Basketball around the Beltway: Tall task ahead for a Hoyas giant

WASHINGTON — Past met present for Georgetown University when the school introduced Hoyas great Patrick Ewing as its head men’s basketball coach, with an eye toward the future. 

It happened on Wednesday in front of a room packed with media, boosters, fans, students, alumni and a pep band that did not know “Vehicle” by the Ides of March. But Ewing’s name alone was music enough to everyone’s ears at the John Thompson Jr. Athletic Center in D.C. Ewing even replicated his famous scene from when he committed to play at the Big East school in 1981, holding a Georgetown pennant above his head.

He has less hair now and has put on a little weight, but the three-time All-American can still pose for a picture.

“I’m very honored and pleased to be named head coach at Georgetown basketball,” Ewing said. “We’ve had a rich tradition led by the man in the back: Coach Thompson. His vision, his hard work, his dedication has helped to lift the program to where it has gotten. It’s my job to add on to that legacy.”

On the right-hand side after the first few rows of chairs — and conveniently near a door for his quiet exit — sat the man who brought Ewing to D.C. from Boston. John Thompson Jr. retired 18 years ago and saw his No. 1 assistant, Craig Esherick, make a Sweet Sixteen appearance before getting fired after a sub-500 season. He then witnessed his first-born son, John Thompson III, lead the program to the Final Four before getting fired after consecutive losing campaigns.

Now, Big John sees his best player take over the program and brand that he and Ewing took to an elite level over 30 years ago.

“If it was any other university, I wouldn’t be doing this,” the longtime NBA assistant coach said. “But it’s my alma mater. It’s Georgetown. I’m a Hoya. I just thought it was a great opportunity to come back and rebuild the program.”

The job is open for a reason. John Thompson III’s tenure ended with three losing seasons in its last four years, punctuated by a ninth-place Big East finish in March with a loss at home to cellar-dwelling DePaul. A highly-touted freshman class of three years ago resulted in players underachieving, transferring or both. The Hoyas lose their top two scorers from this past season: Rodney Pryor and L.J. Peak.

That means the Hall of Famer will have to rebuild on the fly for next winter.

“We’re going to look at JuCo (players), if they can get in. We’re going to look at fifth-year seniors, European…anything. Anybody that we think has the ability to be successful here,” Ewing said.

He then added, cautioning, “But I’m not going to just jump into it and bring in people in here that in two years, I’m saying, ‘Now why the hell did I bring him in here?’ I want to take my time and make sure we bring in the right people.”

It’s early April and time is not a luxury Ewing and his yet-to-be comprised staff has for the 2017-18 campaign.

Ewing’s first task is putting together that coaching staff. He’ll need assistants who can guide him along the recruiting road, as all of his experience on the bench has come in the NBA. But the Jamaican-born and Boston-educated Ewing knows where the Hoyas bread will be buttered if they’re to become successful.

“The D.C., Baltimore and Virginia area is a hotbed of great talent,” Ewing said. “That’s my job: to try to get us back to that level that these great players try to stay home.”

On this past season’s 14-player roster, just five were from the region. Great players such as Josh Hart (Villanova) as well as those who made immediate impact such as Anthony Cowan (Maryland) went elsewhere as the Hoyas’ local talent base slowly eroded over the last five years.

On the other hand, a major question Ewing will face is: Between becoming a first-time college coach or a first-time head coach, which turns out being the biggest challenge for a career NBA assistant of 15 years?

There will be adjustments on both fronts, and just as not all valued assistants become successful head coaches, pro success does not directly translate into winning at the college level. Fellow ’80s Big East icon Chris Mullin is 22-43 after two seasons with St. John’s, but the Red Storm won six more conference games this past winter and Mullin doesn’t have nearly the coaching experience Ewing possesses. Fellow Dream Teamer Clyde Drexler went straight from playing to coaching at his alma mater Houston, and two years later, he left with a 19-39 mark. Eddie Jordan, after a career as an NBA assistant and head coach, returned to Rutgers and posted a 29-68 record over four seasons with his former school. Despite the Hoyas recent dip, the program is in much better shape than the other three situations.

When the Washington Redskins had to deal with a third coaching change in four years (I’m not including interim coach Terry Robiskie for accounting purposes), they looked lost in the wilderness before bringing back Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. Despite limited success, Gibbs represented a magic bullet for the Burgundy and Gold faithful.

For anyone dissatisfied with how the John Thompson III era finished or how he was treated in the final days, Patrick Ewing is a seven-foot tall magic bullet with a vision and work ethic to bring the Hoyas back to relevance. Heaven forbid if this move doesn’t work out.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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