The name alone conjures up the image and successes of another man.
As you might expect of someone with a Roman numeral after his name, John Thompson III is a legacy. But his namesake, the man who established Georgetown as a college basketball power, is only half the story behind his son.
Thompson III has spent his entire college basketball career in two programs, each distinctive in its own way and each the creation of a single iconic individual. Conversations with Thompson are invariably laced with references to the two men, both Hall of Fame coaches, "Pops" and "Coach."
"Coach" is Pete Carril, who coached the younger Thompson at Princeton and brought him into the coaching profession seven years after his playing career ended. "Pops" is obviously his father, who through his words or his history, was a strong influence in bringing Thompson to his current challenge: restoring a program to the national status it once enjoyed.
In leaving Princeton to take over a drifting Georgetown program 20 days ago, Thompson was walking away from home as much as he was returning to it. He was leaving the school where he met his wife, to head to the school that shaped so many memories of his childhood.
For nearly three weeks, when he hasn't been making preparations to move his wife and three children, Thompson has been busy introducing himself to high school recruits and Georgetown personnel.
What they've met is the product of two distinct, yet not altogether different, influences. Where the elder Thompson is intimidating, Carril is avuncular. Where "Pops" is the favorite, "Coach" is the underdog. Where Thompson is about unrelenting defense, Carril is about deliberate offense.
So what do you get when you combine Gandalf and Yoda?
You get John Thompson III, who Georgetown hopes will, by one method or another, achieve the same kind of success both his mentors did in defining their schools athletically.
"He was coached by two such strong personalities," said Marvin Bressler, a former Princeton sociology professor who has served as the faculty adviser to the Tigers' men's basketball team for two decades. "Yet he is his own man. He has respect for his two mentors, and he consults them from time to time as anyone would, but there is no question he is his own man."
For one thing, Thompson, 38, is far more dapper than the first Coach Thompson or Coach Carril, with his clean-shaven head and trim suits. At 6 feet 4, he does not lord over the sidelines with a white towel thrown across his shoulder as his father did, nor does he slump in his seat on the bench, angst written across his face, as Carril did. Thompson III leads with a calm self-assurance and a good deal of self-control.
"Coach Carril and my pops are so similar it's scary," Thompson said. "They're similar in almost every way, except appearance. The things that outsiders can see — the work ethic, the dedication to the program, the caring about the players — are identical. In turn, you look at the close-knit family that is Georgetown basketball, it is parallel to the close-knit family that is Princeton basketball.
"As for the two men — you've got the little white guy, and on the other hand, you have a big black guy," Thompson said. "But they're so similar in how they approach things, how they look at life, how they deal with their players. . . . I've been fortunate to learn from and grow from both of them."
John Thompson Jr. is a big man at 6 feet 10, 300 pounds. In 27 seasons (1972-99), he led the Hoyas to seven Big East tournament titles, 20 NCAA tournament appearances, three national championship games and one national title. He had a career record of 596-239.
John III was only 6 years old when his father became the Georgetown basketball coach in 1972, and he grew up in and around McDonough Arena. Thompson and his younger brother, Ronny, spent hours watching practices, hanging around their father in the office or at home as he watched film and telephoned recruits.
He remembers one practice — though he doesn't remember exactly how old he was at the time — when he was watching a scrimmage from the baseline. He noticed that some of the players were lingering in the lane. Thompson told his father, who gave him a whistle and told him that he was in charge of calling three-second violations.
"After about the 10th three-second call in a six-minute span," Thompson recalled, "Thomas Scates gave me a look, 'Little boy, you better stop blowing that whistle.' I quickly learned to let it alone."
Thompson remembers sitting on the bench for just one game, an NCAA tournament contest in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1975. He was 9 years old, and the Hoyas lost, 77-75, in the final seconds to Central Michigan. He never got to sit on the bench again.
"I think it's natural for every child to envision themselves doing what their parents do, to a certain extent," Thompson said. "To that end, did I envision myself coaching one day? Probably."
Ronny Thompson struggles for an answer when asked to describe how his father and his older brother differ and finally settles on, "They're more similar than dissimilar." The elder Thompson, however picks out one difference.
"John is certainly not as combative as his father is," Thompson Jr. said. "He has an extremely strong line of hidden strength. He can take care of himself."
Thompson III talks to his father and to his brother, who is now an assistant at Arkansas, every day. Their bond, and in many ways, their life together, is captured in a photograph that was taken in McDonough Arena, naturally, during the 1974 season. All three have a copy.
In the foreground of the picture, three Georgetown players are warming up for a game, wearing striped pants. In the center, John III and Ronny are sitting on the bench, with their father next to them.
