Today every Syracuse fan’s hatred for John Thompson and the Georgetown Hoyas morphs into respect. “Big John” hadn’t coached since 1999, but his name will always be synonymous with revolutionary success for the African-American community, the Big East and one of the greatest rivalries in the history of college basketball.
Thompson took over a sub-.500 Georgetown program in 1972. Three years later, they were in the NCAA Tournament. Four years after that, in 1979, Thompson helped birth the Big East along with Providence, Seton Hall, Boston College, Connecticut, St. Johns and Syracuse. The Red Storm, Orange and Hoyas split the regular season championship, while Georgetown took the first conference tournament. However, the rivalry predates the Big East.
On February 3, 1980, No. 2 Syracuse was hosting Georgetown in the final game at Manley Field House. The Orange had a 57-game winning streak on the line. It wasn’t enough for Thompson to snap the streak on sophomore Sleepy Floyd’s last second free throws 52-50, but just to twist the dagger he proclaimed, “Manley Field House is officially closed,” into the road public address microphone.
Syracuse watched as Georgetown won six of the first 10 Big East Tournaments. The Hoyas were 19-8 against the Orange in that stretch. For his career, he was 26-21 against SU.
The Hall of Famer landed his first big fish on the recruiting trail in 1981, catapulting the Hoyas to the national spotlight. Thompson took a Jamaican-born kid, then living in Cambridge, MA, who was only learning how to play basketball at the time, and turned him into one of the greatest to ever play the game. His name was Patrick Ewing. Ewing and Thompson went to three Final Fours together, and won the program’s sole national championship in 1984. Thompson became the first African-American head coach to win a national title in a major collegiate sport.
“I was supposed to be grateful because I one was one of the first African Americans coaching,” he told the Washington Post in 2007. “I was supposed to sit there and say, ‘Oh, thank you Mr. White Man for giving me a job.’ God made me human and equal. Now I’m supposed to be grateful because you’re treating me equal and treating me as a human being? No.”
After Ewing, more players filed into Thompson’s program that would agonize Syracuse fans for years. Then again, that was the goal. Alonzo Mourning, who chose Georgetown over Syracuse, and Dikembe Mutombo combined to be one of the best duos in college basketball history in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s. Allen Iverson took the Big East by storm in the mid-1990’s.
Iverson credits Thompson for saving his life. The Hoya legend was one of the nation’s elite high school point guards when he was convicted of “maiming by mob” in a racially charged bowling alley brawl. Iverson was sentenced to five years in jail. After the governor pardoned him, Thompson took a chance on Iverson when no other program would.
All told, Thompson spent 27 years coaching at Georgetown. He posted a career 596-239 record, a .714 winning percentage. The Providence college alumnus was twice named national coach of the year, and won Big East coach of the year honors three times.
However, he was more than just a 6’10”, 270 pound basketball savant, who’s permanent scowl was more intimidating than his accolades. Thompson proved to be the ultimate players’ coach by graduating 97% of them, and protesting Proposition 42, which kept scholarship freshmen from competing if they failed to academically qualify. Since Big John believed the tests were racially biased, he walked off the floor before a home game in 1989 to protest the rule.
Although the rivalry may have begun with disrespect in Manley Field House 40 years ago, it continued because of the esteem Syracuse had for Georgetown. To be the best you have to beat the best. Whether Syracuse fans like it or not, Thompson has a chapter in the Orange history books. For decades, he gave SU a direction, a goal, which remains today.