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The Gospel According to John
Bil Gilbert
December 01, 1980
Georgetown basketball was white and wan before John Thompson came in to recruit blacks and to preach discipline and education
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December 01, 1980

The Gospel According To John

Georgetown basketball was white and wan before John Thompson came in to recruit blacks and to preach discipline and education

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At almost any given time, a surprising number of colleges that consider themselves intercollegiate sporting powers are engaged in an exercise known as "turning the program around." Either a team hasn't been winning or it hasn't been winning as often as the college authorities feel is necessary and good. Standards may vary, but a turned-around program generally is one that produces teams that are listed in the Top 20, get on national TV, are invited to postseason bowls and tournaments and have athletes who make All-America and become high pro draft picks.

Getting turned around is easy to propose, difficult to achieve. Some schools try outright cheating. Others don't cheat but do go for all-out, high-pressure recruiting. And some simply drop the entire problem into the lap of a special individual—an Al McGuire at Marquette, a Lefty Driesell, when he was at Davidson—and depend on his talent and genius to work a miracle. By intimidation, persuasion, wit, affection or psychic powers, such a man attracts top athletes and then elevates them to heights of confidence and performance, year after year.

A vivid example of this approach is currently on exhibition at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where in recent years the basketball program has achieved a seemingly miraculous turnaround. The miracle worker is named John Thompson, and what he has done can be impressively documented. For 25 seasons, from 1947-48 to 1971-72, Georgetown was a basketball mediocrity, winning 296 games, losing 302. It never made the NCAA championship tournament. It made the NIT only twice, and both times was eliminated in the first round.

During the past eight seasons, however, Georgetown has been in six postseason tournaments (NCAA four times, NIT twice) and has been one of the winningest college basketball teams in the country (156 victories, 72 defeats: a .684 percentage). Last year it was ranked 11th in the nation and advanced to the finals of the NCAA East Region tournament, in which it lost by a single point to NCAA semi-finalist Iowa in what many observers regarded as an upset. Furthermore, Georgetown was on national TV last season, and two of its seniors were among the first 30 players drafted by the NBA.

Now that's a turnaround, and at Georgetown, credit for it goes almost entirely to Thompson, along with praise for his acuteness, creativity, dedication and all-round goodness. There are prayers, too, asking that this miracle worker resist the enticements of bigger basketball schools and remain at Georgetown.

Inevitably, a few detractors say, yes, Thompson has turned Georgetown basketball around, but it's something anybody could have done—if he happened to be a 6'10", 300-pound black man who grew up in the basketball-rich District of Columbia, became a high school legend, a college star, a Boston Celtic and then came back to devote himself to good urban works in Washington. With the advantage of hindsight, it does appear that, bad as it was, there were elements in the Georgetown basketball situation that made it ripe for being turned around by someone like Thompson. Perhaps the only miracle is that, given their disparate backgrounds, he and Georgetown found each other.

Founded by the Society of Jesus in 1789, Georgetown is the oldest Catholic university in the United States. Partly because of its location near the seat of federal power, it has always been a politically sophisticated institution. Its departments of law, government, international affairs, language and economics have long been among the most prestigious in the nation. Georgetown has always had a healthy sense of its own importance.

This, in turn, has had a considerable effect on Georgetown athletics. On the one hand, Georgetown was a parochial school and had a ferocious desire to win games, perhaps as a way of cocking a snook at the WASPs. On the other, it admired the gentleman-sport tradition of the Ivies, the concept that young gentlemen without a lot of undignified training could dash out on the field and whale the tar out of their opponents for the greater glory of the dear old blue-and-gray.

In the 1920s and '30s, Georgetown was a genuine collegiate athletic power, especially in football. After World War II bigtime football became too expensive and too demanding, and the university abandoned the sport in 1950, a blow to pride from which many old Hoyas have never fully recovered. It was later revived but only as a low-key, Division III activity. Track fell off a bit and baseball declined, and eventually Georgetown's athletic ego depended largely on how well the basketball team did.

Usually, it did badly. Occasionally, Georgetown would pull off a glorious upset, but these triumphs were too infrequent to compensate for all the defeats. Usually, the teams were a bit too slow, a bit too small and, to get to the heart of the matter, much too white.

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