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Hoya Liberation Day

For Georgetown basketball fans, a new era has dawned as coach Craig Esherick's tenure comes to a merciful end.

11:20 AM, Mar 18, 2004 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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JUST STOP. IT'S OVER. FORGET ABOUT IT. There's always next year. For college basketball fanatics, today is when it all ends. The beauty of your brackets marred by upsets or upsets that never happened. Will Mississippi State beat Duke? Probably. Georgia Tech over Kentucky? Maybe. Connecticut over Stanford? How's Omeka's back holding up? Will Eddie Sutton finally be victorious? (I've got Oklahoma State in my pool.)

There's one thing you won't have to worry about: How far will Georgetown get? That's because for the first time in 30 years, the Hoyas will not be going to any postseason tournament, having ended a miserable 13-15 overall and 4-12 in the Big East. But just when you thought the once-great Hoyas were headed for the Patriot League, at 11:00 p.m. Tuesday night, the university released a statement by President Jack DeGioia announcing that Craig Esherick, coach of the men's basketball team, had been fired.

FOR THOSE NOT FAMILIAR with the internecine politics at Georgetown, the news hardly merits mention. If a coach at a Division I basketball program does not do well, chances are administration officials will carefully review his performance and decide whether or not to continue with him. Sometimes the coach is given another chance to build the program; other times he gets canned.

But not at Georgetown. In January of 2003, with the team having lost 6 of its last 9 games and sitting, crumpled, near the bottom of the Big East, athletic director Joe Lang was quietly preparing a contract extension for the coach. And after the team failed to make the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year and finished with a 6-10 conference record (but made it to the finals of the National Invitational Tournament), the university rewarded Esherick by extending his contract until 2009.

The 2004 season was worse. After a 10-0 start (against such powerhouses as Grambling, Coastal Carolina, Norfolk State, and Elon), the Hoyas lost 15 of 18. Unlike the nail-biting losses of last year, some of these defeats were downright ugly. Against a St. John's team that included four walk-ons, Georgetown shot 36 percent for the game, eventually losing 65-58. (The Red Storm would end the year with only one conference win--against Georgetown.) The Hoyas shot a miserable 31.5 percent in their loss to Temple. At Seton Hall, Georgetown shot 26.5 percent overall--and 13.6 percent in the first half, managing a mere 14 points before halftime, before losing, 75-48. Odd, since Esherick's plan this season was for a perimeter-oriented offense, one to emphasize its strength as a shooting team. Some plan.

Georgetown played its final game of the season last week against Boston College, losing to the Eagles, 68-57. It was the first time the Hoyas have ever lost in the first round of the Big East Tournament. Their 13 wins were the fewest since the 1973-74 season. They also finished on a nine-game losing streak, the worst in more than 30 years.

ALUMNI AND STUDENT ANGER over Esherick's tenure started in earnest last year, with chants of "Fire Esherick" and the occasional poster. But as the season wore on, the chants grew louder. After a stunning loss to St. John's (after holding a 15-point lead with 5 minutes left), one fan got within earshot of the coach, waved a newspaper at him, and yelled, "Look at the want ads, Esherick!" Then a banner went up on campus calling for a new coach (the banner was quickly taken down).

This year the anger had reached another level. At least one house in Georgetown placed a sign on its front window saying "Fire Esherick!" Someone managed to spray-paint Key Bridge with the same demand. There were T-shirts and posters at games--one at the Virginia Tech game read "EaSe our PaiN, Fire Esherick!" The coach's brother, Blake, reached across the aisle and pulled it out of the fan's hands.

Adding to this anger were Esherick's bizarrely combative and confident statements. On his team's failure to make the postseason: "You're talking about 30 years in a row of being invited to the postseason, and that's a pretty incredible streak that I don't think our school got credit for, that I don't think I got any credit for." Regarding his critics: "If I'm evaluated as a college basketball coach and I'm evaluated as a professional coach, I think that 99 percent of the people that would evaluate me and understand what a college basketball coach is supposed to do and understand what I'm supposed to do here at Georgetown, 99 percent of those people would say, 'Craig has done a heck of a job over the last five years, and Georgetown is lucky to have him."

"IF THE GOAL IS TO GRADUATE PLAYERS, and it's a fine goal, put an English professor in charge of the team because he can graduate players and lose to Virginia Tech twice, too," said sportswriter John Feinstein (with whom I spoke two days before Esherick's dismissal). "You want to graduate players, and at Georgetown you should graduate players just as at Duke you should graduate players and at Notre Dame you should graduate players--but [Esherick] is paid the amount of money he is paid to win basketball games within the constraints of the university, in which there is supposed to be some academic standard attached to it, and he has failed to do so. End of discussion. And it has nothing to do with the NBA. Coaches get fired in the Patriot League for losing. That doesn't mean they're not expected to graduate players," Feinstein added. "They are."

