New Georgetown coach Ed Cooley confident he can lead team back to winning season
Big East veteran praises Hoyas’ legacy, focuses on growth and progress
As he has done in October for the last 13 years, Ed Cooley sat at a table to address reporters in a mostly empty Madison Square Garden. This time was different, of course. He was not answering questions about the upcoming college basketball season at Providence.
Instead, with a self-assuredness he has always projected, Cooley spoke of his plan to return Georgetown basketball to the prominence it reached in its glory days under the great John Thompson Jr.
“With the excitement that I feel here at Georgetown, and where we’re going and what we’re gonna build, we’re not there yet, it’s just a matter of time, that’s all I’m gonna tell you,” Cooley told the reporters who gathered around him at Big East media day in October. “It’s a matter of time before we get to where we want to get to. It won’t take long.”
Cooley, was hired by Georgetown to run its basketball program in March, leaving fellow Big East school Providence after 12 years, a 242-153 record, seven NCAA tournament appearances and a Sweet 16. He knows he can lead Georgetown to similar heights and more because he’s seen and appreciates the program’s history.
In 1972, Georgetown hired Thompson, a towering figure both physically and intellectually, who was a graduate of Providence and a backup center to Bill Russell for two seasons with the Boston Celtics. By the mid-1980s, Georgetown basketball was a brand. Between 1982 and 1985, Thompson led Georgetown to three Final Fours and a national championship with the help of future Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing.
Georgetown’s brand was not just winning, however. Thompson’s team was known as much for how it won: with an all-Black roster (before it was commonplace), an intimidating in-your-face physical pressure defense and an outspoken, activist, Black coach who enthusiastically confronted social issues present within the game and society at large. Georgetown was one of Black America’s teams.
In the 1990s, Georgetown continued its basketball and social relevance with stars such as centers Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Later, guard Allen Iverson led Georgetown to Thompson’s last deep NCAA tournament run in 1996.
John Thompson III took over the program five years following his father’s retirement and kept the Hoyas highly competitive for a solid 10-year stretch. But, when Georgetown suffered back-to-back losing seasons in 2016 and 2017, Thompson III was fired. Ewing replaced Thompson III and compiled a record of 75-109 over six years, including a 28-81 record in Big East play before he was fired in March.
Cooley’s hire marks the first time since before the John Thompson Jr. era that Georgetown has reached beyond the Georgetown or Thompson family for someone to lead the basketball program.
“John Thompson in 1986 when I met him, I met him at my high school, and from there we had an incredible relationship,” Cooley said at media day. “And he was one of four Black coaches in America that I aspired to be: John Thompson, Nolan Richardson, John Chaney and George Raveling. And then, lo and behold, I go and work for one of the greatest people ever in Al Skinner. So, I’ve had incredible mentorship of somebody that I could aspire to be. And John Thompson was the top guy.”
Cooley said his relationship with Thompson started when he received a recruiting letter from Georgetown when he was in high school.
“[Thompson brought Georgetown] and practiced at our high school and he invited me to the practice. From there we just kept in touch and when I went to Boston College as an assistant, he was there as the head coach of Georgetown,” he said. “Then when I left there I went to Fairfield and we played Georgetown our first two years and he would always grab my cheeks and swear at me. And then I went to Providence College in 2011, his alma mater. Behind the scenes, coach did a lot, a lot, a lot to help me. [John Thompson III] and I became really close, our families are really close … it’s a lot, a lot people just didn’t know.”
Cooley is concentrating on creating a winning culture and instilling the values that he believes are important.
“Earlier on it was kind of overwhelming, like you see this big statue every day you come into work,” he said, allowing a laugh. “You see this imposing figure. But, you know, you get past that and you got a job to do. At the end of the day it’s a job, it’s a lifestyle, but it’s also a sense of gratitude.”
Cooley says he’s not overly concerned about his own legacy, either.
