Georgetown was just another team on the Syracuse University basketball schedule and John Thompson was just another faceless coach. However, that all changed the night of Feb. 12, 1980 in the Manley Field House finale. That evening, a Hoyas’ upset that snapped second-ranked Syracuse’s 57-game home court win streak coupled with six salt-in-the-wound words delivered by Thompson in his post-game press conference ignited a rivalry that would become one of the most torrid in sports history. Moments after Georgetown spoiled the Manley farewell party for the 9,251 fans who had packed the place, the hulking 6-foot-10 Thompson smiled broadly into the television cameras and announced in a deep baritone: “Manley Field House is officially closed.”
Neither the rivalry nor the fledgling Big East Conference would ever be the same. Thompson, who died Sunday at age 78, immediately went from being an anonymous coach to public enemy No. 1 in Syracuse. “It was almost like fighting words, like ‘Remember the Alamo,’ or ‘Remember Pearl Harbor,’ ’’ long-time Syracuse sports information director Larry Kimball told me several years ago. “It was like casting bad remarks at your mother or something.”
No one was more stunned than the SU players, especially senior center Roosevelt Bouie, the longtime Kendall resident who had never experienced defeat on his home court before. “They came into town and ruined our party,’’ he recalled. “And then Coach Thompson made that statement. That just got people even more riled up. From that point on, whenever he and his team came to town, the crowd really got on him. He became big, bad John, the guy they loved to hate.”
During the next three decades, the Hoyas and Orangemen would play some of the most spirited and memorable games in Big East annals — often in front of 30,000-plus crowds in the Carrier Dome or packed houses at Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center or at New York’s Madison Square Garden for the annual conference tournament. There was no shortage of star power in the series, as the Hoyas relied on big men like Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning, while the Orangemen often rode the clutch performances of guards such as Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas and Gerry McNamara.
At the focal point of the rivalry were the coaches, who started out as mortal enemies but became close friends. “You had two fairly young coaches that were trying to establish their programs as the best program,’’ Boeheim said in a 2013 interview. “And you’re going to have moments and battles in those games that are going to get heated. We had those in the first years. At the end, it really mellowed. We came together, got to know each other off the court. And we became friends at the end of the rivalry when we were still coaching.”
Thompson concurred. “There’s a difference between competitive dislike and personal respect,’’ he said. “Regardless of what I felt competitively, Jim Boeheim is a hell of a basketball coach. … I have always respected their program and Jimmy. And I never could have admitted it — never would have admitted it. But you want a good opponent. That’s what you measure yourself by.”
Thompson loved the passion of SU fans. He reveled in coming to the Dome and playing the role of the villain. “I always had a love-hate thing with Syracuse because of the atmosphere,’’ he said. “It was competitive dislike, but I respected the fans.”
It’s difficult to pick out just one Big John moment in the rivalry because there were so many epic ones, but SU’s 89-87 overtime victory in the Dome on March 4, 1990 would be tough to top. That was the game when Thompson was ejected after drawing technical fouls from three different referees. As he walked slowly to the locker room, he grinned and waved his ever-present towel above his head. The majority of the 33,015 spectators showered him with boos. It was great theater, and Thompson the thespian clearly knew how to exit a stage.
SU’s decision to leave the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference sucked the air out of the rivalry, and even though the teams have met several times since going their separate ways, it’s just not the same. “At one time, for a 10- or 15-year period, it was probably the No. 1 rivalry in the country, even bigger than North Carolina and Duke,’’ Boeheim said. “It will be missed and the Big East will be missed because it’s what we knew and what we grew up with and what made us. But it was time to move on. It’s just the way college athletics has evolved. The memories of Georgetown-Syracuse will last forever in people’s minds. People who attended those games will list them as some of the greatest events they ever witnessed.”
I’ve experienced first-hand the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox and Buffalo Bills-Miami Dolphins sports feuds at their peaks, and they can’t match the intensity of the Orangemen versus the Hoyas. Players from the respective schools really didn’t like one another, and it showed as basketbrawl games occasionally erupted.
Thompson was a master recruiter, strategist, teacher, and psychologist, and in 1984 it all came together as he became the first Black coach to win a major college championship. Fifteen years later, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. While the wins got him there, they were only a small part of his remarkable legacy. Thompson was a vocal and tireless advocate of Black student-athletes and coaches, often taking unpopular but just stances on social issues. He placed a heavy emphasis on education, and his teams often ranked among the nation’s best in graduation rates. Thompson kept a deflated basketball on his desk — a reminder to his players they wouldn’t be able to play forever, that someday the air would be taken out of their basketballs and they’d better have a degree to fall back on.
He often imparted great wisdom and possessed a wonderful, biting sense of humor. Thompson clearly had a way with words, and never pulled any punches, as Syracuse fans angrily discovered 40 years ago when he ignited the fiercest sports rivalry I’ve ever covered. He was a man they loved to hate but came to respect. RIP, Coach Thompson.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.