Over the phone on Friday morning, Gophers’ coach Clem Haskins’ voice indicated both surprise and dismay. He wasn’t alone.
Haskins was reacting to the announcement that legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson — an architect of a basketball powerhouse that produced both championships and grown men — was resigning his post, effective immediately.
“I think the timing of (his resignation) may be poor,” Haskins said as he tried to come to grips with Thompson’s sudden departure. “But I’ve always said that if a guy is ready to step down, no matter what time of year it is, he should step down.”
Beset by a diminished talent base and the suspension of their leading scorer — guard Shernard Long — to academic problems, Thompson’s Hoyas began the season 0-6, the worst start in his 27 years of coaching at Georgetown.
He compiled a 596-239 record, leaving him four victories away from reaching the 600-win milestone.
Former NBA player and coach Quinn Buckner, who was at Williams Arena this weekend to do commentary for the Gophers-Lions game, was both surprised and saddened by his friend’s resignation.
“I think everybody in college basketball was very surprised (by the news),” Buckner said. “Coach Thompson has stood up to a lot of hits on a lot of issues.”
Buckner then brought up the importance of Thompson’s emergence as an African-American coach in an era where black athletes were almost exclusively coached by whites. Thompson was outspoken on many issues, ranging from college basketball reform to racial stereotypes in college athletics.
“I think a lot of African-American coaches, in particular, look at John Thompson and the success he’s had, and realize it enabled them to get jobs and be able to show what they could do,” Buckner said.
Indeed, Thompson used his looming presence in the college basketball game to keep the door open for his fellow black coaches.
Thompson took two raw players in Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and developed them into powerful men both on and off the court. He took Allen Iverson, a young guard involved in a racially-fueled brawl as a senior in high school, and molded him into the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft.
Like Haskins, he earned his players’ unquestioned loyalty and devotion, which helped Thompson graduate 97 percent of the players in his program.
But Thompson had another quality that made him feared by his foes and idolized by his friends: He stood firm on his principles, even if it meant getting blasted by both the general public and his coaching brethren.
“He’s been a credit to the game of basketball,” Haskins said. Haskins added that he would like to contact Thompson within the next few days.
Will Thompson, whose 6-foot-10-inch frame paced the sidelines in a trademark charcoal, double-breasted suit for 835 games, return?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he returned,” Buckner said. “I think he made a point of saying he resigned and not retired, which means he has an interest in coming back.”