For the first time in 30 seasons, Georgetown wasn’t invited to a postseason tournament. The Hoyas’ streak ended much the way it began: with a sign calling for the firing of the coach.
Letters spelling out “Fire Esherick” were displayed in the windows of a house near campus last week. The message took: School administrators, who days earlier had given a public vote of confidence to Craig Esherick, fired the Hoyas’ head coach of the last six seasons.
Esherick, who has spent pretty much his entire adult life in service to Georgetown basketball, came to the school during the 1974–1975 season as a freshman forward. That was the year the Hoyas three-decade postseason run started.
The last call for a Hoyas coach’s head wasn’t successful. It was, however, far more loathsome.
At the start of a game in February 1975 between Georgetown and Dickinson College at what was then the Hoyas’ home court, McDonough Arena, a bedsheet was unfurled scrawled with “Thompson the Nigger Flop Must Go.” The “Thompson” on the sheet referred to the Georgetown coach, John Thompson, then in his third year of running the Hoyas program. The folks who hung the sheet from a window inside the gym ran away as their hate speech fell to the floor.
“That was shocking, a shocking event,” recalls Felix Yeoman, a freshman forward who was sitting alongside fellow reserve Esherick on the Hoyas bench when the sheet was put on display. “All these years later, that’s a very fresh memory for me. Even when you consider that the racial climate, coming out of the 1960s, was very different than it is now, to have something like that happen at an institution with the reputation Georgetown had, well…that definitely caused a stir.”
Thompson hadn’t come into the Georgetown job without controversy. The coach, a D.C. native, had strong name recognition locally. He had played at Archbishop Carroll High School when that school was a national powerhouse. And as a coach, he’d built up St. Anthony’s, a Northeast prep school, from nothing into one of the premier programs in the talent-rich D.C. area almost overnight. The Tonies went 122-28 in Thompson’s six years there.
The emergence of St. Anthony’s as a powerhouse coincided with the birth of a high-profile feud between Thompson and Morgan Wootten, the DeMatha coach and burgeoning prep-school legend. The squabble, which brought a lot of attention to both programs, was fought almost exclusively off-court: Because of the scheduling tactics of both Thompson and Wootten, the schools didn’t play each other while Thompson was at St. Anthony’s. Each coach regularly lobbed accusations at the other of ducking his team.
Wootten was considered a leading contender to get the Georgetown job after the 1971–1972 season, when Jack Magee coached the Hoyas to a 3-23 record.
But the Rev. R.J. Henle, president of Georgetown, hired Thompson. The new coach had no previous college coaching experience. The Jesuit university, in turn, had no previous experience with a black coach—Thompson was one of the first black coaches at any major basketball school. But administrators and fans alike looked to Thompson to lift up the historically middling Georgetown program the way he had St. Anthony’s, and just as quickly.
Thompson from the beginning relied heavily on local kids he’d recruited—he started four freshman his first season at Georgetown. His teams went 12-14 and 13-13 his first two years. Bigger things were expected for the 1974–1975 season, but after a strong start the team hit a slump around Christmas break, and the murmuring about getting rid of the fledgling coach started on campus. The Hoyas were stuck at .500 and coming off a six-game losing streak and a monthlong home-victory drought when they tipped off against Dickinson.
Then the bedsheet was unfurled.
“That really fired the team up,” says Yeoman. “Things weren’t going so well for us, but then there was that banner, and the team all saw that, and that actually motivated us.”
The Hoyas beat Dickinson 102-60, the first time one of Thompson’s teams had scored more than 100 points. The 42-point margin of victory was the largest of Thompson’s tenure to that point. After the game, Thompson stayed in his office rather than talk to reporters about the incident. The players organized a press conference on campus to discuss the matter the following day, and Yeoman was appointed by his teammates to be their spokesman.
Yeoman, who now lives in University Park, was just 17 years old, the youngest Hoya that season. He had played two years for Thompson at St. Anthony’s, and he thinks his youth and close ties to the defamed coach got him the spokesman role. He’s not sure he was ready for the job.
“I guess I was too young to look at that sign and think anything philosophical,” he says. “But I remember being very angry. We were all very angry.”
At the press conference, attended by the entire team, Yeoman held up the bedsheet so any reporters who missed the hateful words could see them for themselves. And, green or not, he got his squad’s message across.
“The sign was a personal affront to every man on this team—white and black,” Yeoman told the media.
Henle said there was zero consideration of replacing Thompson. The formerly slumping Hoyas then went out and won all but one of their remaining games that season—the loss coming against local and East Coast Athletic Conference rival George Washington. (The Big East was still a couple years away from its founding.)
In March, Georgetown traveled to Morgantown, W.Va., to meet West Virginia in the ECAC South final. Along with the conference championship, a berth in the NCAA tournament was at stake.
The Mountaineers took a three-point lead with under a minute left on a shot by leading scorer Bob Huggins, now the Cincinnati coach. But Georgetown came back, with freshman reserve Derrick Jackson hitting a long-jumper with two seconds left to give the Hoyas a 62-61 win.
Jackson’s shot guaranteed Thompson his first invitation to what is now known as March Madness—and the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1941.
“That sign motivated us to play harder that season,” says Yeoman. “Given where the team had come from, it seems like we were being judged by different standards. I don’t know if some people around Georgetown were just excited about us and wanted us to win, but that certainly wasn’t the way to express disappointment in the team. [Thompson] certainly didn’t deserve that.”
Thompson took his teams to the postseason for each of his remaining 23 years at the school, bringing Georgetown its first NCAA championship in 1984. He retired during the 1999 season. The individuals who hung the sheet at McDonough Arena in 1975 calling for his firing were never publicly identified.—Dave McKenna