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Bob Ryan

John Thompson wasn’t afraid to be intimidating, and he got results

John Thompson, seen at a press conference in 1996, was protective and uncompromising when it came to his teams.
John Thompson, seen at a press conference in 1996, was protective and uncompromising when it came to his teams.JIM DAVIS/The Boston Globe

As I write this, I cannot get Jimmy Dean’s 1961 hit song out of my head. But the Big John we knew wasn’t 6 foot 6, weighing 245. Big John Thompson was 6-10 and, well, we won’t say. A lot, OK?

As cliché as it may sound, it’s a simple fact that the college basketball world, and America in general, has just lost a very big man. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that John Thompson Jr., who died Sunday at age 78, was a singular figure in college sport.

We have never seen anything like the Georgetown program he created and we probably will never see anything like it again, for better or worse. That’s because John Thompson made it happen by virtue of his will, intelligence, stubbornness, and I would say ability to intimidate. He knew very well that he scared the hell out of people, and he loved it.

Among those to shrink in the sight and wrath of Big John was a drug lord named Rayful Edmond III. When John Thompson became aware that Edmond, a known Georgetown basketball fan, had ingratiated himself with some of the Hoya players, he summoned Mr. Edmond to his office.

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Thompson pointed an index finger in the drug lord’s face and told him to keep away from his players. That Edmond and his associates were rumored to have been connected to as many as 40 homicides did not faze Thompson a bit. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the situation was settled. As we know, John Thompson died a natural death.

John Thompson walks the sideline in 1997.
John Thompson walks the sideline in 1997.John McDonnell/Washington Post

The basic biography is well-known. He was a standout player at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. His teammates included a ferocious 6-10 compatriot named Tom Hoover, a future Villanova star guard named George Leftwich, and another guard named Edward “Monk” Malloy, who went on to a career of some renown himself: He would become president of the University of Notre Dame. It was one of the great high school teams of the 20th century.

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Thompson moved on to Providence College, which was on the move with Joe Mullaney as coach and had won the 1961 NIT, then a very big thing indeed. Thompson’s Friars team likewise won the 1963 NIT, and became an NCAA tourney team in his senior year, when he averaged 26 points and 14 rebounds a game. Chosen by the Celtics in the third round of the 1964 draft, he spent two years as a backup center to Bill Russell.

His coaching career began in 1966 at St. Anthony’s High School in Washington. His teams went 122-28 in the next six years. Understand that when Georgetown came calling, the Hoyas were a downtrodden mess of a program. Their last moment of glory had come in 1943, when they lost the NCAA championship game to Wyoming. They had one lone NIT appearance to show for the 19 years prior to Thompson’s arrival and they had bottomed out with a 3-23 season in 1971-72.

John Thompson took charge, aggressively recruiting Black talent seldom before seen at Georgetown, and creating a program of insularity. Media relations were testy. He controlled every aspect of the program, even introducing a sergeant-at-arms figure in the person of Mary Fenlon, a stern ex-nun. There was no team quite like Georgetown.

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After hovering around .500 in Thompson’s first two years, the Hoyas went 18-10 in Year 3, reentering the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the aforementioned 1943 finals appearance. They were off and running. Georgetown would be a force until Thompson’s surprise resignation in 1999.

Big John’s 27-year record was 596-239, with 20 NCAA tournaments and four NITs. The highlight era was from 1982-85, and it was fueled by a milestone recruit. Patrick Ewing of Cambridge Rindge and Latin was the foremost big-man prospect in America. With Ewing on his squad, Thompson took his team to Final Fours in 1982, 1984, and 1985, winning it all in 1984 — making him the first Black coach to win an NCAA title — and losing two epic games by 1 (North Carolina) and 2 points (Villanova).

It was during these years that the entire sports world became acquainted with the John Thompson M.O. Georgetown was so secretive in its practices that someone coined the term “Hoya Paranoia” to describe the mentality. Postgames were a chore for the media, with Mary Fenlon as the unsmiling gatekeeper. Covering that team on a daily basis must have been a very stressful job. Georgetown really was college basketball’s Public Enemy Number One.

John didn’t care. He was very protective of his young men, and developing them into more than just basketball players was his goal. He had his professional admirers, among them Dean Smith. He became the 1988 US Olympic basketball coach, and it has to be said that his uncompromising view of how the game should be played was his undoing. His team did not have enough shooting, and fell to the Soviets.

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Georgetown never got back to the Final Four under John Thompson, but the Hoyas continued to be perennial powers and he continued to produce major players, including future Hall of Famers Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson.

John Thompson celebrates a win over Syracuse to win the Big East championship in 1980 in Providence.
John Thompson celebrates a win over Syracuse to win the Big East championship in 1980 in Providence.Anestis Diakopoulos/Associated Press

He retired in 1999 at the relatively young age of 57, citing the need to straighten out his personal life, in which he was undergoing a divorce. He was a radio commentator at NCAA time, and he was now media-friendly, displaying a sly wit. Of course, many people were already well aware of the soft, human side of John Thompson.

“When I was in the Army,” recalled former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, a PC teammate of note, “my mother called me one day to tell me that John Thompson, who was playing for the Boston Celtics at the time, dropped by our home in South Boston to bring my mom an apple pie. He often said he loves my mom’s Irish bread and hamburgers.

“John Thompson was a great example of an outstanding gentleman, conscientious student, and an unselfish teammate who left his ego in the locker room.”

If you’re a college basketball fan, you can close your eyes and see Big John striding the sideline, that towel draped on his shoulder. The odds are he and his Hoya teams had gotten under your skin.

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You know what Big John would say to that?

“Good!”