Desperate to gain some perspective on this season, I did a bit of digging. The idea was not to build a case for or against a coaching change; it was a fact-finding mission. I needed to learn more about what went wrong with the Hoyas under Craig Esherick. Lengthy discussions about the current situation are fresh in my mind, but the details of my first exposure to Georgetown basketball long ago faded into a nebulous feeling of shame & sadness. (And besides, how clearly do you remember 2004?) It seemed important to familiarize myself with the state of affairs on the Hilltop leading up to the last coaching turnover and compare that to the current coverage. Looking at quotes & stories describing the condition of Georgetown basketball and evaluating the situation then vs. now, something jumped out at me.
If you remove the head coach’s name, the tone and message of the two eras has become nearly indistinguishable. Whether you currently believe John Thompson III is being treated with kid gloves because of his name or you reason that increased media saturation makes the criticism harsher and more pervasive this time around, see how that impression holds up after examining the coverage side-by-side. We are never going to be able to divorce the man from his family name and deep connection to the school. Attempting to do so would be impossible and unrealistic. A blind taste test (so to speak) comparing the two tenures is the closest we can get to an unbiased evaluation of performance and perception. Ask yourself two questions: How many of the following excerpts are about the current team? How many could be?
For the record, I believe that JTIII is objectively a much better coach than Craig Esherick ever could have been. That should not even be a debate. He was the correct man to hire and he has had a net positive impact on the program. Suggesting otherwise based on the misleadingly narrow dataset of two losing seasons is pointless.
Instead, my position is that sports fans subconsciously develop baseline qualitative and quantitative standards. These are applied to all coaches - even those with a loaded last name. Repeated failure to meet these expectations and adapt to new conditions of the college game has sparked the current outcry because while (normal, sane) people may not track stats, they do notice trends. They notice a team that seems unprepared for their opponents and makes strategic errors in end-of-game situations, backed by an insular insitution which often appears indifferent to mediocre results. This is especially provocative when combined with a growing list of unexpected defeats. The two coaches may be apples and oranges, but the game is still basketball, and media/students/alumni are seeing many of the same things now as they did in the early 2000s.
So, let’s play a game. Read the following quotes, guess which era each one is describing, then scroll to the end to find out if you were correct.
1.) "The relationship between coach and fans is a delicate one; that you should understand. It is a relationship of give and take. [Coach] has no relationship with fans of the team or students of the university. We expect and demand more...Our calling for his firing was not a brash reaction to a single bad season or a lone losing streak; it was the manifestation of more than five years of pent-up frustrations and disappointments. It was the manifestation of our love for a team that deserved better."
2.) “I don’t presume to know precisely why players keep transferring... other programs overcome these obstacles on a yearly basis with strong recruiting classes and clutch victories. Our team is headed in the wrong direction and Coach has shown no signs that he is the man to turn it around.
It is easy to blame [Coach] for the demise of a once-proud program. But that is ignoring our own responsibilities as Hoya students and alums. In my four years at Georgetown, I have rarely been to a game where a palpable home-court advantage existed....If we are going to complain about the state of the basketball program, we have a duty to do our part. True fans yell a little louder when the team needs them most. More than ever, that time is now.
This also applies to the "Fire [Coach]" chants that have become the closing refrain to nearly every game this season. Don’t think for a second that potential recruits are not influenced by the culture of negativity that permeates our fan base."
3.) “Two main reasons exist for the decline of Georgetown’s program: the inability to attract top-tier talent and the refusal to change and adapt schematically. The responsibility for both of these, as in any program, falls on the head coach.
First, Georgetown is no longer a viable contender for the nation’s best recruits. Even in the Blue and Gray’s own backyard, Maryland’s recent successes make competing for DMV recruits all the more difficult...We can tolerate a losing season or two, but how the program responds in this moment is crucial. Letting our angst continue without acknowledging the problem will inevitably breed apathy.”
4.) "...The late-game collapses that plagued us all year. If we had held on against [Team], or up-ended [Team], [Team] or [Team] we’d have an NCAA Tournament seed right now...[the losses] were not the fault of inexperience, but rather, the fault of coaching. No team, even Duke or Kansas, the favorites headed into March Madness in the eyes of most of the college basketball media, puts the ball in the hands of its point guard with no coaching guidance in the final minute of an important game.”
5.) "I believe that this season’s men’s basketball team and our new class of recruits holds a great deal of promise. I have confidence that [Coach], who helped to build our tradition of excellence in men’s basketball, is the right person to strengthen and lead our program."
“We remain confident in [Coach’s] ability to lead a team comprised of student athletes who achieve academically, are prepared for a future beyond Georgetown, and will be competitive on a national level.”
6.) "We are accustomed to winning and not having stretches like this. I know that there is no one who cares more than me. I know that myself, my staff, my guys are working hard and playing hard. And we’ll get this thing fixed."
