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Will JT3 Get Fired If Georgetown Has Another Losing Season?

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History says probably not, but maybe he should.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Georgetown's early-season swoon swiftly and dramatically readjusted expectations for this season. The fanbase initially thought that the Hoyas might be an overlooked, talented, fun bunch who would prove themselves against a high-profile early schedule. Instead, they're looking a lot like the team that finished last season under .500.

The numbers back that assessment up. Even after a three-game home winning streak with competition no stiffer than Elon, Ken Pomeroy's projections rate Georgetown 61st nationally with an expected finish of 15-16, which is about on par with last season's disaster (62nd, 15-18).

So what should happen to coach John Thompson III if Georgetown were to have another losing season? There's certainly a Fire JT3 camp, one that is adding members as you read this. There also remains a contingent of fans who acknowledge the problems but nevertheless believe that retaining JT3 is the right decision.

Each side has its arguments, but one that I've seen in support of both positions is what other, comparable schools who had Thompson would do, given this turn of events. According to the argument, other schools faced with a strong early record followed by this downturn would either fire him or retain him, depending on which route the person would like Georgetown to take. So I dove into Pomeroy's database to look for some comparable situations to Georgetown's.

Background

At the risk of boring you to tears, here's how I conducted my search. First, as mentioned, I looked for coaches who had consecutive losing seasons. That's a generous standard for whether to retain a coach. Coaches get fired all the time for seasons that are over .500 but nevertheless below expectations. Tubby Smith went 44-28 in his final two seasons at Minnesota before being exiled to Lubbock, Texas. I could have looked for different boundaries, such as coaches who miss the tournament three times in four years, which seems more probable than not for JT3 at this point, but above or below .500 is frankly easiest.

Second, I considered only coaches who had completed at least four seasons with a school before they had their first of two losing seasons. This was important for two reasons. For one, Thompson has been with the Hoyas for far longer than that threshold, and there clearly has been a mutual commitment between the school and the coach. His best comparators are veteran coaches tied to a particular school, and those long-term ties matter when considering whether to fire someone. Second, starting with a coach's fifth season with a particular team excludes both coaches who lose early while turning around struggling programs (Handsome Jay Wright went just .500 combined in years 2 and 3 at Villanova) and also those that fail to turn around those programs and are fired before their first contract is even up (e.g., the last 3 coaches at Rutgers).

Third, I limited my search to coaches in major conferences: the Big East (anyone that was in the conference in 2013, plus the new members) plus the Big Ten, ACC, Pac 12, Big XII, and SEC. I figured that this would be a rough proxy for what constitutes a good basketball program. Only considering major conference programs does exclude some successful mid-majors that Georgetown may consider a peer, but those programs, like Gonzaga, BYU, and San Diego State, are successful precisely because they haven't undergone swoons like the Hoyas' current one. This boundary also includes the perennial cellar-dwellers like Rutgers, but those teams generally haven't kept coaches around for five-plus years.

Fourth, I only considered the last 15 years, which is as far back as Pomeroy's eminently searchable database goes.

(Fifth, I didn't consider seasons that are losing because of NCAA sanctions. So, Syracuse and Boeheim don't count, although they're losers in a far more important sense.)

In all, I found 9 coaches that fit this profile, plus 2 more that merit discussion here despite narrowly missing out on the criteria outlined above. Those coaches fall into four tiers.

Tier 4: Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Coach School Tenure Losing yrs. Record Later record Later achievements Result
Neil Dougherty TCU 4 yrs '07 & '08 27-33 0-0 -- Fired after '08
Stan Heath S. Fla. 5 yrs '13 & '14 24-39 0-0 -- Fired after '14
Dave Odom So. Car. 5 yrs '07 & '08 28-34 0-0 -- Retired after '08
Al Skinner BC 6 yrs '08 & '10 29-33 22-12 (interim yr) 1 NCAA Tournament, Round of 64 Fired after 2010
Quin Snyder Missouri 5 yrs '05 & '06 28-33 0-0 -- Resigned during '06

These five of the eleven coaches were gone after second losing season. Four had tenuous holds on their positions. Dougherty never made the tournament, while Odom and Heath went just once, with South Florida's surprise 2012 Sweet Sixteen run as the highlight of that trio. Snyder was much more successful at Missouri, but allegations of NCAA violations plagued the end of his tenure there. We'll discuss Skinner, who had 2 losing seasons out of 3, more in a moment.

Tier 3: It's a tough job, but enough's enough.

Coach School Tenure Losing yrs. Record Later record Later achievements Result
Bill Carmody Northwestern 4 yrs '06 & '07 27-33 97-97 -- Fired after '13
Herb Sendek Ariz. St. 4 yrs '11 & '12 22-40 61-41 1 NCAA Tournament, Round of 64 Fired after '15

Sendek and Carmody fall into their own, Princeton-inspired, category. Both took over programs that historically hadn't done much, and were given extra time to succeed. Neither really did, although Sendek got canned after actually making the NCAA Tournament.

Tier 2: Thanks for the memories, but it's time for a change.

