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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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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.)