GLENDALE, Ariz. — The political intrigue, infighting and general flailing that defined Georgetown’s coaching search came to a predictable conclusion on Monday afternoon. A program that for decades has operated in isolation, secrecy and paranoia chose to stay within its own family by hiring Patrick Ewing as its next head coach.
Ewing, a 15-year NBA assistant coach, could acclimate well to the college game, crush the recruiting trail and turn the Hoyas back into the menacing program that consistently contended for national titles. But there’s also as good of a chance that the hire could be a total disaster, as Ewing’s lack of head coaching experience, absence of recruiting expertise and unfamiliarity with the college game could keep Georgetown lodged near the bottom of the Big East.
Will this be a home run or a total debacle? It’s a fair question. But few can argue just how captivating this grand basketball experiment will be. The confluence of a Hall of Fame name, a decaying brand and just enough unknown elements makes this one of the most intriguing hires in the history of the sport.
Ewing is the greatest player in Georgetown history and a respected NBA assistant coach who has the presence and gravitas to potentially revive the fading Georgetown brand. But that’s going to take so much more than teaching drop steps and hook shots, as Ewing’s success will ultimately be dictated by how quickly he navigates the learning curve of modern college basketball.
Here’s the trickiest part—this has very little to do with basketball. “When the excitement wears off and the reality hits, he’ll realize just how different it is,” said a veteran Division I coach. “You’ve got to be connected to your college players like minute-to-minute on a basis daily. It’s a different world. Coaching in college is like a different sport.”
And coaching in Washington D.C. is complicated enough that it makes the political football in town look tame. Curtis Malone, the former Washington area amateur basketball kingpin, perhaps best summed up what Ewing is heading into. Malone ran D.C. Assault, this generation’s most dominant summer basketball program in the area, before going to federal prison for operating a massive cocaine and heroin ring. In an interview in federal prison in 2014, Malone famously said: “It’s a lot easier being a drug dealer than an AAU coach.” Welcome to college basketball, Patrick.
It’s simplistic and obvious to say that Ewing’s success will come down to the caliber of staff he’s going to put together. He needs someone who can seamlessly maneuver his way through the political forces of Team Takeover, DC Premier and the DC Blue Devils, the three largest programs in the area. There’s no argument that the Washington D.C. area has the most talent of any place in the United States. But siphoning that talent is much easier in theory than reality. As is finding the right coaches to help. “I think the staff is the most important piece,” said Keith Stevens, who runs Team Takeover and is considered the top AAU coach in the Washington D.C. area. “I think Georgetown can recruit nationally, not just locally. They need a good mix of guys who can relate to local guys and also go recruit the guys outside the region.”
One issue that has undercut Georgetown in recruiting in recent years is the school’s cozy ties with agent David Falk. A peek at his client list reads like a roster for a Georgetown alumni All-Star game: Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe, Otto Porter and Dikembe Mutombo. Falk, not surprisingly, represented Ewing and helped him sign what was the biggest contract in NBA history at the time. Falk’s pipeline to Georgetown became a turnoff to AAU coaches, as their programs are typically funded by agents not named David Falk. “So many AAU coaches have ties to agents,” said a veteran coach in the Washington D.C. area. “Sending them there was giving up control.” Stevens laughed heartily when Falk’s name came up on the phone on Monday afternoon. “I can’t speak for anyone else,” he said. “For me, I don’t really care. The media people are saying it more than anyone else. I’m not sure where it’s all coming from.”
Ewing’s first on-court challenge will be changing the style of play, as former coach John Thompson III’s Princeton offense ultimately led to his doom. It failed to fit the style of players in recent years and Stevens said it turned off recruits “a lot.” He added: “We have a lot of talented kids and they have a certain ways in which they want to play and certain systems help them make big impacts when they get to college.”
Former Georgetown coach Craig Esherick pointed out on Monday night that summer basketball culture has filtered up to the NBA, with coaches and front office personnel having to deal with AAU coaches. (Stevens said he’s never met Ewing). Esherick, an associate professor of sports management at George Mason, thinks Ewing will do well at Georgetown. He points out both Ewing’s early mastery of the responsibilities of all five positions as a player and the legal nuances of the lockout as the head of the NBA players union. “I think it’s a legitimate discussion,” said Esherick, of Ewing’s lack of college experience. “But I also think he’s a quick study.”
What should concern Georgetown fans about the importance of Ewing’s staff is how the school has not proved a traditional incubator for assistant coaches. Would an established assistant with strong D.C. ties like Miami’s Chris Caputo, Syracuse’s Adrian Autry or Louisville’s Kenny Johnson leave the stability of their current situations to roll the dice on working for Ewing? Georgetown has a poor track record of keeping and developing assistant coaches, as in recent years they’ve left for places like Rutgers (David Cox), Nebraska (Kenya Hunter) and LSU (Robert Kirby).
And that brings us back to the most compelling part of this hire, the implied institutional decision that Georgetown still wants John Thompson Jr. holding a strong influence on the program. The specter of Thompson hovering over the program proved scary to established potential coaches. And the specter of further alienating Thompson after they fired his son also proved scary to Georgetown. “This is no doubt the result of a completely blown approach to the process,” said a veteran athletic director who followed the search closely. “They find themselves doubling down on the one thing you’d think you want to get away from.”
That decision to double down comes with considerable risk. The program is already buzz-less, lacking an on-court identity and has a roster so devoid of talent it would make 1980s Hoyas weep. If this hire goes right, it’ll be a dynamic marriage of a proud program and a boldfaced name. If it goes wrong? “Do you know who they become?” said another veteran college coach. “They become St. John’s.” Georgetown doubled down on its past to secure its future, and how Ewing’s hand plays out will be one of the most fascinating storylines in the sport the next few seasons.