7.) "The word that I’ve been using for Georgetown basketball, and I think it’s the right word, is the program has become irrelevant. They don’t matter anymore. It’s sort of been a slow bleed under [Coach], and now nobody cares about GU hoops — maybe that includes the administration."
8.) "Displaying the worst elements of an unprepared, unmotivated, and increasingly unresponsive team, the Georgetown Hoyas turned in its worst on-court performance in three decades in a humbling loss. The Big East setback came against a...St. John's team with only four scholarship players, a team which lost its last three games by an average margin of twenty points."
9.) “The fallout from the alarming result included fans chanting “Fire [Coach]” as the team walked off the court at Verizon Center. The frustration stemmed in part from Georgetown blowing a 14-point lead against a rebuilding opponent that had entered the game with one Big East win.”
10.) "College basketball is at its headiest in February. Teams across the country play critical conference games that will determine who gets into the NCAA tournament come March. Such games matter little to Georgetown since they will not be going to the big dance this year. It is worse than it looks: Georgetown has made the NCAA tournament once in the past four years.
That's right. Once. This, from the legendary program that brought us Eric ‘Sleepy’ Floyd, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson. This, from the university that just six years ago had more players in the NBA than any other school save North Carolina. Today seven schools have more alums playing professionally (North Carolina, Maryland, Arizona, Michigan, Duke, Connecticut, and Kentucky). For an alumnus of any school with a storied sports program, seeing your team in decline can be upsetting."
11.) "For the second straight season, Georgetown will finish eighth or lower in the Big East and likely fail to reach the postseason. For the second straight season, a team with NCAA Tournament-caliber talent will significantly underwhelm.
...This will be the third time he’s missed the NCAA Tournament in four years, and the program isn’t just trending downward, it’s taking a nose dive."
12.) "It’s hard to find something positive," Georgetown [Coach] said after the game. "But I think we played well over long stretches [of the game]. We have to grow. We have to get better. We have to learn from our mistakes."
13.) "We rooted for him at the beginning, but now it’s time for the coach and his bosses to realize that this hasn’t worked. The program has imploded. He appears not to inspire confidence in his players and certainly doesn’t in the fans. He has lost good players to other teams.
The university’s administration is not blameless either, both for its blanket support of [Coach] and its refusal to demand excellence in athletics as it does in academics. To say that a top-tier basketball team is incompatible with the broader academic mission of an elite university, as some administrators have claimed, is simply wrong.
Too often this year we have been disappointed, and we are not alone among our fellow former classmates to think of the current state of Hoya basketball when envelopes asking for alumni donations arrive each year."
14.) "Furthermore, at times during these six games, the Hoyas looked absolutely lost on the court. For example, in the game against [Team], Georgetown led by two with 2.5 seconds remaining when sophomore guard [Player] breezed through the surprisingly lazy Georgetown defense for a game tying layup. Another example occurred in the following game against [Team]. The Hoyas trailed by one with six seconds left and had the ball coming off a rebound, yet were not even able to get off a shot."
The descriptions of Esherick’s teams are rightfully more damning, but many of the same issues (with both the coach and the administration) appear in both time periods. While you cannot draw any definitive logical conclusion from this type of exercise, that’s not a good sign.
Here is my unsolicited personal take on the matter: This is hard. I like JTIII. He was hired before my sophomore year and I was part of that golden class whose college experience was the full, glorious trajectory from the Esherick Era to the Final Four. I am extraordinarily grateful for those experiences.
As SwordofBrunner and NYHoya pointed out so eloquently, the argument for making a coaching change is not binary. It is possible to be appreciative of the accomplishments of the program under his direction while also acknowledging that JTIII may not be the man to correct the downward trajectory of the past several seasons. Though he was never emotionally demonstrative, JTIII had a determined and methodical demeanor on the sidelines in his early years. When I mentally compare that confidence to his defeated, detached posture from Tuesday night, or from other low points during these past few years, it does not even seem like the same man.
He isn’t coaching like that man anymore either, and therein lies the problem.
Answer Key and References
1.) Esherick (The Hoya - March 23, 2004)
2.) Esherick (The Hoya- February 27, 2004)
3.) JTIII (The Hoya - February 24, 2017)
4.) Esherick (The Georgetown Voice - February 24, 2002)
6.) JTIII (Newsday - February 26, 2017)
7.) Esherick (Andy Katz - March 4, 2004)
8.) Esherick (HoyaSaxa.com - February 19, 2004)
9.) JTIII (Washington Post - February 24, 2017)
10.) Esherick (Weekly Standard - February 19, 2003)
11.) JTIII (New York Post - February 27, 2017)
12.) JTIII (The Georgetown Voice - November 16, 2016)
13.) Esherick (The Hoya - February 24, 2004)
14.) Esherick (The Georgetown Voice - March 4, 2002)