Coach not born with silver whistle in mouth

Princeton's Thompson III told not to follow ex-Hoya

December 02, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The first thing to know about Princeton's John Thompson III - whose team plays UMBC at 7 tonight in Catonsville - is that he entered the coaching profession despite the commanding presence of his father, not because of it.

John Thompson II and his wife, Gwen, steered their sons toward other lines of work after John III played at Princeton and Ronny played at Georgetown. This recommendation came even though both sons wanted to coach basketball.

"When we graduated, they recommended that we do something other than in ball," said Ronny, 34, who now works as an assistant at Arkansas. "We wanted to experience other things. But it's something that we've been comfortable with - if your dad is a teacher, you might follow that path."

In the Thompson family, dad was the legendary coach who led Georgetown to three Final Fours, including a national title in 1984. Since his retirement in 1999, John Thompson II has worked as a broadcaster for NBA games.

For John III, who graduated in 1988, a diversion of seven years included stints working for Ford Motor Co. and a sports marketing firm. It was not long enough to make himself a lifer in either field, though long enough for him to realize that he was fighting what he wanted to do. It ended after a short conversation with Pete Carril, the man whom he played for in college and Princeton's coach for 29 years.

"`Are you ready to come back?'" John III, now 37, recalls Carril asking him before the 1995-96 season, as he offered a junior assistant position on the staff. "I didn't see myself being a head coach."

However, the head coach title went from distant possibility to reality at warp speed during 2000. In September of that year, Bill Carmody - who had taken over after Carril's retirement in 1996 - went to Northwestern. A more senior assistant, Joe Scott, had departed to coach at Air Force earlier in the year.

That left John Thompson III as a natural fit, someone familiar with the school and the distinctive Princeton offense, a go-slow approach that meticulously sets up nearly every shot.

"He was involved in all aspects," Carmody said. "So he was prepared. I didn't need to advise him."

The new head coach inherited a team without its best player, 6-foot-11 Chris Young, who had opted to pursue a baseball career. Nonetheless, the first season (in 2000-01) resulted in an Ivy League title.

"You didn't have the luxury of an ideal setting," Thompson III said. "Clearly that wasn't the case. I was already working, plus I was at my alma mater and we had a good group of kids. Expectations were nil, but we had high expectations of ourselves."

The Ivy title sent the Tigers to the NCAA tournament, where Princeton lost to North Carolina in the first round. In 2002, the school tied for the league title but did not advance.

Injuries have hampered the program. One of the team's more talented players the past two years, forward Andre Logan, has been limited to 15 games because of knee injuries, and Princeton has lost forwards Spencer Gloger and Konrad Wysocki at various points.

One of the keys to a second NCAA trip might be a less-intense John Thompson III, according to senior guard Ed Persia, who notes that a more experienced team (with three starters and seven regulars returning) requires less practice than in past years.

"He knows better how to rest us," Persia said. "Practices would run an hour longer than they do now. The constant grind would play a role [in injuries]. Now, we have an experienced group of players."

The 2-0 Tigers team on display tonight against UMBC (2-0) will likely use the style of play seen by those who've seen the school's teams in near-upsets in the NCAA tournament. The emphasis is on extensive distribution of the ball and back cuts in an effort to find easy shots.

But while the scoring has tended to be spread out in past years, 6-9 center Judson Wallace is averaging 29.5 points per game for Princeton, something that the Tigers' coach will gladly take but not something he expects to continue.

"As the year progresses, we'll see a lot more assists for him," the coach said. "We have several people who can score. It just happens to be Judson in these first two games."

Princeton will make another appearance in Baltimore on Dec. 29 against Loyola, the program where Ronny Thompson served as an assistant from 1994 to 1996 under coach Brian Ellerbe.

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