- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2020

Jim Boeheim and John Thompson met head-to-head 46 times in a coaching rivalry that spanned decades. The two men were responsible for helping the Big East rise to prominence, with Boeheim leading Syracuse and Thompson at the helm of Georgetown. Fierce rivals on the court who battled, yelled at each other and grappled for the advantage, they developed a friendship off the court born of mutual admiration.

So when Boeheim heard the news Monday that Thompson had died at age 78, the Syracuse coach said he had trouble finding the right words to sum up how much Thompson had meant to college basketball. Boeheim, who was 21-25 against Thompson, was adamant about one thing: The world had just lost one of the best coaches of all time.

“They talk about Mount Rushmore of coaches — and John Thompson is on it,” Boeheim told ESPN. “He’s on it because he’s one of the coaches you have to talk about when you talk about the great coaches in college basketball.”

Thompson was remembered throughout the sports world Monday for his impact on the lives he touched and the generations of young men who saw in him a role model for life on and off the court.Still, one of the cornerstones of Thompson’s legacy will always be the remarkable transformation of an also-ran basketball program into a national powerhouse that he oversaw at Georgetown. He did so with 596 wins, one national championship victory and iconic big men like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

Thompson made the NCAA Tournament 20 times in 27 seasons, advancing to three Final Fours and three national championship games.Boeheim said the signature of a Thompson team was defense. He said Thompson “set the standard” with concepts deploying game-changing centers who could disrupt the paint.

Kentucky coach John Calipari tweeted that when teams had to face Thompson and Georgetown, they “squirmed” because they knew what was coming.

“The Hall of Fame coach was a life-changer for so many,” Calipari said. “He was a great coach who built some of the best college teams of all time. His players were a who’s who of college basketball. Truly an icon in his time.”

Thompson’s coaching influence extended across sports. As the first Black coach to win an NCAA national championship, Thompson paved the way for additional Black coaches. It was a label that Thompson said he had resented, noting there other successful Black coaches who just didn’t receive their recognition.

But on Monday, Maryland football coach Mike Locksley and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin — both Black — tweeted their appreciation.

“My 1st vision of what I could become,” Locksley tweeted. “A man that fought for Minority Coaches of all sports as one of the original founders of the BCA.

The 1st African American HC to win a NCAA Championship. Always protected his team from the streets. More than a Coach!! Rest in Power Big Coach.”

“Blueprint, idol, mentor for many, including me,” Tomlin tweeted. “I loved, respected and admired The Coach.”

Tomlin said in a press conference that Thompson served as a mentor to him. The Steelers coach grew up near Hampton Roads — not far from Mourning and Allen Iverson, two of Thompson’s top recruits — and became a diehard Hoyas fan, down to owning the team’s gray-and-blue starter jacket.

“I just appreciated the times I had to visit with him and glean some of his wisdom,” he said.

Thompson’s 596 wins rank 62nd all time — despite coaching only 27 seasons. He abruptly retired midway through the season in 1999, citing personal reasons for stepping down amid a public divorce.

But the sudden departure didn’t ruin the school’s relationship with Thompson. After all, how could it after everything accomplished? When Thompson took the job in 1972, Georgetown was coming off a 3-23 season.

“To build a program at Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina, I know that people have done it before, people will do it again,” Boeheim said. “But what John did at Georgetown … no one could ever see coming.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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