Coach School Tenure Losing Yrs Record Later Record Later Achievements Result
Paul Hewitt Georgia Tech 6 yrs '08 & '09 27-36 36-31 1 NCAA Tournament, Round of 32 Fired after '11
Kevin Stallings Vanderbilt 11 yrs '13 & '14 31-33 40-28 1 NCAA Tournament, Round of 64 Left for Pitt after '16

Another category of coaches had early tournament success before falling on hard times. Stallings (6 tournaments in 9 years, 2 Sweet Sixteens) and Hewitt (1 title game, 3 tournaments in 4 seasons) both had impressive runs that they couldn't continue as the years wore on, despite continuing to recruit NBA-level talent. Even though he got canned immediately after his second losing season, Skinner (7 tournaments in 9 seasons, including 1 Sweet Sixteen) racked up accomplishments that fit him better in this tier. Memories of better days bought Hewitt and Stallings some extra time, but each of them missed an NCAA Tournament again shortly after their swoons, and soon were gone. (Note: Stallings technically left Vandy for the job at Pitt without being fired, but at the time of his departure his contract hadn't been renewed.)

Tier 1: You're one of us, and we'll stick with you through (brief) downtimes.

Coach School Tenure Losing Yrs Record Later Record Later Achievements Result
Bob Huggins West Virginia 5 yrs '13 & '14 30-35 51-19 2 NCAA Tournaments, 1 Sweet 16 --
Matt Painter Purdue 7 yrs '13 & '14 31-35 47-22 2 NCAA Tournaments, Round of 64 --

That leaves Matt Painter and Bob Huggins as the coaches who kept their jobs through two (but only two) tough seasons and found success on the other side (at least so far). Painter was a former Purdue guard who had a very successful initial run after taking over for the legendary Gene Keady. After one transition season, Painter appeared in 6 straight NCAA tournaments, including 6 second-round appearances and 2 Sweet Sixteens. He also bounced back effectively from his losing seasons: Purdue has made the last two NCAA Tournaments and has a top-20 ranking this season. With Painter appearing to have righted the ship, that two-year slump looks more and more like a small gap in recruiting than a systemic problem.

Huggins also is a favorite son, having starred at West Virginia before returning to Morgantown to take over in 2007. He made the dance in each of his first five seasons, including a Sweet Sixteen and a 2010 Final Four run. His two-year swoon coincided with a league change that saw West Virginia, for the first time, regularly traveling to Texas and Oklahoma. Huggins also made a tactical change during this time, unleashing his always-aggressive teams to hunt steals in an all-out, full-court press. Like Painter, Huggins emerged from his second season successfully, going on to make consecutive NCAA Tournaments, including one Sweet Sixteen, and a current top-25 ranking. (Note: Like Skinner, Huggins narrowly missed out on the criteria outlined above because his second bad season was 17-16, one game above .500.)

So what does it mean for Georgetown?

I would say that it's fairly unlikely that Georgetown will fire JT3 after this season. Aside from the historical record outlined above, Thompson has had a number of achievements at Georgetown, has close ties to the school, and probably will be given at least one more season to try to turn things around. That general feeling is underscored by the record above. JT3 has accomplished far more than the Tier 1 coaches who got the immediate boot and, for that matter, the Tier 2 coaches who got more time. He had some real success in his first nine years on the job. And there are some reasons for optimism or at least patience, even now. The Thompson Center, the arrival of Tremont Waters, a stylistic change that, admittedly, may take time to work out.

The Cyncial View

Skeptics would respond that JT3's historical record puts him in Tier 2--coaches who did well initially, sometimes for a while, but ultimately couldn't keep things going. Thompson hasn't had two bad seasons, the criteria for this list. Rather, he's had three in four years and spent the fourth season almost entirely unranked, suggesting a deeper problem. If JT3 is like Skinner, Stallings, and Hewitt, the track records of those coaches suggest that it might be time for Georgetown to move on. Hell, even Craig Esherick didn't suffer two consecutive losing seasons at Georgetown before getting canned.

The Delusional View

Optimists would put JT3 in Tier 1. He has a nearly identical record to Painter, has achieved as much or more in the post-season, albeit with less consistency, and has the long-term ties to the school. Both schools benefit from long-term ties to their coaches (as do the coaches, of course). Just like Painter suffered a dip in performance during a dip in recruiting, JT3 may bounce back next year once he has a true point guard on campus. Both Purdue and Georgetown are historically strong programs that fall outside the blue-blood category but nevertheless have name recognition, history, and other advantages over many of their peers. Given time and those institutional advantages, Thompson will have Georgetown back in its rightful place in the basketball hierarchy.

***

All of this is tremendously complicated. Real-life circumstances, such as changes in athletic directors, the length of contracts, and the size of buyouts, often play a far larger role in these decisions than a simple win-loss record. In the case of Georgetown, the unique relationship Thompson and his family have to Georgetown is a particular real-life circumstance that will make any coaching change more difficult.

On the merits, JT3 certainly compares favorably to the coaches who got the immediate axe, and has achieved more than most coaches on this list. Perhaps he has bought himself time beyond this season. However, it's worth noting the names that aren't on this list--obviously Coach K, Calipari, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Jay Wright, John Beilein, Sean Miller, Chris Mack, and many of the other coaches JT3, by paycheck anyway, would consider his peers. Only a couple of truly high-level coaches have really struggled and both of them immediately bounced back.  Thompson's struggles, including the '13-'14 season, are longer-ranging than those of Painter and Huggins were, and his significant achievements are in the more distant past, suggesting that a recovery may be harder and longer than for Purdue and West Virginia. And history, in whatever small sample size it comes, suggests that anything less than a full recovery won't be a recovery at all.