- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

COMMENTARY

It was time for him to go. Craig Esherick is a good man, as intelligent and principled as they come in the oft-seedy world of college sports. But between his disappointing record and his increasingly delusional public statements — some veering into Iraqi Information Minister territory — Georgetown had little choice but to sack John Thompson’s loyal lieutenant and subsequent successor.

Now comes the hard part.

A small group of students and alumni rallied near the school’s front gate yesterday, voicing dismay over Georgetown’s 51/2-year competitive slide. Relief was palatable. Anxiety, too. In the wake of Esherick’s dismissal, the university faces difficult, serious questions about the place and purpose of its once-proud basketball program.

“I went to school with Allen Iverson, Othella Harrington, Jerome Williams,” said Steven Thomas, a Georgetown alumnus who organized yesterday’s gathering. “I don’t want to see the program, through neglect or anything else, fall to a point where it can’t be resurrected. You can always resurrect it with a new coach. But there are other factors, too. Fundamentally, it goes a lot deeper than the coach.”

At the deepest level, the school has a philosophical decision to make. Does it want a nice little team, along the lines of George Mason or American University? Or does it want an elite program, capable of competing and winning in the soon-to-be-Bigger East?

Believe it or not, the answer isn’t obvious.

Perhaps, as athletic director Joe Lang intimated last year, annual NCAA tournament trips aren’t realistic for a small, academics-first institution. Especially a cash-strapped private school that lost more than $800,000 on men’s basketball last season. Privately, some faculty and alumni hold this view. After all, they reason, consistent success takes money. Long-term commitment. Endless scrapping on an unlevel playing field against schools with bigger recruiting budgets, better weight rooms, on-campus arenas brimming with student support.

A prominent program is possible — NCAA tournament darlings Saint Joseph’s and Gonzaga are contemporary examples — but only with strong vision and a generous dollop of luck, two items in short Hilltop supply since Thompson’s unexpected resignation. Two weeks ago, Lang and university president John DeGioia each gave Esherick a vote of confidence; their abrupt about-face and Esherick’s botched, late-night firing didn’t smack of coherent leadership, even though DeGioia quickly affirmed his commitment to a winning program.

“I’ve never heard an alumnus say they want to go down to the Patriot League,” said Diana Owen, a Georgetown professor and a supporter of the basketball program. “Georgetown’s trajectory soared after Thompson came. When it works, I think it can be financially feasible.”

Maybe so. An Elite 8 appearance helped Gonzaga double its annual fundraising take. But that doesn’t happen without folks like Thomas, who is forming an organization to raise money for a new on-campus arena. For years, eager alums have been Georgetown basketball’s great untapped resource. Yet rather than cultivate a strong relationship with current and former students, the school has shut them out, erecting a wall of aloofness and secrecy around the basketball program.

That has to change. Perestroika is in order. Hoya Paranoia once served a worthy purpose, isolating Thompson and his charges from racial vitriol and corrosive outside influences. Today it’s simply self-defeating. Last summer Hoyas forward Courtland Freeman interned for Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — the sort of only-at-Georgetown story that impresses recruits, casts the program in a positive light and encourages alumni to open their wallets. Did the school spread the word? Take a guess.

The search for a new coach will require additional soul searching. Georgetown can keep it in the family. It can look outside the fold. Neither approach ensures a winner. Former Hoyas like Patrick Ewing and current assistant Jaren Jackson lack experience. Experienced outsiders such as Johnny Dawkins and Jeff Capel III might view the job as a steppingstone to something better. The potential candidate with the strongest bloodlines — Thompson’s son, Princeton coach John III — is a devoted Tigers alum and could be wary of following in his father’s sizable footsteps.

Whoever Georgetown chooses, he’ll face the same issues that dogged Esherick. Upgrading the program’s laughable non-conference schedule will be easier said than done, because the battered Hoyas are no longer in a position to demand favorable home-and-home dates against top college programs.

MCI Center might provide Georgetown with the weakest homecourt advantage of any major team in the nation. But the much-desired renovation of McDonough Arena (or the construction of a new on-campus facility) won’t happen anytime soon. Not when the school continues to raise money and spar with its wealthy residential neighbors over plans for a new science building, a performing arts center and a multipurpose sports complex.

During his freshman year, Thomas saw the unranked Hoyas upset a loaded Syracuse team featuring Lawrence Moten and John Wallace. Delirious with glee, he bolted from his seat and rushed the floor.

“That’s the one thing I want the students now to have that I had,” he says. “You never feel better about Georgetown than that. It’s the kind of thing that leads you to donate later in life. The university should be thinking about that.”

Georgetown has much to think about. Twenty years ago, the school held a much larger rally, one celebrating its first and only national championship. Can it happen again? Perhaps. But not without major change. Otherwise, Esherick’s departure won’t make a difference.

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