A loss to Iowa became the farewell for both former walk-on Reggie Hearn and fired coach Bill Carmody. - USA TODAY Sports
After 13 years, 4 NIT appearances, and ultimately no NCAA tournament appearances, Northwestern finally parted ways with Bill Carmody on Saturday. Carmody departs with a 192-220 record overall, 70-150 in the Big Ten, and NIT quarterfinal berth as his “best” season finish.
At face value, everyone and their mother can tell why Bill Carmody was fired. He never led Northwestern to the Promised Land. Ultimately, as Northwestern AD Jim Phillips put it in his presser yesterday, "This is not just about one year. The final decision was based upon my belief that we needed a different voice, a new leader, a change in order to ultimately accomplish our goals."
I was a rather outspoken supporter of Carmody in some circles (and you can find me losing my cool over at Sippin’ on Purple any time). In my mind, a firing after 2012-13, after the ‘Cats managed to somehow lose JerShon Cobb to academics before the season, Drew Crawford to a torn labrum after ten games, highly touted recruit Sanjay Lumpkin to mononucleosis and a wrist injury, raw center Chier Ajou to a knee injury, walk-on Chosen Forward Aaron Lieberman to shin splints, and ultimately one-and-done graduate student Jared Swopshire to a torn ACL, just somehow does not add up. But Phillips made his rationale quite clear in the press conference that Carmody’s record at Northwestern: Carmody has not recruited well enough or won with the frequency that makes keeping him for a 14th year a feasible option.
Moreover, Carmody was, as Phillips explained, set to enter the final year of his contract in 2013-14. Phillips reasoned that Carmody had not done enough to merit an extension and stated that he didn’t want a sitting duck coach with one year left on his contract recruiting and coaching. Based on his reasoning, the history, and the reality of the lack of an NCAA berth under Carmody, his firing is rational. I don’t support it, but it’s rational. In my mind, Carmody’s system has borne real fruit in the last five seasons, allows his teams to consistently compete at the Big Ten level, and makes up for the talent disparity brought on by Northwestern’s admissions standards.
The focus, then, becomes the Northwestern basketball program. The last eleven coaches to take up the title of head basketball coach at Northwestern have left with losing records. Welsh-Ryan, resplendent with its wooden bleachers, Lite-Brite scoreboard, and cramped seats, still resembles a high school gymnasium at best, an embarrassing representation of a Big Ten basketball program at worst. Northwestern lacks a practice facility, has no basketball tradition to speak of, and manages to be outnumbered by visiting crowds at its home games.
Jim Phillips had the opportunity to address this in his presser yesterday. Asked about potential upgrades to Welsh-Ryan and improvements for existing basketball facilities, Phillips responded that "right now our focus is on the lakefront facilities."
That’s not good for Northwestern basketball.
Phillips proceeded to try to sell the lakefront facilities—the forthcoming Ryan Fieldhouse—as a potential boon for the basketball program. For those of you unfamiliar with Northwestern’s facilities, Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena are about a mile and a half northwest of campus, in the middle of residential Evanston. Ryan Fieldhouse will include things like athletic training facilities, a training table, and some of the modern amenities universal to athletes at many D-I programs, but it will not include a basketball practice facility. Welsh-Ryan will continue to be the "answer" for Northwestern basketball.
Moreover, Phillips had the temerity to stand up and downplay Northwestern’s facilities: with proximity to Chicago, academics, degree value, and Big Ten competition, Northwestern, Phillips reasoned, could be a destination for coaches and top-flight recruits alike. In my mind, Phillips is either lying, deluding himself, or spinning the issue away from no plans to upgrade facilities—this school is not a destination for basketball, and it will not be until the administration prioritizes it with new facilities and an upgraded arena experience.
I’ll briefly address academics. Yes, to everyone saying "Northwestern should just lower its admissions standards for basketball," that would make it a lot easier. We get it. The university, from top to bottom, has made it quite clear they will not do this. I fully support this. Whether or not you disagree, academic restrictions will be what they are for Northwestern athletics for the foreseeable future.
Get to the point, you’re probably thinking. Let’s talk succession! Well, I was all prepared to have a great talk about which of Duke AC Chris Collins, Harvard HC Tommy Amaker, Bucknell HC Dave Paulsen, or a slew of dark horse candidates like Northwestern AC Tavaras Hardy would be best for the program. But, as Rodger Sherman at SoP posted Sunday morning, sources like Andy Katz and Teddy Greenstein are reporting that Collins—widely considered a front-runner—is "very interested" in the job and welcomes the challenge of recruiting to Northwestern’s rigorous standards.
I’m slowly warming up to the idea of Collins. Coming from the Krzyzewski coaching tree, he comes with the inevitable question of if he’ll be a successful shoot of the Coach K tree (like Mike Brey), or a bust (like Johnny Dawkins of Stanford). But if he’s excited to recruit to Northwestern, thinks he can implement a competitive system in Evanston, and bring the program to the Promised Land, Phillips would be foolish to not give him that chance.
The remaining question then becomes the volatile nature of the Northwestern roster: will JerShon Cobb stay? Will Drew Crawford—eligible as an enrolled grad student to transfer without sitting out a year—remain in Evanston? What of top-100 recruit Jaren Sina, whose father recently threatened in a Chicago Sun-Times article that Sina might not step foot on campus if Carmody were fired?
Phillips attempted to address all these questions in the press conference, acknowledging that he would be in contact with recruits, would talk to Crawford, and would work with the staff to ensure a smooth transition. But he acknowledged that while he spoke with Crawford and challenged him to become a "catalyst" for keeping the program intact for Carmody’s successor. Crawford could prove a catalyst in just the opposite way, however. Those questions, for the time being, remain unanswered.
For Carmody, in case you were wondering, talk is that he should be a front-runner for the Drake head coaching position. Those facilities would already be an upgrade. Happy trails and best of luck, Bill. I’ll miss your lack of neckwear, your cantankerous sideline stalking, your Princeton Offense, and the 1-3-1 zone. The last two endeared me to Northwestern basketball even as a young teen in Minnesota: not the most graceful basketball player the Southeast Metro ever saw, something about offensive and defensive systems that allowed for intelligence and precision to earn cheap turnovers and backdoor layups appealed to me. I’ll miss that in Welsh-Ryan next winter.
Bill Carmody’s firing was justified. Like it or not (and I clearly don’t), Jim Phillips was justified in letting Carmody go. But the next step, which Northwestern seems unlikely in the near future to make, is an upgrade to basketball facilities at Northwestern, either on-campus or at the athletic complex on Central Street. A new, shiny coach like Chris Collins may do temporary wonders for the program if he can break The Slump, but the state of Northwestern’s facilities show a long-term deficit in commitment to a program.
In the end, Carmody’s struggles stemmed from his inability to recruit, his aloof nature, and his lack of results in the Big Ten and postseason. But those were exacerbated by a university unwilling to commit the resources necessary to be taken seriously as a Division I basketball program playing in a power conference. Until then, sustained success at Northwestern will be a product of extraordinary effort and a little luck. Northwestern has lacked bits of both at every juncture. If the facilities do not improve, those stars will need to align for the Wildcats.