November 22, 2000


Trouble Shooting
Can John Thompson III '88 live up to the legacy of his first coaching mentor - his dad?

by Matt Golden

College hoops legend John Thompson and his Georgetown University basketball teams ran roughshod over the Big East conference from 1972--1999. During Thompson's tenure, the Hoyas won a national championship, reached the finals twice more, and maintained a consistent presence near the top of college basketball's rankings. Suffocating defensive play anchored by dominant centers like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo became the hallmark of Thompson's teams. The Hall of Fame coach and his Hoyas were renowned for their intimidating style. Thompson, a towering 6 feet, 10 inches tall, wore an ever-present scowl as he patrolled the sidelines, his teams playing with a ferocity that matched their coach's menacing glare.

Now another John Thompson will be pacing the hardwood. Thompson's son, John III '88, was recently named Princeton University's head men's basketball coach after Bill Carmody resigned to accept the top job at Northwestern University. The younger Thompson was a standout player for the Tigers as an undergraduate and has been an assistant basketball coach at the university for the last five years.

Though not quite as tall or perhaps as imposing as the elder Thompson, John III is unmistakably his father's son. They have the same penetrating eyes, the same deep and commanding voice, and the same quiet confidence. But while his father is remembered as fiery, blunt, and sometimes controversial, John III carries himself in a calmer, more subdued manner. Thompson the son is unflappable. He measures his words carefully. He is not intimidating. He is precise. Thompson runs practices that are crisp and highly structured - players move seamlessly from one drill to another as their taskmaster exhorts, "Gotta go hard every day. Every pass on the money; make every layup; it all shows up in the games."

Of his new boss, Princeton assistant basketball coach Mike Brennan '94 says, "Every coach has his own way of communicating with players. Some are yellers and screamers. John's not, but he can get his point across with intensity."

There may be some obvious differences between Thompson and his father, but it is a similarity in results that Princeton basketball fans are seeking, not one of coaching style.

The schooling for young Thompson's current position began long ago, when, as a child, he witnessed firsthand his father's dedication and commitment to the craft of coaching. Thompson the son says, "The average fan would naturally remember the year that [Georgetown] won the national championship or the years that they lost in the finals, but for me, it was just the day-to-day duties of my father's job that made an impression. It doesn't end when you leave the office. You get home and there is film to be watched or there are calls to be made. It's a never-ending process."

Thompson learned well and applied a similar commitment to developing his own game as a young player, and, after a successful four years at Washington, D.C.'s Gonzaga College High School, became a sought-after recruit with several college scholarship offers. After a memorable recruiting trip to Old Nassau, he passed on the free rides and decided to attend Princeton. During that visit, Thompson recalls, he had an unusual meeting with then Princeton head coach Pete Carril. "I sat [in Jadwin Gymnasium] and coach Carril reminded me a lot of my dad. As a high school senior, you go through the whole recruiting process and everyone is telling you that you're great. But we sat there and coach Carril was telling me what I needed to work on, that I needed to get better, and that if I didn't, I was going to be a JV player. I just knew that I would learn more here from a basketball point of view."

Although Thompson enjoyed an outstanding playing career at Princeton - he ranks third all-time among Tiger players in career assists - he didn't pursue a coaching career immediately after graduation. Thompson had a successful, though brief, run in the business world, but says of his time away from basketball, "I was foolish initially. You go through a school like this, and you truly have unlimited options once you graduate. I almost felt obligated to try different things even though, in my heart, I think I always knew coaching is what I wanted to do."

It was a brief and to-the-point telephone call from Carril that convinced Thompson it was finally time to give in to his passion for basketball. According to Thompson, Carril simply asked, "Are you ready to come back and coach?" And Thompson immediately knew the answer was yes.

Thompson's father, despite his own enormously successful coaching career and his continuing passion for the game, was not so easily convinced that his son was making the right move. Knowing well the demands, sacrifices, and occasional pitfalls that come with a coaching career, the elder Thompson said upon hearing his son's decision, "You have a Princeton degree and you want to coach? You must be foolish!"

A basketball disciple of both his father and Carril, young Thompson sees a common thread in the coaching styles of his Hall-of-Fame mentors. He says, "I think they are very, very similar. Pops looked at the game from a defensive point of view, and coach Carril probably looked at the game from an offensive point of view. But I think their attention to detail was what stood out for me. My ideas are a mesh of both of theirs. Plus, you take a little from coach Carmody and [former Princeton assistant coach] Joe Scott '87, and those are the guys who have influenced how I look at the game."

