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Patrick Ewing Returns To Georgetown As Head Coach. Now What?

In hiring Patrick Ewing, Georgetown brought in a program icon who also happens to be a respected basketball mind. But nothing about this job is simple.

by David Roth
Apr 3 2017, 9:00pm

The leadership thing. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Gathering the nation's men's college basketball coaches in one place would present a frightening image. The overwhelming majority are white; only 22.3 percent of Division I men's head coaches were African-American last year, which is 2.9 percent below the historic high of 2005-06. Many of these men would be appallingly dressed, and they would be blinking either not at all or dozens of times per minute; all of them would be hoarse, stressed, going at their phones as dutifully and vigorously as teenagers. Very few could, in honesty, tell you that they felt secure in their jobs. Some of this has to do with the type of person that becomes a head men's college basketball coach, but much of it has to do with the job they have.

It would be easy to spot Patrick Ewing in this crowd, because he would be one of the very few faces recognizable for something more than a long tenure on some program's bench, and because, in this crowd as in just about any other on earth, Ewing stands a head taller than everyone else. Basketball fans would recognize Ewing as a NBA Hall of Famer and one of the defining big men of his era. College basketball fans would remember Ewing as one of the greatest college players in history, the man at the heart of three Final Four teams and the 1985 National Champions during his career at Georgetown. Georgetown fans, even those who know him only as one of their program's defining stars, would recognize him as something like a king. If you watch NBA games closely, like close enough to notice the assistant coaches on the bench giving advice or looming over huddles, you might recognize Patrick Ewing as a coach. When Georgetown announced on Monday that Ewing would replace John Thompson III—the son of Ewing's legendary Georgetown coach, and a friend of Ewing's—it marked the first time that Ewing had been hired as a head coach after many near-misses at the NBA level. Still, it feels wrong to say that anyone whose life in basketball has been as remarkable as Ewing's could be unqualified for such a job. So much of his resumé has happened right there on the court, where everyone could see it.

People that cover basketball will tell you that Ewing, for all his many other talents in the game, also happens to have a uniquely acute basketball mind. He certainly means enough to Georgetown basketball, as an institution and as it is valued by the boosters and alums that keep the program both rich and worried, that it wouldn't really matter if he didn't. Before St. John's hired him as their head coach two seasons ago, Chris Mullin had been an All-American and an All-Star, one of the most robustly accented sports broadcasters in recent memory, and a general manager with a decidedly mixed track record; he'd never been a coach, in college or in the pros, but if it gave anyone involved any pause they still haven't admitted it. Mullin hired competent assistants and set himself up as CEO. It's hard to say if it's working, but as a worst-case baseline for how things could go for Ewing at Georgetown it at least provides a frame of reference. Mullin has lost nearly twice as many games as he's won over two years, and the program is no closer to its zenith than it was before he was hired. But Mullin is inarguably there, just as he was the last time the program was great. At some point, that won't be enough. But also that might have been the point all along.

Ewing seems, just on the merits of his many years in coaching, well-prepared for the basketball challenges ahead. Thompson's system was never fun to watch, and recently stopped working altogether; Ewing knows enough about the game to tear it up if he needs to, and has built a stellar reputation for helping players improve in the pros. The more opaque part of the job is, by design, the more opaque part of the job. The CEO tradecraft, the recruiting and the glad-handing and the relationship management with the various power centers in the college basketball economy and the myriad figurehead duties that come with serving as the public face of the weird mutant entity that is a big-time college sports program—those things are supposed to be out of sight.

For a program like Georgetown, which wants wins and dignity at the same time, the balance between on and off the court is even trickier. Ewing is certainly qualified for the Georgetown job, but part of that qualification owes to the unique sentimentality that's shot through college basketball in general, and programs like this one in particular. What he represents matters a great deal, and that sentiment necessarily makes the parts of the job that happen away from the court that much harder to know. This is the gig, too: to do a job at the center of everything, but also to do it well enough to distract from the oily churn at the margins.

There is the strange and unmistakable sense that everything in college sports is happening on the increasingly translucent surface of a bubble that is being inflated to ever more implausible proportions by any number of obscene influences. But those are the conditions under which college basketball coaches work. It's hard to say anyone's ever ready for a job like that, and not just because it's increasingly hard to say what the job even is. That's the job Patrick Ewing chose, and the one he has. He'll figure out the rest along with everyone else.

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