"I blow up," Thompson says. "I get upset and emotional, and because of my size, that sort of thing gets magnified. But I have never physically intimidated a player. There are better ways."
One way is to schedule a practice at 5:30 a.m. "You don't want many of those," says Spriggs. "The rest of us kind of make sure the new ones know the score, that around here you just do not, I mean never, challenge Mr. Thompson." The results of this close surveillance—or fussing, as Mary Fenlon calls it—have been remarkable. Since coming to Georgetown, Thompson has recruited 37 basketball players, and 35 have graduated—or (among current undergraduates) are even with their classes.
Beyond being their academic ramrod, Fenlon acts as something of a social counselor and house mother for the Georgetown players. "We're like a family, which is what John wants us to be," says Fenlon. "The public sees them as big tough men, but I see them as boys who are often scared and worried. John loves them, but in regard to basketball, he's very hard. They get mad and frustrated, and they begin to feel sorry for themselves. They need somebody they can come to for sympathy, to let off steam to, maybe even cry with, and get away from that macho image they try to keep in practice and when they're playing."
Fenlon goes to every Georgetown practice, even the 5:30 a.m. disciplinary ones. She also accompanies the team when it travels.
"John is very strict about things like haircuts, language and how they dress," she says. "The players have to wear coats and ties in public. It took the poor things four years to get John to realize there was such a thing as nice jeans. He called them overalls and had ruled them out. We finally convinced him that dress jeans were respectable.
"We travel first-class, stay in nice places, order whatever we want in dining rooms, but John always brings the boys together at the end of a trip and goes over the bills with them, shows them how much those rooms and meals and plane tickets cost. A lot of them never lived that way before—I know I didn't—and he wants them to know what it takes to go first-class. It's one of his ways of reminding them that it's important for them to get an education so that they can amount to something, be first-class on their own."
This sort of familial concern for his players has brought Thompson a lot of admiring attention, admiration that is magnified because so many of his non-basketball activities fall into the "good works" category. He serves as assistant on urban affairs to the university president and spends considerable time counseling inner-city youth groups. He was named Man of the Year in 1978 by Washingtonian magazine. Around the university there is a joke that he is the local version of St. Joe Paterno of Penn State, or that Paterno is an early, white, experimental model of St. John Thompson. Though Thompson concedes he has never suffered from false modesty, such talk makes him restless.
"There have been a lot of good things said and written about me that are undeserved," he says. "I'm not a guru, I'm not an altruist, and I'm certainly no saint. What I am is a basketball coach. I hope I haven't done things that are bad for the kids who play for me, but what I've done here, I've done for me. I've done them because I think that's what you have to do to win, and my main object is to win. I want to win because I, John Thompson, like to win. It strokes my ego, and I have a big ego. I like the attention, I like being where the heavy action is. I like money. Sometimes I think it would be better for me to get out of this area where I have this reputation and go someplace where all that's expected of me is to be just a basketball coach."
Such opportunities occurred for Thompson this past spring. After the season, he was approached by several colleges and professional organizations. The offer he considered most seriously came from the University of Oklahoma, which admired his turnaround expertise. When Thompson flew to Norman for an interview, he took Mary Fenlon along. If he accepted the Oklahoma job, he wanted her to be on his staff to perform the same function for the Sooners that she performs for the Hoyas.
"At the airport," says Fenlon, "they put us in separate cars, I suppose on purpose. The man riding with me—I didn't realize how important he was until later—asked me what it would take to get John to come there. I told him about John's feeling for Georgetown and how the academic program was truly important to his basketball program. The man was very polite. He said he could see that Georgetown had a lot to offer, but then he said, 'We have more oil wells.' "