Thompson the son began his coaching career humbly - he started as a volunteer assistant coach on Carril's staff, working long hours without pay. When Carril retired a year later, Carmody became the head coach and made Thompson his number-two assistant on the Princeton bench, a position he occupied until last spring. When first assistant Joe Scott landed the head job at the U.S. Air Force Academy in April, Thompson became Carmody's top assistant. To Thompson's surprise, that position was short-lived. In late August, with Carmody, Thompson, and new assistant coach Brennan readying for the coming season, star center Chris Young '02 signed a professional baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and, because of Ivy League rules regarding amateurism, forfeited his final two seasons of basketball eligibility. Less than a week later, Carmody was packing his bags for the Big Ten, and another key player, sophomore shooting guard Spencer Gloger, was rumored to be leaving via transfer to UCLA. The Princeton basketball program was in a state of panic.

Princeton director of athletics Gary Walters '67 moved quickly to remedy the situation. He handed the basketball program's reins to Thompson immediately, naming him head coach without conducting a national search. Walters said, "We in the university realized that we had an outstanding talent in our midst. Given the timing of [Carmody's] departure and the fact that we had an extraordinary talent on our staff, this decision was a no-brainer."

Knowing of Young's status and that Gloger, who withdrew from Princeton within days of Carmody's departure, was on his way out the door, the elder Thompson suggested that "no-brainer" might be applicable to his son, quipping, "Before John was considered for the job, he told me that Young was leaving to play baseball and that Gloger was probably leaving. I said the poor soul who takes that job is in for trouble. And that poor soul just happened to be my son. It makes me wonder how intelligent he is. They lost a talented big man and a very good big guard, and they open with Duke at Duke."

Thompson the son is well aware of the challenges that await, but hasn't had time to fully take stock of his new situation. The team has lost Young, Gloger, and another important player, Ray Robbins '02, who is on a leave of absence this year. Ahmed El Nokali '02 has been plagued during the preseason by a stress fracture that he suffered last spring. A daunting early-season schedule is already under way; the Ivy League season fast approaches; and there is much work to be done. Thompson says, "The way everything happened and the timing of everything didn't give me an opportunity to have much of a reaction. It was just time to start working." And as for the reaction of his basketball mentors, he says, "Pops and coach Carril were happy and nervous and cautious all at the same time."

The Tigers and their fans, once looking with anticipation to this as the season when they would reclaim the Ivy throne from the Pennsylvania Quakers, are now facing the prospect of a year laden with losses and disappointment. The schedule is a bear. The Tigers will face eight teams that earned postseason berths a year ago, including Duke, Xavier, Penn State, and Ivy nemesis Penn. But Thompson hopes to surprise the Tiger faithful, saying, "I have a sense of urgency to make sure that this year does not turn out like most people think it will. We're trying to bring this thing together on the run."

As for his goals beyond this season, Thompson says, "The pressure is to maintain the level of excellence that has been established by Princeton basketball. Princeton basketball is a part of my life, and I know the tradition of success that this program has had. There is an obligation to everyone who has been a part of the program here."

Preparing to continue that success, Thompson has surrounded himself with familiar faces. His staff includes a former high school teammate, Robert Burke, and two former Princeton players, Brennan and Howard Levy '85. Thompson feels it is important to have a coaching staff who can relate to the players and understand the unique pressures that they face as Princeton University student-athletes. He explains, "You see that pattern with a lot of the most successful programs. Georgetown has been like that. North Carolina has been like that. It's important for Princeton basketball to have some sense of family." But don't look for him to imitate his father's scowl or Carril's frustrated theatrics on the sideline. Thompson says he will be himself. "John Thompson is John Thompson. And that is who you are going to see on the sidelines. There's no plan to act one way or another."

Aside from his basketball pedigree and his longtime association with the university, Thompson's hiring is important for another reason. He is Princeton's only high-profile minority head coach. Though significant, Walters says Thompson's race was never an issue. "Only two names came immediately to mind, and those names were John Thompson and Armond Hill," says Walters. (Hill '85 is Columbia's head coach.) "It just so happens that they are both African-American; they are both alumni of Princeton; they were both outstanding players; and they are both outstanding coaches. I am fortunate as the director of athletics that we have a deep bench of former players who were inspired to go into coaching by Pete Carril."

Thompson's greatest asset for rebuilding what has become the Ivy League's signature basketball program might be his deep affinity for the university itself. His appreciation for all that Princeton represents comes through clearly when he speaks of his alma mater. That can be a powerful recruiting tool in his attempt to quickly restock the basketball cupboard. As Thompson's father says, "He and Monica [John's wife and a member of the Class of 1989] feel Princeton. That is what they are. . . . I don't know what goes on up there at Princeton, but when people go there they damn sure like it."

Princeton basketball's new head coach doesn't want to hear it, but expectations for the 2000--01 season must be tempered. The Tigers simply do not have the horses to challenge Penn. Still, though the Princeton roster has been ravaged by defections, the elder and perhaps wiser Thompson believes his son is the right man for the job. "I think that John works hard, has a feel for the place, and likes the people who are there. He has an extremely difficult job in front of him now, but he has been around there for a long time. The good thing is you have a foundation and tradition at Princeton. People believe that it can happen there."

Probably none more than John Thompson III.