“I don’t look at legacy, to be honest with you,” he told reporters. “I look at day-to-day growth and progress. I look at how we can change these young men’s lives. What gets lost in the shuffle with all of this, all of this here, these kids are gonna need jobs whether they’re pros or not. They’ve got to graduate. They’ve got to be taught what it is to be a man and to be accountable and to be reliable, know what a 9-to-5 is. There’s a lot to be taught to these young men and women that gets lost in the sauce because everybody’s asking about, whether it be legacy, whether it be about championships. Nah, man, my championship is seeing these kids at graduation day. If you’ve done it long enough – I’m on Year 30 – I think we’re all right. That legacy’s already established. The fact that I’m sitting here is legacy.”
Coaching big-money college basketball is a results-based business. If college coaches don’t win, unfortunately, their thoughts on graduation or the well-being of the young men and women they coach is unlikely to save their job. Ultimately, Cooley’s success will be measured by wins and all signs point to Cooley being successful at Georgetown.
Perry Clark, the longtime college basketball coach who led both Tulane and Miami to the NCAA tournament and had his share of rebuilding programs, believes Cooley is the right person to resurrect Georgetown basketball.
“Ed Cooley has a lot of characteristics that Coach Thompson had,” said Clark, who is from Washington and coached high school and recruited in the Washington area as a college assistant during Thompson’s tenure at Georgetown. “I’m not saying he’s the same man, but community is important to him, his family is important to him. Education and getting young people to be able to grow and stand on their own two feet and be productive and responsible citizens are traits that both of them have.
“And he’s been successful. He helped Al Skinner as an assistant at [Boston College] be very successful, he took over the Providence program and was very successful. So, he brings that DNA to Georgetown and I think the results will be exactly what they’ve always been for him, which will be success.”
Clark believes that Cooley is also uniquely qualified to rebuild a college basketball program, which takes more than just good coaching.
“When you’re building a program, you cannot afford to ever show that you’re discouraged, because everybody’s watching you. So, you have to, by nature, be very energetic, very positive, very upbeat and have a plan,” Clark said. “There are things within your personality that you have to have to do a rebuild: your love of people, your energy level and your ability to relate what it is that you’re trying to do to the community. It’s going out and getting the community engaged and excited and putting people back in the stands and having people come out and support you.”
Cooley preaches this himself.
“When I look at Georgetown winning, before we win on the scoreboard, we gotta win in ticket sales, we gotta win in infrastructure, alignment, we gotta win in marketing, building a community, student engagement, former players,” he said.
Cooley is planning to rebuild Georgetown as he has built his previous programs.
“I draw on a lot of experiences and it goes back to when I worked for Al Skinner at Boston College,” Cooley said. “Boston College was in last place, Fairfield was in last place, Providence College was in last place and we’re now taking over a program that is not coming off the success that I think the district wants to see. So, I’ll draw from those experiences and that’s a lot of experience. Hopefully we can have equal to or greater success than we’ve had at the other schools.”
Clark has no doubt about Cooley’s prospects of success. “Ed Cooley has won the Big East. Ed Cooley has been to the NCAA tournament. Ed Cooley has built programs. So, what you’re asking him to do, not only is in his history, but in his DNA,” Clark said.
A certain coach of a Big East rival also likes Cooley’s chances of success.
“I know Ed’s gonna build [Georgetown] into a power, there’s not a doubt in my mind,” said St. John’s coach Rick Pitino, in his first year with the Red Storm.
Can the Georgetown national brand that flourished and created lifelong fans of the program in the 1980s and 1990s be restored? Will the fans come back after hard times? Clark thinks so.
“Without question,” he told Andscape. “When’s the last time the Yankees won the World Series? When’s the last time the Raiders won the Super Bowl? People are still wearing the silver and black and there are still people rocking Yankee caps. Those things can be touched again and their fan bases are very deep.”
Cooley’s tenure as the head coach of Georgetown basketball and his quest to return the Hoyas to college basketball prominence officially started last week with a win against Le Moyne and a one-point loss against Holy Cross 68-67 on Saturday. The rebuilding will not be easy, but based on Cooley’s history, we know what to expect and so does he.
“Teams that I coach are known for our toughness, our chemistry, our joy of life,” Cooley said. “Our guys will be resilient; we’re going to need to be.”