Who’s the coach or player—college or pro—who made you love a sport?
Including players in that prompt undoubtedly means you’ll have more of the latter than the former. People don’t love Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense the way they love Michael Jordan, and for good reason. Tom Izzo is the face of Michigan State basketball for his longevity, but everyone’s got a Mateen Cleaves or Draymond Green or Magic Johnson story.
And that’s fine! We remember the players who win titles, or play the game the right way, or go onto unparalleled heights.
I can unequivocally say that Bill Carmody made me love college basketball.
As with a lot of these tributes, my reasons for latching on to Coach Carmody’s style—the Princeton Offense he learned under Pete Carrill at Princeton, with its bevy of backdoor cuts, handoffs, and three-pointers played at a glacial pace; the 1-3-1 zone, affectionately known as “the Kraken” to Northwestern Wildcats diehards—were personal.
To drone on about why wouldn’t be fair: I was a below-average basketball player who hung around because of my height and defense, who loved the game but hated getting blown out repeatedly out of some neanderthalic commitment to man defense and the Bo Ryan swing offense; who could replace basketball with speech, math team, quiz bowl, and jazz band.
I said I was a Northwestern student.
In June, Bill Carmody announced his retirement from Holy Cross after four challenging years marked by one wild, improbable, dream run to the NCAA Tournament. He finished his coaching career 342-318 (.519), with that winning mark totally on the strength of his 92-25 record in three years at Princeton. He finished his thirteen seasons at Northwestern 192-220 (.476), 70-150 (.318) in conference play.
In a sense, it’s dumb to eulogize a coach who’s still living, to compose paeans to a tactician the game had so clearly passed by. The Princeton Offense was never Carmody’s downfall, but recruiting—pounding the pavement and the AAU scene and staying awake in Target Center—and coaching interior play continuously stymied Carmody at Northwestern.
And yet Carmody’s Northwestern—my Northwestern—stayed relevant far longer than it ever should have. The 2008-09 through 2011-12 seasons—the last three my time in Evanston—saw the peak of Northwestern under Carmody, as the ‘Cats won 17, 20, 20, and 19 games, going either 8-10 or 7-11 in conference play.
Those matched the program’s highest conference win totals since 1982-83, and the first time the program had won 20 games in a season.
And all the while, Carmody stalked the sidelines, his mannerisms famous to Northwestern fans. He scowled. He stomped his feet. He yelled. He threw his hands up, stormed to his chair, sat down, crossed his legs, threw his arms up, and stood up again. He yelled more. “Make shots!” echoed through the cavernous Welsh-Ryan Arena. They even adorned a student section t-shirt and defined a common coping mechanism for Northwestern hoops.
This was my team.
At this point, you all know my love for Coach Carmody. Even if you hadn’t paid attention in 2016 when I followed Carmody and his Holy Cross Crusaders to Boston University for a game against the Terriers—again, it can’t be stressed enough that I planned a vacation to visit a friend in Boston around a Patriot League basketball game—surely the five hundred words to this point have made that point.
But Carmody was a throwback, a comfortable album that you put on when you wanted to block out the noise of the modern game, just listen to some jazz, grab a good book—preferably not Miss Lonelyhearts, but memes are what they are—and sip a glass of your driest red wine.
He was the oenophile-turned-coach. The thinker, not the recruiter. A guy who looked more at home on Wall Street than in Welsh-Ryan, to say nothing of Breslin or Williams or Mackey.
And yet he won. In all those places.
Almost every highlight in there—every backdoor pass from the lumbering, loveable oaf Kyle Rowley, every pop-out three from Kevin Coble, every turnover forced by Jeremy Nash atop the 1-3-1, every swaggering drive from Michael “Juice” Thompson—was classic Bill Carmody. It was classic Northwestern. Even if you’d hadn’t played in more friendship games than consolation championships—as I swear to you, as a youth basketball player, I had—how could you not love that story?
There’s a point in those highlights where Luka Mirkovic—an awkward almost-7’ center from Serbia—hits a turnaround baseline jumper that would make my childhood pro idol Kevin Garnett blush. That is likely the only time Mirkovic ever made that shot, in his four facemasked years in Evanston.
