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Thompson v. Boeheim: the Coaches that Shaped the Rivalry

Thursday's news that Jim Boeheim won't be on the sidelines for Saturday's Georgetown-Syracuse match-up is disappointing, because it's robbing us of another vital aspect to this storied rivalry.

It dropped like a bomb, the news Thursday that the NCAA D-1 Infractions Appeals Committee upheld the panel's decision to suspend Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nine games for failure to monitor his program. However instead of the suspension starting at the beginning of conference play, Boeheim will serve his suspension immediately.

Which is a shame, because it takes more of the luster away from the rivalry he helped build.

Boeheim will miss Saturday's long-awaited renewal of the rivalry between his Syracuse Orange and the Georgetown Hoyas. He'll still have a chance to face his most-hated opposition before he retires: next season inside the Carrier Dome, and again in 2018 against the rabid Georgetown faithful in DC.

It's only right they would get that chance. Without Boeheim and his arch-rival in the DMV, there would be no rivalry.

Jim Boeheim and John Thompson Jr. were two coaches who couldn't be more opposite - one a balding, four-eyed white kid from Upstate New York with an affinity for plaid blazers, the other a gigantic, domineering product of the civil rights era who is revered for his toughness and demand for respect.

They are forever bonded by the conference they assembled into the most prominent in the country, and the rivalry that manifested with each meeting. Their hatred was not built on close proximity or geographical contempt, but rather the competitive fire displayed on the court, both by the players and their coaches. When Thompson and the Hoyas closed Manley Field House for good, it kick-started a 33-year war between the two head ball coaches that was as fierce as none other.

Thompson's Hoyas got the better of Boeheim's bunch in the 1980s, with Patrick Ewing and Sleepy Floyd among a multitude of other Georgetown legends. "With Coach Thompson," former Syracuse forward Howard Triche said, "sometimes it was them against the world in some aspects with the group he had." They were the heels of college basketball: brash, in your face, tough, and most of all, they were dominating on the court. If they were the bad guys, Thompson was Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.

But Boeheim was never the coach to shy away from displaying his emotions. See: the 1984 Big East Tournament, when Michael Graham threw a punch at Andre Hawkins, but was only given an intentional foul instead of an ejection. After Georgetown pulled away in OT to win, a fuming Boeheim took the podium and said, "Michael Graham punched my player in front of 19,000 people, and [referee] Jody Sylvester didn’t have the guts to call it! The best team didn't win tonight," before tossing a chair as he walked off.

"Georgetown made a great comeback," Boeheim noted, "but it was a disappointing call at the end of the game, which sometimes happens. In the heat of the moment you’re going to be very upset." "Boeheim was called ‘the math teacher.’ He also didn’t suffer fools lightly," according to the late Georgetown SID Bill Shapland. "There’s no hero and villain picking between him and Thompson."

Thompson owned Boeheim in the 80s, winning 19 of their 27 meetings in the decade, but the bespectacled coach would get his retribution in the 90s. After a 19-point rout to earn his first win in DC in 1990, Boeheim met Thompson once more in the Dome with the Big East regular-season title at stake. In front of a boisterous Syracuse crowd, Thompson nabbed an unprecedented three technical fouls from all three referees on the court in 10 seconds, ejecting him in the first half.

"That was the most memorable game, I think, in the series," Boeheim reminisced. "We had three Final Four referees working that game, great referees...It wasn’t an outrageous call. John had one official right next to him, and he just went after him, which you expect on a call. He got the technical. That official left. The second official came over to try to calm down, and he went after him and got the second technical. That ref left, and now the third guy comes over, and he got the third technical [for walking on court]."

As Otto's Army gave Thompson hell for the early ejection, the general soaked it all in, thrusting his hands into the air as a chorus of boos rained down. "Emotions were always very high," Thompson remembers, "and that’s the beauty of it now when you look back at it. I don’t remember why I was mad. I probably created something to be mad about, to tell you the truth." His reaction may have backfired, as Syracuse would go on to win the game, and the Big East title, in OT. "Had we won that game, guarantee you: Manley Field House statement wouldn’t have been nothing compared to what I would have said to ’em!"

That was a turning point in the rivalry, the second of a five-game winning streak that turned the tide in Boeheim's favor. Boeheim went 13-5 against Thompson in the 90s. Georgetown was still a top program, but Syracuse had taken its place as the premier program in the Big East, and worse, a rising UConn program was replacing Georgetown as Cuse's most dastardly foe. By the end of the decade, Thompson was finished at Georgetown, ending 19 years of animosity and admiration between two of the greatest of all time.

"There’s a difference between competitive dislike and personal respect," Thompson says. "Regardless of what I felt competitively, Jim Boeheim is a hell of a basketball coach. And that’s what made it better to dislike him.."

So it only made sense when Craig Esherick was sacked after a 7-4 record against Syracuse that Georgetown tabbed a Thompson to lead them back to respectability. John Thompson III was the only man who could rightly fill the shoes of his father, and direct the rivalry back into one of the most must-see meetings in college ball. Who else could give this rivalry the extra "umph" it needs better than a Thompson?

A Thompson will be there this Saturday, but a Boeheim won't. It's unfortunate, because what would Georgetown-Syracuse be without Thompson vs. Boeheim?