John Thompson passed away on Sunday at the age of 78. What he left behind was a legacy that was larger than a game. Not only was a highly accomplished NCAA basketball coach, leading Georgetown to a title in 1984 while winning numerous coach of the year awards, he was also renowned for his ability to be a leader of young men.
A Washington, D.C. native who plied his trade in Virginia, Thompson was an influential figure for many in the area, particularly those who looked like him—an African-American man. One such man was Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who yesterday paid his respects to the man who is a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Rest in Power to the legendary Coach John Thompson”, he said. Blueprint idol, mentor to many, including myself. He’ll be greatly missed. Big condolences to his family and loved ones”. Much of the press exchange continued to focus on Thompson, and this is how Tomlin elaborated on the great’s impact on himself:
Just as a Virginia boy growing up in the eighties, I had the Georgetown starter jacket. I was a Hoya. I think it also was impressive, the impact he had in the lives of the young people that he worked with, two of which were from my home area. Alonzo Mourning is a couple of years older than me, and Allen Iverson is a couple of years behind me. So as Virginia boy from that part of the state, I just had a bigtime appreciation, not only for his coaching prowess and reputation and record, but how he moved in the lives of the young people that he worked with. And then as I got older and got into the profession of coaching, particularly here in Pittsburgh, he was a mentor, if you will, a guy that had been there and done that. I just appreciated the times I had the chance to visit with him and glean some of his wisdom.
While Tomlin comes from a Pittsburgh tradition of being about more than the game going back to the Rooney family itself, it’s as much that these qualities in Tomlin were attractive to the Rooney family when hiring him than that they were fostered in him upon arrival.
But as he stepped up into the all-important leadership role of head coach, as he acknowledged, he took the opportunity to lean on Thompson and gain that wisdom about how he, too, could be a leader of men from that high a platform, and as you’ll recall, at such a young age. He’s been doing this for a while now and only turned 48 this year.
I think we all have role models, in some form or fashion, at least at some point in our lives. Thompson, from all accounts, was a good one to have, and one who had a direct and profound impact on Tomlin, one that is reflected in the manner in which he treats his players today. And he is not the only one through which Thompson’s legacy will live on.