A melancholy goodbye to Syracuse basketball rival John Thompson

John Thompson
Georgetown coach John Thompson (L) with President Ronald Reagan. Photo Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum/White House.

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson passed away on Sunday at his home in Arlington, Virginia, multiple news outlets reported. He was 78.

Thompson played at Providence College and appeared in two NBA seasons. He took over as coach of the Hoyas in the 1972 season, and transformed the program into a national power, winning the 1984 NCAA Championship. He would coach Georgetown until 1999, finishing with a record of 596–239 (.714).

Thompson was the first black head coach to win a major collegiate championship, and coached a variety of future NBA stars, including Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson. He was part of the development of the Big East into one of college basketball’s elite conferences, developing numerous rivalries along the way, including with Syracuse.

He is famed for stating that “Manley Field house is officially closed” after snapping Syracuse’s 57-game winning streak in the final game played at that arena. Following the news of his passing, numerous tributes poured in, including from Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim.

“We lost a great basketball coach and a great person with the passing of my friend John Thompson. He was a leader in the game and in life. John empowered all coaches but especially Black coaches and Black players,” Boeheim said. “Syracuse and Georgetown was the toughest rivalry for about 10-15 years during the early BIG EAST days. There was nothing quite like it. Many of my fondest coaching memories are from Georgetown games, coaching against John – in the Dome, at Georgetown and at MSG.”

“Juli and I want to express our condolences to John’s family and the Georgetown basketball community. John was one of a kind.”

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jimJim Stechschulte
Senior Columnist

A near literal giant at 6’10”, John Thompson cast an even longer shadow over the game of basketball. The head coach at Georgetown for 27 seasons, Thompson’s first season was his only losing one as he guided the Hoyas to 596 wins, 20 NCAA Tournament appearances, three Final Fours, and the 1984 national championship.

Noteworthy to the Syracuse fan base as an adversary, Thompson was also an advocate for his players, fighting for fair treatment for them. As Jim Boeheim noted in his remarks after Thompson’s passing, the two fierce competitors evolved into friendly contemporaries as the years passed. That is something that was a shock to fans at the time when the duo shared a laugh over a playful shove in a discussion with an official at the Carrier Dome during the mid-1990’s.

No matter how much Syracuse fans disliked Thompson during his coaching days, it is undeniable the mark he left on the Orange basketball program. No, not the rivalry sparked by a postgame comment, but the way Thompson drove Boeheim to win, subsequently driving SU’s program to even greater heights.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 631 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.