Coaching legacy: The John Thompsons

The Hoyas' current coach, John Thompson III, is out of his father's legendary shadow. ESPN.com Illustration

John Thompson will never be John Thompson. Clarification: John Thompson III, the wonderful coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, will never be John Thompson Jr., the wonderful former Hoyas coach.

And that's just fine.

It's fine because JT3 doesn't have to be JT2, just as Sasha and Malia don't have to become president.

Trailblazers -- especially those who break barriers with bulldozers and bullhorns -- do what they must do so those who follow don't have to. They take risks. They make lots of noise. They rage against authority so those who follow them can walk whatever path they choose.

JT2 did all of the above. He was a sledgehammer the likes of which sports has not seen since he retired from coaching 11 seasons ago. He fought injustice and unfairness, as he saw it, and defied you to question his path, his motives or his methods, all with a white towel slung over his shoulder, prowling the sideline as one of the most commanding figures in college basketball history.

And as one of the best coaches ever.

With a relentless playing style based on a smothering, intimidating defense, JT2 won nearly 600 games, losing but 239, in 26-plus seasons at Georgetown. He won six Big East tournaments and five regular-season conference titles. He reached the Final Four three times and, of course, won the 1984 national title. He hugged Patrick Ewing.

He also created a "bunker" mode around his team, which fought racial stereotypes as "angry black men" during the height of their success. He spoke out for student-athletes, famously walking out before a game in 1989 to protest the NCAA's vote to deny scholarships to freshmen who failed to qualify academically under controversial Proposition 42. He faced down a D.C.-area drug dealer who had dared befriend some of his players.

JT2's legacy cast a shadow befitting his indomitable 6-foot-10 frame, one that easily could have been an overwhelming beast for JT3, for whom the Georgetown campus was the playground of his youth. What he watched Dad accomplish could have been a nasty, snarling animal that grabbed his leg and never let go.

But JT3 never felt threatened by that beast. Never.

"I am John Thompson's son," he said at the news conference announcing his hiring at Georgetown. "I have been John Thompson's son for 38 years. I'm pretty comfortable being John Thompson's son. The pressure that comes along with that -- no one's going to put more pressure on me than myself."

Perhaps so. But has any college hoops legend's son gone on to surpass his father?

Some went bust. At Oklahoma State, Sean Sutton succeeded his father/icon, Eddie Sutton, in 2006 but was pressured to resign two years later after going 39-29. (Last week, the younger Sutton pleaded not guilty to four felony drug charges related to painkillers.)

Others did well but not well enough. Remember Joey Meyer? He took over his legendary father's seat on the DePaul bench after Ray Meyer had won 724 games and led the team to 37 winning seasons and 21 postseason berths between 1942 and 1984. Joey led DePaul to the postseason in each of his 13 seasons (1984-85 to 1996-97), including 10 trips to the NCAA tournament. But his 231-158 record wasn't good enough. Joey is now coaching the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the NBA Development League.


It probably didn't hurt that JT3 didn't directly follow Dad. That sacrificial lamb was Craig Esherick, who began as a graduate assistant under JT2 in 1984 and eventually succeeded him in 1999. In his first season, Esherick went 15-15 and lost to Princeton in the first round of the NIT. On the Tigers' bench as an assistant coach: JT3.

The son has walked his own path, comfortably it seems. And that's fine.

Like his father, he is, first and foremost, a marvelous coach. Yet his scheme is more PC than JT2. In fact, it's a bit of a soufflé, combining JT2's defensive passion with an offensive ballet learned under the tutelage of Princeton legend Pete Carril, his coach as a player and his boss when he was an assistant.

JT3 requires players to think and react to the movement around them, not simply run plays. It's brainy ball. It confounds opponents and, alas, often even his own players. He calls it "a little bit of Pops, and maybe a little bit of [Carril]."

JT3 is now in his sixth season strolling the same sideline his dad all but owned, and he has enjoyed his own success. He has won three Big East titles and reached the Final Four in '07.

This year's Hoyas have been a flip-flop bunch (perfect for their locale amid the winds that blow from Capitol Hill). They're 18-7 and ranked 13th in the ESPN/USA Today poll heading into Tuesday's game against Louisville (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). They have big wins (Duke, Villanova and Pitt) and "what the heck?!" losses (Old Dominion, South Florida, Rutgers).

Through it all, JT3 remains comfortable within the shadow. He has tamed the beast that could have overwhelmed him. And he has done so without being JT2, which is just fine.

He has even used the legacy to attract the kind of national talent that allowed the Hoyas to rise to prominence in the first place. Sophomore center Greg Monroe, 6-10, the top recruit in the nation in '08, chose Georgetown largely because of JT3, his system and the legacy.

"They have a very good coaching staff. [JT3] is a very smart coach," Monroe told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Their style of play and style of offense would probably be a very good fit for me. Nobody is confined to the post. You can touch the ball inside and at the top of the key and on the wing. That's appealing to me."

JT3 doesn't have to be JT2.

Clearly, JT3 is just fine.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.