Following a legend's not easy, especially when it's dad
WASHINGTON -- A photo of the aftermath of Georgetown beating Duke last season wraps around three walls as you walk up the stairs toward the Hoyas' basketball office. Because the Verizon Center floor is covered with fans, you can barely pick out any players or coaches.
"I'd like to get to the point where we don't have to put a photo like that up there," said John Thompson III. "That was a great, great game, our biggest game, but our goal is to get where we're not storming the court at home when we win. Hopefully in another few years, we can put up another big picture there where we win and everyone is just walking off the court."
Given Thompson's success so far at Georgetown, other coaching sons who follow in their fathers' footsteps hope to get to the point where they nab wins as big as Thompson's.
JT3 (the nation's coolest coaching acronym) is on track to pull off the greatest replacement job ever. No offense to Joey Meyer (DePaul) or Murry Bartow (UAB), although they didn't have the luxury that Thompson had at Georgetown -- a buffer between their legendary fathers and themselves.
The Thompsons had the Craig Esherick years. They weren't barren, with four 19-plus win seasons and one Sweet 16 berth in 2001 (the only NCAA appearance in Esherick's tenure), but they were there, nonetheless. That's something that Sean Sutton won't have as he takes over for his father, Eddie, at Oklahoma State this season.
"I don't know if it's easier or not," Thompson said of having a coach in between. "The name erases that."
"He's done a great job," Sean Sutton said. "I hope that my first two years are as good as his were at Georgetown."
Thompson coached the Hoyas to a 19-13 record in his first season in D.C. and then to a 23-10 record last season, one that ended a few possessions away from an Elite Eight appearance. This season, the Hoyas have potential All-Americans in Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, and are billed as a preseason top-10 team and a legit Final Four contender.
Formerly the head coach at Princeton, Thompson hesitated in taking this job because he loved the Ivy League school so much. He is Pete Carril's disciple as much as he is, in basketball terms, his father's. He played at Princeton. He coached there. He met his wife, Monica, there.
It is his wife's heretofore private battle with cancer over the past year that makes what he has accomplished at Georgetown even more impressive. Let's not kid ourselves here: Thompson is winning while his wife is going through cancer treatments. And, by the way, they have three children, ages 3, 5 and 8.
"She's doing OK," he said. "If I didn't know it, I've learned that she's significantly tougher than her husband. It's not close. But we'll be OK."
Monica currently is going through a second round of treatments.
"It's a horrible disease," Thompson said. "The one thing that has been good about being home is that we've gone through this with our family. We didn't have that at Princeton. I can say 'Mom, I need you to get over here' or 'Pops I need you to take the boys to the barber shop.' "
No one is kidding themselves into thinking that Georgetown will again become an intimidating force under the younger Thompson. That era is over. JT3 isn't the towering figure of his father, and that's OK. He is coaching differently as well as running a different system, even though the teaching is still paramount. So is the repetition and precision.
Sutton is trying to make that first step, too, by guiding the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament. He was forced to take over for his father last February when the elder Sutton was in an auto accident and had to take a leave of absence for an alcohol problem.
"I never envisioned taking over like that," Sutton said. "He made a terrible use of judgment and then I had to step in and coach. I tried to do the best job I could."
Sutton thought all along last season was going to be his father's last. That's why he thought his father would attempt to come back after the accident so that he could ultimately end his coaching career on his terms. That plan, though, ended up being impractical.
Even with last season's trial run, it won't be any easier for Sutton to replace his legendary dad, especially when it's at the same school.
Pat Knight will have to step into his father's shoes whenever Bob retires, but the Knights don't have the history at Texas Tech that they do at Indiana, so it might be harder to expect greatness when there isn't a tradition of it in Lubbock. The same is true at Washington State, where Tony Bennett is replacing his father, Dick, but basketball history hasn't been established in Pullman to the degree that you would think Tony is under immense pressure.
"It's hard to replace any legend," Sean Sutton said. "[My dad] meant so much to our fans. They love him and he came back to build our basketball program to a national power. There's pressure with anything, but I feel I put the pressure on myself. I know what built this program. I played in it."
JT3 didn't play at Georgetown, but he grew up around it. He is a Princeton man with Georgetown bloodlines.
"One of the things you have to decide is if you want to leave, and once you do, it's full speed ahead," Thompson said. "I love everything about that place, and I'm glad I'm here."
So is just about everyone on Georgetown's campus. The basketball buzz is palpable and the expectations are there, in part, because he started winning right away. That may be the only way to follow a father of legendary status.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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