November 22, 2000
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
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
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
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
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."
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.