But Esherick only grew more defiant as the season dragged on. On March 5 he told the Associated Press, "I ain't going anywhere. I may be here for another 30 years." This followed a statement from the university in which President DeGioia said, "I believe that this season's men's basketball team and our new class of recruits holds a great deal of promise. I have confidence that Craig Esherick, who helped to build our tradition of excellence in men's basketball, is the right person to strengthen and lead our program." That display of overconfidence and commitment to Esherick pushed some fans and alumni over the edge.

STEVEN THOMAS, Georgetown Class of '97, decided to draft a petition after the most recent Virginia Tech loss. In the petition are demands for better communication between the administration and students and alumni, improved scheduling "with a minimum of MEAC schools," seating the student body around the court, and renovations of on-campus McDonough Arena, ultimately leading to all games being played there. Thomas planned to stage a rally on St. Patrick's Day and hand-deliver the signed petitions to DeGioia's office. "They cannot ignore us any longer," he said.

Notably missing from Thomas's petition was a demand for Esherick's dismissal. Another petition, savethehoyas.com, was more explicit: "The current coaching regime simply has not found the level of success we, or any Georgetown fan for that matter, expect from the basketball program. It must be replaced. The hiring of a prominent head coach must be the program's first priority." That petition, at last count, had garnered close to 4,000 signatures. But it was Thomas's intent to have an on-campus protest that made the effort a one-two punch. "I postered and re-postered throughout campus the night before the rally," said Thomas. But as soon as the fliers went up, university maintenance crews tore them down. "Even at Red Square [an outdoor gathering area for students] where free speech is encouraged, they removed them."

Then suddenly, word leaked that the university had decided to fire Esherick.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN? A mere 11 days after administration officials gave their vote of confidence, DeGioia issued this statement: "After careful deliberation, I have decided to make a change in the leadership in our men's basketball program. I'm deeply grateful to Craig Esherick for his more than two decades of dedicated service to Georgetown University's men's basketball program, the last five and a half years as head coach."

"I'm very surprised. I certainly did not see it coming," a stunned Esherick told the Washington Post. Neither did his critics, nor the organizers of the petitions and the rally, which nevertheless took place before a crowd of roughly 30 dazed, but happy, supporters. "You think they heard us?" a hoarse-voiced Steve Thomas yelled from his bullhorn. About 15 supporters followed Thomas up to the president's office and, much to everyone's surprise, were led into a conference room and eagerly met by two university vice presidents in an off-the record gathering where grievances were heard.

Afterwards, the students said they were rather optimistic. Murphy Gallagher, a sophomore, was happy with Esherick's firing, saying "anybody else" would be better at this point. One of the most die-hard Hoya fans at the meeting was Slade Smith, also a sophomore, who wore an "I Bleed Hoya Blue" T-shirt: "I am definitely happy we are taking the program back in another direction. For this team at this point, Esherick was not the person for the job."

IT MIGHT BE MONTHS or even years before the truth about the St. Patrick's Eve Massacre (or what alumnus David Alexander vows to call from now on "Hoya Liberation Day") is ever found out. Did DeGioia and Lang have to get Hoya coaching legend John Thompson's approval before they could sack Esherick? Did Thompson actually play an active role in his successor's dismissal?

On his radio show the day after the firing, Thompson said he learned of the firing when assistant coach and former Hoya and NBA star Jaren Jackson called him saying, "Craig Esherick has been relieved of his coaching duties." Thompson went on to describe Esherick as "extremely talented" and "a damn good man." But he considered both the coach and the president to be "two men in difficult positions." He admitted that Esherick's job "is predicated on wins and losses" and went on to say, "I know it wasn't easy following me."

And who will follow Esherick? Rumors abound, from Duke assistant coach Johnny Dawkins to Patrick Ewing to John Thompson III. And somewhere in between are nightmare scenarios including Mike Jarvis and Ronny Thompson. But for the time being, victory can be savored. DeGioia has now stated, "We are deeply committed to the future success of men's basketball as measured by maintaining national competitiveness with the leading programs in the Big East and the country," thus dispelling conspiracies about joining the MEAC or Patriot League.

Thompson said, "Things don't always work out the way we want it to." But for all the Hoya fans dreaming of a return to the Big Dance, sometimes they do.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.