On Monday, the Georgetown Hoyas hired Patrick Ewing as their head basketball coach. The hiring of Ewing is a slam dunk in terms of feel good stories: Ewing is arguably the greatest Hoya of all time, he provides a direct connection to the greatest era of Georgetown basketball and he has been patiently paying his dues as an NBA assistant while waiting for his opportunity to be the lead man. Unfortunately, none of that directly translates into success on a basketball court, and for all the warm and fuzzies the hire creates on the heels of a second consecutive losing season, it doesn’t come without its share of red flags.
The most glaring concern is the lack of experience. Ewing has never been a head coach at any level, and while his years of experience as a player and NBA assistant speak to his knowledge of the game, being the head coach is a completely different ballgame.
Complicating the issue is the program in which he will be getting his first taste of being a head coach. This isn’t some mid-major that would be happy to simply get a sniff of the NCAA Tournament or a middling high-major that would be content with conference relevancy and semi-regular tournament berths. This is Georgetown, where national prominence will be the expectation. That is not an ideal situation for a coach making his first foray into leading a program.
The experience factor is also magnified by the state of the program that Ewing is taking over. As mentioned, the Hoyas are coming off consecutive losing seasons. They will lose their top two scorers from last season, Rodney Pryor (18 points per game) and L.J. Peak (16.3). And their top incoming recruit, Tremont Waters, has asked for his release from the program. Ewing’s lack of experience could be mitigated if he was taking over a stable program, one that had lost its head coach to retirement or greener pastures. Instead he is taking over the Titanic.
Another red flag is the fact that Ewing hasn’t been directly involved in college basketball in 32 years. A lot has changed since Ewing last took off his Georgetown jersey in 1985. While the rigors of being an NBA assistant are many, Ewing will be taking on tasks that he has had very little to no exposure to in over three decades. In addition to actually coaching a basketball team, he will be tasked with recruiting, scheduling, NCAA compliance and appearances with the program's most prominent boosters. That’s a lot to take on for someone so far removed from the realities of a college basketball program.
Georgetown found itself in a very uncomfortable position. When it became clear that a change needed to be made, the man who found himself on the chopping block was John Thompson III, son of legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson, Jr. The elder Thompson continues to hold considerable sway at Georgetown, and the school was in an awkward spot. The hiring of Ewing may have helped to assuage Thompson, but it may also pave the way for more discomfort down the road.
Since Thompson, with Ewing’s help, elevated the Georgetown program to powerhouse status, the Hoyas haven’t had a coach without direct ties to Thompson. When Thompson resigned in 1999, his assistant Craig Esherick was handed the reigns. The Esherick era was a disaster by Georgetown standards, with one NCAA Tournament appearance in five years. Thompson III replaced Esherick, and appeared to have righted the ship. The younger Thompson delivered three Big East regular season titles, a Big East Tournament title, eight NCAA Tournament appearances and a Final Four. But an inability to make any noise in the restructured Big East and consecutive losing seasons led to his firing on March 23 of this year. Georgetown had a choice to make.
They could elect, for the first time since 1972, to move away from the Thompson influence, or they could continue to operate within the significant pull of the force that is John Thompson. They chose the latter, and in doing so have set themselves up to be right back where they were two weeks ago.
Ewing’s task is not an easy one, and it won’t be an overnight turnaround. If the rebuild drags on, it’s fair to wonder how long fans and alumni are willing to wait. If things go poorly, how will the administration deal with the possibility of having to fire the most iconic player in the program’s history, all with the shadow of Thompson continuing to loom?
It is good for a team or an organization to remain connected to the icons of its brand. It’s important to maintain relationships with the people with whom you’ve achieved great success and who have helped you get to where you are. But it’s equally important to know when some outside perspective could be beneficial. There are times when organizational thinking can become stale, or even toxic, and in those times it’s necessary to recognize that some fresh ideas or different ways of thinking may be the remedy.
As someone who grew up watching the heyday of Big East basketball, I hope Patrick Ewing is successful at Georgetown. His basketball knowledge is without question. Perhaps he can hire a staff equipped to help him with the administrative side of things, and maybe his name and NBA career will help him lure the necessary recruits. Maybe he will deliver the storybook ending.
But if he doesn’t, Georgetown has set itself up for more awkwardness and an even tougher climb back to prominence. The timing doesn’t feel right for Ewing, nor does it feel right for Georgetown. It seems the better approach would have been to hire outside of the Thompson circle, and if that didn’t work, then take a shot at the returning icon approach. The Hoyas had an opportunity for a fresh start, and instead jumped right back into the same tired cycle.
This hire is similar to Magic Johnson being hired by the Lakers to be the president of basketball operations. Would Magic be hired by any other team for that role? No. For the Lakers, absolutely? Same with G'Town and Ewing.
Here's why I say it's tough to immediately say that GT got it wrong vs. saying, let's see how this plays out.
1. Ewing has paid a ton of dues as an assistant, and seems willing to listen to advice. He adapted as a player and took deferential roles as a coach to learn.
2. Let's see who Ewing hires. That'll be huge in determining the success of the Hoyas.
3. How does he recruit. The fact that the team bottomed out might be the best thing for him, as he's John Sr. steadily recruited kids from public school while JTIII loved hiring private school kids. Let's see how Ewing goes about it.
I'm rooting for him, and it'll be interesting to witness how it bears out.
Good stuff Naso.
Thanks man. I'm definitely rooting for him as well, as success at Georgetown is huge for the Big East, and even for college hoops as a whole. And I have the utmost respect for Big John as a basketball mind and as a man (we may have never gotten Allen Iverson if it wasn't for him), but I really feel the program operating under constant concern of upsetting him is becoming a hindrance.
By all accounts Ewing's work ethic is top of the line, he obviously knows the game, and with the right staff and some patience maybe he can make it work. I just don't know how much patience there will be, and the experience and timing/current state of the program just seem like a recipe for disaster. It will be interesting to watch for sure.
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