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The Decline and Fall of the Hoya Nation

How a sports dynasty dissipates: From Ewing to booing, the decline of Georgetown basketball.

11:00 PM, Feb 19, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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CALL IT wishful thinking (or the fact that I attended the school), but I was sort of hoping that the Georgetown Hoyas would do to Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Syracuse what they did to a foreign team in an exhibition game last November. Back then, the mighty Hoyas crushed Latvia Select like the Red Army dismantling, well, the Latvian Army. The score was 132-58. Today the Hoyas are 11-11, 3-8 in conference, and have yet to beat a ranked team.

The story of how they went from there to here is the story of the decline and fall of a basketball empire.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL is at its headiest in February. Teams across the country play critical conference games that will determine who gets into the NCAA tournament come March. Such games matter little to Georgetown since they will not be going to the big dance this year. It is worse than it looks: Georgetown has made the NCAA tournament once in the past four years.

That's right. Once. This, from the legendary program that brought us Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson. This, from the university that just six years ago had more players in the NBA than any other school save North Carolina. Today seven schools have more alums playing professionally (North Carolina, Maryland, Arizona, Michigan, Duke, Connecticut, and Kentucky).

For an alumnus of any school with a storied sports program, seeing your team in decline can be upsetting. After the great Dean Smith left North Carolina, Tar Heel fans were ready to tar and feather his successor, Bill Guthridge--who only took the team to two Final Fours in three years.

The Hoyas haven't been to the Final Four since 1985. Not that they've lacked for talent. Take the 1995-96 team that included Allen Iverson, Jerome Williams, Othella Harrington, and Jahidi White. That's four future NBA players on one college roster (somehow they only made it to the quarterfinals). The 2002-03 team boasts a sure-fire NBA standout: power forward Michael Sweetney, who is the Big East's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder.

So why, then, is Georgetown at the bottom of the Big East, facing the possibility of not even making the conference tournament, let alone the NIT--let alone the NCAAs? The Hoyas have lost 9 of their last 12 games. Many of those games were decided by narrow margins (three games were lost by a point, one in overtime, and another in double overtime). Could the problem be . . . the coach?

MOST SPORTSWRITERS are wary of criticizing Hoya coach Craig Esherick. And for good reason: If Esherick clings to power after you say he's lousy--there goes your access. (Since I've never spoken to the man, I've got nothing to lose.) And, to be fair Esherick deserves some credit. In 1999 he was left with an 0-4 team (in league play) after his predecessor John Thompson departed in mid-season.

And Esherick is certainly no novice. He spent 17 years as an assistant to Thompson and even played for the Hall of Fame coach in the 1970s. In two areas he has improved the Hoyas: (1) They shoot better from the free-throw line (currently around 73 percent--and junior swingman Gerald Riley is 19th in the nation). (2) Their non-conference schedule has been beefed up, with games at Virginia and Duke this year, and the Blue Devils coming to Washington next year.

That said, Esherick's teams are now 38-41 in the Big East and 6-24 against ranked opponents. The Hoyas are 11-11 and 3-8 in the Big East despite having Sweetney, who is 16th in the nation in scoring. (Sweetney, a Consensus All-American, committed under Thompson following his sophomore year in high school. There is a good chance he will turn pro after this, his junior year.)

Without crying j'accuse, some sportswriters are beginning to point the finger Esherick's way. As Tony Kornheiser put it in the Washington Post, "The Hoyas' season seems to be characterized by their inability to make a play late in games. That's what did in Norv Turner with the Redskins." I asked renowned sportswriter John Feinstein if he agreed. "There's no question who's at fault. That's on the coach," he said, "especially when looking back at the last two years now." (Last season, Georgetown lost two games by a point and four in overtime.) "There's a pattern. Remember, Georgetown isn't an offensive team. Thompson was a terrible offensive coach. He was much better at defense. And Esherick learned to coach from Thompson."

Midway through this season there was grumbling about Esherick's performance. Then word leaked that the university was discussing extending his contract to 2009--in the middle of Georgetown's worst season since the Nixon administration--and all hell broke loose.

At some point during the recent six-game losing streak, Georgetown fans turned on the coach. After a loss to St. John's--where Georgetown gave up a 15-point lead with 5 minutes left in the game--the Washington Post reported that one fan held out a newspaper to the coach and screamed, "Look at the want ads, Esherick!" By the time UCLA came to town, spectators were chanting, "No extension! No extension!" and "Esherick must go!"

The other shoe dropped when Georgetown's athletic director, Joe Lang, told the Post that making the NCAA tournament every year was "an unreasonable" expectation for the school. This prompted students to post blue fliers throughout campus, reprinting Lang's remark.

