Georgetown’s John Thompson, First Black Coach to Win NCAA Championship, Dies at 78

Georgetown University is planning an Oct. 3 virtual celebration of the life of John Thompson.

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Coach John Thompson Jr. at the 2014 groundbreaking of the athletics facility named for him. Courtesy Georgetown University.

John Thompson Jr., who brought Georgetown University a national championship as well as greater national recognition, died on Aug. 31 at the age of 78, his family announced.

“We are heartbroken to share the news of the passing of our father, John Thompson Jr.,” the family said in a statement. “Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else. However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day.

“We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don’t worry about him, because as he always like to say … ‘Big Ace is cool.'”

Born in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 2, 1941, Thompson attended Archbishop Carroll High School and went to Providence College. After playing for the Boston Celtics, he coached at St. Anthony High School in D.C. and then moved to his starring role at Georgetown University as head coach of its men’s basketball program from 1972 to 1999.

At first resisted by some at the school because he was African American, Thompson won fans in Washington and around the nation as he went on to lead the Georgetown team to three NCAA championship game appearances in the 1980s and 20 NCAA tournaments. The Hoyas hoopsters won it all in the spring of 1984 — a first for a Black coach in America.

Georgetown University President John DeGioia, who considers Thompson a personal mentor, wrote: “In memory of John Thompson, I wish to offer these words, on behalf of our University: Coach John R. Thompson Jr. had a profound impact on our University. Forty-eight years ago, he joined the Georgetown community and, with his distinctive style, commitment to excellence and clear sense of purpose, transformed Georgetown Basketball. We are a better University because of John’s leadership — he challenged us to live up to our values and enabled all of us to see new possibilities, for ourselves, and for the impact we could have on the world. John will be remembered for many things — his historic achievements, the lives he shaped, his advocacy for social and racial justice — but perhaps most of all, for the authenticity through which he lived his life.”

At an Aug. 31 press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser said of the coach, “Everyone loved this tower of a man.”

Thompson’s oldest son, John Thompson III, coached the Georgetown team from 2004 to 2017. Georgetown alum and NBA all-star Patrick Ewing is the team’s current head coach. Other NBA stars coached by Thompson include Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

In 2016, Georgetown University dedicated the John Thompson Jr. Athletic Center, next to McDonough Gymnasium on the west side of the main campus.

“When they started talking about putting up a building I started laughing,” said Thompson at the dedication. “I said I won’t be alive when they put a building up.”

Reflecting on seeing his name put on the building and seeing the bronze statue of him at the front entrance, Thompson became emotional. “It’s very hard to express what you really feel,” he said. “I’ve sat out there and just looked at it and said, ‘Can you believe this?’ ”

Today, the stature of Big John remains and a nearby archway holds one of his quotes: “When I’m gone, if I can’t go to Heaven, take me back to Georgetown.”

Coach John Thompson Jr, President Ronald Reagan and Patrick Ewing during a photo op for the cover of Sports Illustrated at the White House in 1984. Courtesy Reagan Library/White House.
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