John Thompson Jr., the Hall of Fame basketball coach who led Georgetown University to national collegiate prominence and became the first African-American coach to take a team to the N.C.A.A. basketball championship, died on Sunday. He was 78.
His death was announced in a family statement released through Georgetown. The statement did not say where he died or cite a cause, but CNN said a family source said that he died at his home in Arlington, Va., having experienced multiple health problems.
When Thompson was named Georgetown’s coach in 1972, the Hoyas were coming off a 3-23 season and had been to only one N.C.A.A. tournament, losing in the first round in 1943.
A burly 6 feet 10 inches tall, Thompson, who starred for Providence College before backing up Bill Russell at center on two Boston Celtic N.B.A. championship teams, was an imposing figure on the sideline, his trademark white towel wrapped around his shoulders, in his 27 seasons at Georgetown.
Coaching the Hoyas to 20 appearances in the N.C.A.A. tournament, Thompson built teams around the centers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning and the guard Allen Iverson. He emphasized strong defensive play as well.
“Georgetown University, the sport of basketball and the world has lost someone who I consider to be a father figure, confidant and role model,” Ewing, the Knick Hall of Famer, who will be entering his fourth season as Georgetown’s head coach this fall, said in a statement. “He changed the world and helped shape the way we see it. He was a great coach but an even better person, and his legacy is everlasting.”
On Instagram, Mutombo wrote, “He was my mentor, great teacher, hero and a father figure to so many us who got the chance to play for him,” adding, “Under coach Thompson, I learned a lot about the game of basketball, but most importantly, I learned how to be a man in society.”
Thompson’s Hoyas won the 1984 N.C.A.A. championship with an 84-75 victory over Houston.
Russell, who often spoke out on racial issues, embraced Thompson afterward and was quoted by ESPN as having said: “I’m more proud of him than if I did it myself. John and I have a special relationship and are philosophical allies.”
The Hoyas reached the tournament final again the following season, but were upset by Villanova.
Thompson’s Georgetown teams won 596 games and lost 239. They captured seven Big East titles. Thompson also coached the United States 1988 Olympic team to a bronze medal.
Thompson was a vigorous advocate for affording Black athletes greater opportunities to pursue college degrees.
He walked off the court just before the opening tipoff at a home game against Boston College in January 1989 to protest an N.C.A.A. proposal to deny athletic scholarships to freshmen who didn’t meet certain academic requirements. He did not coach in Georgetown’s next game, against Providence, leaving the coaching to his assistants. The rule, he said, was biased against disadvantaged students. Opposition from Thompson and others led the N.C.A.A. to modify it.
Thompson kept a deflated basketball in his office to help his players realize that they need to prepare themselves for life after their athletic careers. Georgetown has said that of the 78 players who played four seasons under Thompson, 76 received their degrees.
John Robert Thompson Jr. was born on Sept. 2, 1941, in Washington. His father was a laborer who could not read or write. As Thompson told The Associated Press in 2007, “When I was still coaching, kids would show up late for practice” and he would tell them: “My father got up every morning of his life at 5 a.m. to go to work. Without an alarm.”
His parents, determined that he receive a good education, felt that Roman Catholic schools could provide him with a rigorous academic atmosphere.
Thompson was a star center at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington before leading Providence, a Dominican school, to the 1963 National Invitation Tournament title and, the next year, its first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance. He graduated with a degree in economics and later earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at the University of the District of Columbia.
Thompson was a third-round draft pick of the Celtics in 1964 but saw only limited action playing behind Russell. He retired from the N.B.A. after two seasons.
He became a guidance counselor and coached at St. Anthony High School in Washington, compiling a 122-28 record, before Georgetown hired him.
Thompson resigned as Georgetown’s head coach in January 1999, citing personal issues. Later that year, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
He was a basketball commentator on television and radio after that. In 2000 he established the John Thompson Charitable Foundation, which awards grants to organizations that enhance children’s lives.
His oldest son, John Thompson III, was hired as Georgetown’s head coach before the 200415 season, and reached the N.C.A.A. tournament’s Final Four in his first season, but his teams never made it beyond the first round afterward. He was fired in 2017 and succeeded by Ewing.
In addition to his son John, Thompson’s survivors include another son, Ronny, a former assistant at Georgetown and head coach at Ball State University in Indiana, and a daughter, Tiffany Thompson. His marriage to Gwendolyn Twitty ended in divorce.
Thompson bristled when the news media referred him as a racial pioneer for his coaching achievements. When he became the first Black coach to take a team to the N.C.A.A. tournament’s Final Four in 1982 (a national championship was still two years in his future), he was asked about his feelings concerning that achievement at a news conference.
“I resent the hell out of that question if it implies I am the first Black coach competent enough to take a team to the Final Four,” The A.P. quoted him as having said. “Other Blacks have been denied the right in this country; coaches who have the ability. I don’t take any pride in being the first Black coach in the Final Four. I find the question extremely offensive.”