retired.
“Everybody tells me recruiting will be tough. I don’t see it as that tough,” Ewing said. “It’s like trying to date a beautiful woman. You may get knocked out of the equation. But you hope you are the one left standing.
“We got knocked out a few times this summer,” Ewing said of his early recruiting efforts.
Unlike Big John, Ewing knows the era of four-year Hoyas players, like Ewing and so many of his peers, is long gone. Instead, he dreams of the day, probably not soon, when he can say “yes” to a one-and-done super-prospect.
“If I was in this era, one-and-done, I’m taking it. But come back and finish school,” Ewing said. “If you can get a one-and-done, it means your program is doing well.”
Last season, the Hoyas finished ninth in the 10-team Big East. Ewing won’t say the word “rebuilding,” but that’s what this is. And the odds are always against any first-time coach coming in to do such a reclamation project.
If the Georgetown tradition begun by Thompson is going to go down for the count, let it be with someone who does things a whole lot like Big John. If the hard-working Hoyas ways don’t work anymore, if the times have passed those methods and mores by, then find out once and for all. Then Georgetown can move on.
But if Hoyas basketball is to rise again, there’s no more appropriate man to lead the ascent than the person who put the Hilltop on the college basketball mountaintop 33 years ago.