The death of legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. on Aug. 31 brought back memories of a great era of college basketball in which a handful of private schools in the Northeast banded together to form the Big East and at the same time bring ESPN to life.
Thompson’s Hoyas would develop must-see-TV rivalries with the likes of Villanova and St. John’s, but no annual clashes in the conference could match the fierceness of Georgetown vs. Syracuse. And Thompson created the bitterness that drove that rivalry with six short words on a winter night in Upstate New York.
Georgetown gets in on the Big East’s ground floor
John Thompson Jr. coached Georgetown to three NCAA Final Fours in the 1980s and won the championship in 1984. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee built one of the nation’s great programs with the likes of Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning as he posted a 596-239 record from 1972-99 with the only college program he ever coached.
At their peak, the Hoyas made six trips to the NCAA Elite Eight from 1980-89. It’s no coincidence that the stretch was also the first decade of Georgetown playing in the Big East. The conference came together in 1979 when visionary Providence College coach Dave Gavitt banded the Friars together with Georgetown, Syracuse, and St. John’s to form the nucleus. Boston College, Seton Hall, and Connecticut accepted the initial invitations, and Villanova and Pittsburgh joined shortly afterward.
The league rocketed to success, promoted relentlessly by ESPN, which made its cable television debut in September 1979 and frequently showcased Georgetown vs. Syracuse. The high point came when St John’s, Villanova, and John Thompson’s Georgetown squad turned the 1985 Final Four into a near-Big East monopoly.
John Thompson takes Georgetown vs. Syracuse to a new level
Georgetown vs. Syracuse existed before and after the schools lived together as conference foes. But the rivalry was never as intense as when they went head-to-head in the Big East. Credit the late John Thompson Jr. for much of that.
When Syracuse University broke ground on the Carrier Dome in November 1978, the building was envisioned as a football-only sports facility. However, school officials felt that the Orangemen (as SU teams were known then) had outgrown 9,500-seat Manley Field House and made the decision to move the men’s basketball team to the Carrier Dome in the fall of 1980, making it the largest on-campus basketball arena in the NCAA.
The decision was a source of controversy because the “Manley Zoo” was an intense atmosphere arguably more intense than what Division I followers associate with Duke’s 9,300-seat Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Orangemen took a 57-game home winning streak into their final Manley appearance, scheduled against John Thompson’s Georgetown team on Feb. 13, 1980.
The home winning streak helped push Syracuse to No. 2 in the nation for the final contest that Tuesday night, and Jim Boeheim’s team built a 15-point lead early in the second half. However, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd and the Hoyas stunned the crowd by rallying to win.
Moments after the final buzzer, Thompson spoke the six words that officially sparked a monster Georgetown vs. Syracuse basketball rivalry:
“Manley Field House is officially closed.”John Thompson Jr.
John Thompson and the Hoyas packed the Carrier Dome
Powered by its ESPN television contract, Big East schools turned up the recruiting heat. With the likes of Chris Mullin and Walter Berry at St. John’s, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington at Syracuse, and Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, conference games turned into big national events.
And, fueled by the words of John Thompson Jr. after the final game at Manley Field House, Syracuse vs. Georgetown became the top draw in college basketball. Syracuse moved into the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, creating rivalries with Duke and North Carolina that have attracted huge crowds to the Carrier Dome. However, five of the arena’s 20 largest basketball crowds ever have been for clashes between the Orange and the Hoyas.
The largest Georgetown vs. Syracuse crowd ever set what was then an NCAA record (35,012) for an on-campus game. Thompson had long since retired, but the Hoyas defeated the Orange, 57-46, on Feb. 23, 2013, in a game significant for two reasons: It broke Syracuse’s 38-game home winning streak and it marked the last time the rivals would meet as members of the Big East.
Nearly a quarter of a century earlier, two consecutive Georgetown appearances in Syracuse rated amongst the most memorable events in Carrier Dome history.
On March 5, 1989, sixth-ranked Syracuse beat No. 2 Georgetown in overtime, 82-76, before 32,683 fans in beloved guard Sherman Douglas’ final home appearance.
On March 4, 1990, a then-record 33,015 fans witnessed a great showdown as Derrick Coleman, in his final home game, clashed with Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Thompson was hit with technical fouls by all three officials in the first half, and No. 10 Syracuse edged No. 7 Georgetown in overtime, 89-87.