(Lang attempted to clarify this remark in an interview with the Georgetown Voice: "Goals you go after and you set them," he said. "If you do them and achieve them a lot of people begin to assume that you will achieve the goal. It's that assumption that makes it an expectation. To me there's a difference between the two. We know that we have to go after our goals. We go after them and we do everything we can to make sure we achieve. . . . We've had a lot of success which has raised expectations, but it hasn't changed our goals and hasn't changed the way we do what we do; we understand there can be raised expectations." Lang did not appear to dispute what the word "have" means.)

Asked how the losing streak would affect contract negotiations, Lang replied, "Not at all. Not at all."

I TURNED TO a local sportswriter (who asked not to be named) and asked him why Georgetown would even consider extending Esherick's contract to 2009. He found it "all too strange." "They'd have to have wool over their eyes," not to think Esherick was a problem. The only theory my sportswriter friend could come up with involved John Thompson himself, who, he says, many speculate is still actively involved in the decision-making on campus: "Esherick would have to be fired by Joe Lang, and Lang is a Thompson guy, too. But if you got a new athletic director, then you'd have a chance of getting a new coach."

Feinstein agrees, to a point, saying that while "John might still be pulling some levers, if the team doesn't make it to the Big East tournament, then Esherick is going to be out on a limb. There will be such pressure on the administration to do something about this." He is reminded of the situation at Army, where there were talks to extend the football coach's contract, despite a 5-29 record. "In the end, they backed down. If they didn't, the alumni would have burned West Point to the ground." (In an AOL column earlier in the season Feinstein supported giving Esherick an extension. I asked him if he still felt that way: "Obviously I wasn't talking about extending his contract until 2009. Maybe two or three years to work with recruits and get things going." He adds, "Esherick will never be as good a recruiter as Thompson, because he isn't an icon in the black community. Not that he's a bad recruiter. And while the school will never be what it was in the 1980s, it could still model itself after Connecticut or even Notre Dame.")

There are still other ramifications regarding the success and failure of Georgetown's basketball team. One university official (who also asked to remain anonymous) told me that "a good basketball team has a huge impact on giving. It builds momentum in both students and alumni. It's common sense. It's something to be proud of. And it'd be ridiculous if we don't make it to the Big East tournament." And though applications to the school continue to skyrocket (this year's applicants number around 15,600) despite the declining basketball program, there is still some correlation. According to the same administration official, "We saw a spike in applications in 1984-85, when we won the national championship. That is what got us over the hump and broke us out of the mold of Georgetown just being another Catholic school." Indeed, the University of Maryland has witnessed something similar of late, following the rise of its basketball program.

IS THE END OF THE EMPIRE a foregone conclusion? The next few month will be telling. The Washington Times speculates that Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech and John Thompson III of Princeton are secretly being considered for the coaching job. One famous sports columnist thinks P.J. Carlesimo would be a good fit.

"No way Carlesimo would return to the college level," says Feinstein. "And John [Thompson III] wouldn't leave Princeton either." Some are hearing that Ronny Thompson is being considered. (Remember, John Thompson's younger son interviewed for the head coaching job at West Virginia last year before the Mountaineers went with John Beilein.)

"The first thing any prospective coach needs to ask," says Feinstein, "is what are the parameters? How involved will the administration be in what I want to do? And where will the team play?" Feinstein thinks that playing in the 20,600-seat MCI Center, home of the NBA's Washington Wizards, is "disastrous." "You can't possibly fill up those seats. It's the same way for Seton Hall. Then you look at schools like Notre Dame and Syracuse who have great on-campus facilities and great records." True enough, Georgetown is only averaging a little over 7,000 spectators per game. If the team could play at on-campus McDonough Arena, the atmosphere could certainly improve. Unfortunately McDonough holds fewer than 2,500 seats--below the league minimum.

On the other hand, if the university decides to extend Craig Esherick's job until 2009, then the struggle over Georgetown's identity will have taken a decisive turn. "Do we want to return to our Jesuit roots or do we want to be Harvard-on-the-Potomac?" questioned one professor. Or, as some students hope, do we want to become more like Duke or Stanford, both athletic and academic powerhouses? With Esherick at the helm for another six years, the university is actively approving of his performance and saying that basketball isn't a priority.

The students are enraged--a banner demanding a new coach was recently seen hanging from a main campus building. Alumni and other fans are equally upset. And there doesn't seem to be any indication that Esherick is in trouble. He ought to be. But there is a lesson here: Great sports programs evaporate for two reasons. The first is scandal. A dirty coach can tar a school for a generation. And when a bad coach sullies a program, it's a tragedy.

But ordinary neglect is just as harmful. For whatever reason, the powers-that-be at Georgetown have decided to turn their backs on the Hoyas, to look past problems that are obvious to everyone else. Perhaps it's cronyism. Perhaps it's a softness of spine. Any way you look at it, it's a travesty.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard and, like Patrick Ewing, a graduate of Georgetown University.