Mirkovic—and Rowley, and Coble, and Juice Thompson, and Ivan Pelusic, and John Shurna, and Davide Curletti, and Alex Olah, and so many others including the recruits who finally could be the one like Drew Crawford—defined the Northwestern player under Carmody. Awkward, with visages or shots or mannerisms drawing the mockery of opposing fans, running backdoor cuts and pick-and-pop threes and raising their hands high in the 1-3-1—these were the misfits who made us love Northwestern basketball. Bill Carmody brought them to Northwestern. Bill Carmody made them Northwestern. And they brought Northwestern to heights we couldn’t fathom.
Until we could.
And until we wanted better.
I still don’t believe Northwestern should have declined to extend Carmody when they had the chance. But that puts me in an awkward position, knowing what happened just three years later.
Maybe it’s just a romanticized image I gave Carmody and his Wildcats teams—teams that seemed to live out the dreams I had as a teenager of being smart and good at a sport in which just a couple all-conference talents, who surely would never come to Evanston, could make the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it’s the admiration I had for a guy who stuck out in his own low-key way—disdain for the modern college basketball landscape, throwback offense and quirky defense, ties only on Christmas.
But that’s not the debate here. Northwestern moved on, embracing a vision for more modern basketball, from recruiting to style to facilities. And that’s fine.
Because I will always have those years of Bill Carmody stomping after another possession ended in a mid-range jumper after 15 seconds, rather than a slip-screen three after 30 second. I will always have those years of the 1-3-1 forcing a tipped pass and turnover on one possession, then yielding a corner pocket three or offensive rebound on the next, then coaxing an errant skip pass on the third. I will always have those four NIT appearances and the self-assurance that one bounce—one less offensive rebound allowed ever, one foul less for Jared Sullinger, one more made three in the 2012 Big Ten Tournament—would have cemented Carmody’s legacy as the best ever at Northwestern.
But those are would-haves, could-haves, and should-haves. And those are so un-Carmody that they don’t matter. And that’s where I find my peace with his legacy and where I keep my admiration of his coaching.
And there he was. Patiently fighting the crowds, looking as if he would kill to just melt away, was Bill Carmody. We approached.
He realized it was us again, and a smirk crossed his face if just briefly. “Hey guys.” He extended his hand. We both shook it.
I’m sure we sounded like idiots, thanking him for everything he’d done at Northwestern and wishing him the best, but he flattered us with his attention, giving the trite yet biting Carmody postgame response of something to the effect of “Well, we can’t shoot, we can’t win.” Then he stopped. “Can either of you guys make a shot?”
I about shit my pants. There he was, the coach who scowled and stomped and stalked the Northwestern sidelines for 13 years, screaming at John Shurna and Juice Thompson and Jitim Young to “Make shots, damnit,” asking us if we could. I panicked. “We learned it from you, Coach.”
An assistant appeared at the doorway, and one more time we got the sad Bill Carmody smile, wave, and departure.
I watched Holy Cross games at times that were unreasonable, on networks that no man with an ounce of self-respect should watch, against teams that I’m fairly sure don’t actually exist. I chased that dream for just a little while longer, clinging to the idea that Carmody could bring Holy Cross back to the NCAA Tournament. I wanted it for him. What a silly thing to want—a participation trophy for a man who would have impatiently waved off such dumb requests. Yet when he acknowledged those of us in the Basketball Band, or when he acknowledged me at Boston University, he humored us and left us knowing that while he could act aloof, he cared so deeply about winning and winning his way.
Maybe it was that commitment that let him down, in the end.
But maybe it was a reminder to keep pushing that boulder up the hill, to appreciate the third and fourth and fifth acts in life, should you get them, to stay true to doing it your way.
Bill Carmody, and his commitment to a beautifully-weird, beautifully-ugly, beautifully-Northwestern style of basketball, made me love college basketball in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
To Coach Carmody, if you ever read this—thank you. My prayers to you and Barbara. Happy retirement.