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
"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?