To the extent that there is a secret to Thompson's success, it's one of the purloined-letter sort. It's right there in the open. He says he is firmly convinced that basketball, or at least his kind of basketball, is best played by genuine student-athletes—the sort that elsewhere are more often met in NCAA promo spots on TV than on courts or playing fields. Thompson says this increasingly iconoclastic theory is the key to his recruiting and coaching and, as much as anything else, is the reason for the miraculous Georgetown turnaround.
"I'm not talking about ethics or altruism or any of that," Thompson says. "It seems very pragmatic to me. Obviously, I don't want dummies. I don't think they can learn my system, and they probably aren't going to stay in school long enough to be much help. Also, you spend a lot of time with these kids, and I don't like hanging around with dummies and bums. But it goes beyond that. Practicing basketball is like studying. You don't do it for fun, or at least most people don't. You do it because you're trying to achieve some long-range goal. That's particularly true with my kind of basketball. I don't go in for individual heroes. Everything is directed toward creating a team and winning as a team. A kid who'll work at being a student is going to adjust to this system better than the other kind will. He'll have some habits I need. He's more likely to listen and understand. He's had some experience at doing things he doesn't much like doing. He'll have a sense of what delayed gratification means. I can coach a kid who has decided it is possible to learn things.
"There's another consideration, which I think is crucial. The only thing I or any other coach really has to offer a player in exchange for his services is an education. Maybe at first we can snow him about playing a big schedule, being on TV, living in Washington, but that's just stroking. After he's here, he's going to find out that the only thing he's getting is that education and all the work that goes with it. If he doesn't care about that, if what he's getting doesn't mean anything to him, he's going to decide, at least subconsciously, that he's made a bad bargain—and he has. You won't get the work out of him, and you won't have control over him. You probably won't have him long. The only kids I want are the ones who think getting a Georgetown education is very important, more important than basketball. I've got some leverage with them.
"Let me tell you a story. We won our first NCAA bid in 1975 by beating West Virginia by one point in a playoff at Morgantown. One of our guards, Derrick Jackson, hit a jumper with no time left. It was a very big victory for us—Georgetown hadn't been to the NCAAs for 30 years or so. They were all yelling and whooping it up when I came into the locker room. I told them to be quiet. I wanted to tell them something. I said it was a great win, mostly for me, that I was going to get a lot of publicity; maybe I'd get a raise, even a better job offer. Then I said, 'What are you guys getting out of it?' and I walked out. I didn't want them ever to forget the bargain they'd made, the real reason they were at Georgetown."
At least one who was there that night, Steve Martin, has thought a lot about the student-athlete bargain. In the time he can spare from his accounting work, Martin does some coaching in the Washington summer leagues and is sought out by young players for advice on college choices. Beyond telling them loyally that he thinks Georgetown has the best program in the country, Martin says he warns them that wherever they go, "look out for the cheaters. I tell them that if the man comes around talking about a little extra, maybe helping them get a nice car or a nice place to live, they should walk away because he has just told them he is a cheater. It may sound right then like he is cheating for them, but if he does that he will cheat against them, too. If they go to his school he's the kind that's going to put them in a P.E. class, tell them they haven't got time for the hard stuff, that he doesn't want them to think about anything but basketball. He'll cheat them out of their education, which is the only important thing they're being paid. That nice car will be junk before their four years are over."
"People ask me," says Thompson, "if it isn't a problem getting kids and keeping them in a tough academic place like Georgetown. Hell, that's the best thing I've got going for me. When I go to a kid, I can say, without lying, that I can make them a real bargain. In exchange for all the basketball talent they've got, I'll give them about the best education there is. I want the ones who know that that's a good deal."
As a practical matter, it isn't Thompson but an unusual woman named Mary Fenlon who sees to it on a day-to-day basis that Georgetown recruits get their end of the bargain, i.e., their education. Fenlon met Thompson when she was a teacher at St. Anthony's High. She later worked with him in the District 4-H program and followed along to Georgetown as a full-time staff member. Employing Fenlon as academic coordinator was, Thompson thinks, his single most important move as a turnaround coach.
"She's the conscience of this program," says Thompson. "When we began, I told her that if she saw me trying to cut corners, not being straight with the kids, turning into an egomaniac, her job was to tell me quick and straight. Sometimes I wish to God I'd never told her that."
Fenlon keeps very close tabs on the basketball players, counseling them on course selections, helping with their classroom problems, arranging for tutors. On Fridays, each player is required to sign "Mary's book." It is a ledger in which the players mark down whether they missed any classes that week, record marks received on tests or papers and make a short statement on how they think they're doing in each class.
"Freshmen sometimes try to fudge a little in the beginning," Fenlon says, "but if a boy keeps writing in the book that he's getting a B and ends up with a D, it's pretty obvious what has happened. He and I talk about it. If it remains a problem, I tell John. He scares them."