John Thompson, the first Black basketball coach to win an NCAA national championship, died Sunday night. He was 78. Thompson coached Georgetown for 27 years, leading the Hoyas to a national title in 1984. He went 596-239 in his career, reached three Final Fours (1982, 1984, 1985), won seven Big East tournament championships, and was a three-time national Coach of the Year.
He will be missed by many, including his contemporaries.
“John was a bigger-than-life figure,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said on Tiki & Tierney. “We talk about legendary coaches, but he was in a class by himself. He set a standard for all young coaches – not Black young coaches, all coaches. He was a great basketball coach. His teams played as tough defensively as any teams I’ve ever coached against. But he was a role model for all of us. He inspired African American kids to be better, to be the best they could be, and he shaped a lot of lives.”
Seventy-five of Thompson’s 77 players who stayed in school all four years received degrees. Twenty-six of his players were drafted in the NBA, including Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutumbo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson – all Hall of Famers.
“He was concerned about the student-athlete, not just the athlete,” Boeheim said. “You had to study, you had to do your work if you played for John Thompson. There’s very few bigger-than-life figures and there’s very few figures that are unique; John Thompson was unique and a bigger-than-life figure.”
Boeheim, who has coached at Syracuse since 1976, certainly had epic battles with Thompson back in the day.
“I’ve always said sports fans go to watch the games; they usually don’t go to watch coaches,” Boeheim said. “But trust me, fans went to see John Thompson coach – mostly to boo at him and yell at him, but he liked that. He knew when he came to Syracuse, there’d be 32,000 people screaming at him, and he loved that. He really wanted to be in that moment. But he was a great coach. He was a guy that took things seriously if something wasn’t right.”
Thompson, for example, opposed Proposition 48, which required minimum standardized test scores for student-athletes.
“He walked down and said, ‘That’s not right. It’s a completely racial thing. Ninety percent of the kids affected by this are young African American kids that don’t take the SAT scores well,’” Boeheim said. “And of course we know today some of the great schools in the country don’t even require SAT scores. But he was not afraid to stand up and walk out. If he was here today, he would be walking out. He would be leading the way on things we need to do to help this country.”