"I've been fortunate," Thompson said. "Look at the picture. I quite literally have lived this my whole life. . . . This is something that, regardless of how long my coaching career is when you look at my résumé, this is something that has been a part of my whole life."
Pete Carril is a short man, about 5-6, with white hair and rumpled sweaters. He spent 29 seasons at Princeton (1967-96), amassing a 514-261 record and winning 13 Ivy League championships. He took the Tigers to 11 NCAA tournaments, and won the National Invitation Tournament in 1975.
Just how big a figure is Carril at Princeton? Said Bressler, who has been at the university since 1963, "How big a figure is John Thompson at Georgetown?"
John III, who was an All-Met at Gonzaga College High in 1984, was quiet and shy when he arrived at Princeton as a freshman in the fall of 1984, according to Howard Levy, one of the senior captains on that year's team. He never mentioned that his father was the coach of the defending national champion Hoyas, though others always did — so much so that Levy and his teammates jokingly referred to Thompson as "Son of."
"Coach Carril always paid [Thompson] the highest compliment he could: he sees," Bressler said. "He knew the court, he understood the intricacies of the offense."
Thompson graduated in 1988 with a degree in politics and left basketball behind. He worked for Ford Motor Company for a couple of years, and then for a sports marketing firm. He returned to Princeton in 1995 as an assistant after Carril called and asked: "Are you ready to come back? Have you finished wasting your time?"
Carril retired the following year and assistant Bill Carmody took over. When Carmody left for Northwestern just days before the school year was set to begin in September 2000, Princeton turned to Thompson. He didn't walk into a settled situation; the Tigers lost four players — including all-Ivy center Chris Young, who signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates — before the season even began. Some predicted that Princeton would finish fifth in the league.
On the first day of classes, Thompson brought the remaining players together and told them, according to team captain Nate Walton: "This is Princeton. We have tradition here. And we're not going to let it slip, not on my watch."
Princeton lost seven of its first 11 games, but played well when it mattered most, winning the Ivy League with an 11-3 record and two victories over rival Pennsylvania. The Tigers qualified for the NCAA tournament, their first trip since 1998.
Carril has said that what Thompson accomplished that season ranks as the best coaching job that's ever been done at Princeton. Walton said that "there's no way, in my opinion, that would've happened with any other coach."
In four years at Princeton, Thompson amassed a 68-42 record and won three league titles.
"Coach Carril was a very demanding coach; he yelled at you a lot," said Levy, who worked as an assistant under both Carmody and Thompson. "John figured out a way to be demanding without that, to do it in a positive way — not that Coach Carril did it in a negative way. John uses his own personality to get his point across. He's not a screamer by nature."
Thompson often talks with the men he coached with at Princeton: Carril (now an assistant with the Sacramento Kings), Carmody (Northwestern), and Joe Scott (who left Air Force to replace Thompson at Princeton). They are his friends, and in many ways, they are also his family.
There is a pizza place in Princeton, N.J., where the coaches and friends of the basketball program gather after games to celebrate and swap stories. It is a good night if the Tigers won; it is an even better night if the other members of the family also won.
"Before, we had to worry about three teams: Northwestern, Air Force, and Princeton. In order to really enjoy yourself, they all have to win," Bressler said. "Now it expands. Now we have to worry about Georgetown, too."
Thompson has watched hundreds of basketball games in his life, many involving either Princeton or Georgetown. But watching Princeton face Georgetown in the first round of the 1989 NCAA tournament — the first meeting between the schools in 32 years — was one of the hardest experiences he's had at a game.
On one side of Providence Civic Center, there was Coach, along with Thompson's former teammates, trying to pull off one of the most stunning upsets in NCAA tournament history. On the other side, there was Pops, along with Ronny, a freshman guard.
"I literally had loved ones on both benches," Thompson said. "I knew the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting there."
Who do you root for? Where do you sit in the arena? Thompson didn't sit. He spent most of the game walking around the concourse.
Georgetown hung on to win, 50-49, and eventually lost in the regional final. Princeton's program, which was already well-known in basketball circles, gained national exposure.
"I don't know if it turned out for the best," Thompson said. "It turned out as it did."
Fifteen years ago, Georgetown was the national power and Princeton was the plucky underdog. Over the last four seasons, the Tigers — under Thompson — earned more NCAA tournament bids (2000, 2004) than the Hoyas (2001). Thompson, once again, takes over a program with a rich legacy and the shadow of the man who created that legacy.
"He had a dilemma," Carril said. "He loves Princeton. His wife is from Princeton. But then there is the challenge of coaching at Georgetown, and going into battle there. That's a challenge to him, and I'm sure that's why he took the job. . . . He knows Washington, D.C. It's a natural thing. But it's going to be more difficult, because the program is a little down right now. But it's not any more down that it was when his father took it over."