The Right Way Challenge
Today should really stoke some comments. Throughout today the sports world and well beyond will be churning through a news cycle that will be primarily about Penn State and what Joe Paterno did and didn’t do. It will certainly beg bigger picture questions about the state of college football, the out-of-whack perspective that comes with revenue sports and a host of commentary on subjects like legacy, entitlement and a host of other things. You’ll get better coverage, insights and commentary on that at places not named LTP. However, I thought today it would be appropriate to talk about the Northwestern head coaching positions for football and basketball. What better day to discuss the age-old bar room debate about balancing winning with doing things the “right way”.
First, let’s kick the leg out of the arrogance and elitist stool. Northwestern is not perfect. Less than 20 years ago our starting RB and three key basketball players were at the center of a reverse point-shaving scandal, which aside from Penn State-like news, is one of those cuts to the core of the sanctity of the sport illegalities. Yet, Northwestern, and until last year Penn State, seemed to be running mates for football’s unwritten “got the priorities right (aka squeaky clean)” award. Both programs were technically NCAA violation free (admittedly for NU by a technicality) and were perennial powers atop the APR scorecard. Joe Paterno and Fitz were seemingly linked as mentor/mentees as the exuberant young Fitz was positioned as the most likely coach in America to coach the next 30 years at one school. Penn State fans were mounting serious interest in Fitz as recently as a year ago. And we know what happened since then.
Today, however, we’re going to talk about why I believe this crossroads of winning “the right way” has increased the focus on places like Northwestern. The extreme nature of both the football and basketball histories offer an all-too-easy case study to contrast the Wildcat ideology with the bottom-line results associated with most college teams. Before the Penn State tragedy I argued that the seemingly never-ending littany of NCAA violations would create a tipping point for the sport. Could NU stay the course of being the perennial APR champion, stay out of trouble, not cheat AND win? Morty, Jim Phillips, Fitz and Bill Carmody will tell you, emphatically, that winning and succeeding in the classroom while playing by the rules are not mutually exclusive.
This entire post was inspired by Adam Rittenberg’s recent ranking of the B1G head coaching jobs. Northwestern came in at # 11 and you got the sense if our facilities weren’t dead last (AR ranked Ryan Field 10 of 12) the job would be ranked higher. Here is the key point – Fitz has elevated the Northwestern head coaching job significantly. We can all point to the W-L scorecard and be frustrated by the decreasing “W” total each of the past four seasons. However, while managing to have NU as the #1 academic football team in the country (using APR as the report card) he has brought a level of consistency to the program that hasn’t existed – period. He has taken the perceived challenges – stringent admissions, inferior stadium, smallest fan base in the B1G, second-to-worst gameday atmosphere (if you use crowd noise for the home team as a metric) – and managed to flip them in to recruiting advantages. He’s used character of players, academic success and career networking (including the envy of most colleges – a dynamic mentorship program) to authentically attract what the “experts” tell me is a huge uptick in talent in the past couple of years. Oh yeah, and he has a contract through 2020 which will most likely but him in the 99th percentile for tenure among CFB coaches. He has made the Northwestern head coaching position much more attractive for his eventual successor. That’s my main point. If there was a metric for improving the perception of quality of the job, he’d be leading the country. Once the facilities overhaul is complete (stop it, I know) NU will be at a different stratosphere, but they must continue to stay the course with the academics and character of player difference makers.
Northwestern fans get torn. Just look at the comments section that emerged when we discussed the time for a change for Bill Carmody (kudos to Bill for having his best off-season recruiting-wise in his tenure). If you lauded the program for doing things the right way you were pinned as having a “loser mentality”. If you took the bottom-line win/loss approach you were pegged as being delusional for not having a solution for why anyone would take the NU job. I continue to stick up for the NU administration because they authentically want to win. You may not believe me, but they want it worse than you do. They lose sleep at night over tough losses. President Morty Schapiro believes NU Athletics is the front porch to the university and he’s out there watering the flowers, mowing the lawn and ensuring the deck is being redone. Yet, some fans don’t believe this.
One of the most agreed upon voices of reason in college football among this readership is Paul Myerberg of Presnap Read. He ranked NU 59th heading in to this season and we all shrugged after reading his analysis and said “seems spot on to me.” However, he captured the essence of the “how far we’ve come” factor, that if you as a fan use it is seen as a crutch:
“This is Northwestern football as run by Pat Fitzgerald, the legendary middle linebacker who has lifted N.U. into a position where a postseason run isn’t merely a nice surprise but a designated expectation. Unfortunately, those who have seemingly forgotten the Wildcats’ dire past — you wouldn’t think it was possible — are no longer satisfied with six or seven wins; to this slice of the fan base, six or seven wins should have already been used as a springboard to Rose Bowl contention. I can think of three things wrong with that point of view: Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska — and that’s just in the Legends division. It pays to be pragmatic, especially when your pragmatism involves Northwestern football.”
Pragmatic we are not. I’m simply amazed at the talent level we’ve been able to secure in football and even this year in basketball, based on the simple fact that if I were a recruit (unless I came to a marquee soldout game) I’d be hard-pressed to have the gameday atmosphere, say, relative to Wisconsin not play a role in my decision. Yes, I get Fitz’s speech about you spend only 12 days in your four years in that stadium (half day per home game) and the decision is about the rest of your life. But, you’re forgetting that decisions like this are often made with intangibles like emotion, or uniform colors or whether or not you saw a cute girl on your trip. Yet, we convince ourselves “why WOULDN’T you be able to get the best players at NU?”.
I grew up a Providence College basketball fan. Everyone I knew expected, almost felt entitled to get the best players in the country. “Why wouldn’t he come to PC over Syracuse, Georgetown or Arizona?” That probably seems insane to you basketball fans, but it was real and it was palatable. This plays out in most programs’ fan bases. Conversely, I didn’t care one iota about what the players’ grades were or what the APR was (didn’t exist then). I cared about wins and losses. Period. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want and expect to be competitive for Big Ten championships in football. As for basketball, well, it’s even more gray. I have several friends in the college basketball coaching ranks. It’s ugly. The pervasiveness of cheating is pretty rampant. Cash in envelopes to gatekeepers. AAU coaches STILL getting kickbacks for guiding players to certain schools (I was aghast at this when I read Raw Recruits in the late 1980s, but from my small focus group, it is as prevalent as ever, people are just more discreet). I’m told that Northwestern doesn’t play this game. Not all do, but some big time programs very much do. So, just like a business facing a headwind due to economic conditions, commotized product offerings or technological changes, you adapt or die.
Fitz and the staff have surely caused frustration among the fan base for finding a way to lose games we have no business losing and continue to find a win that we have no business winning. Coach Carmody has used up about eight lives. For all of the challenges that exist that they’ll never, ever complain about, they both know and you know that because the “right way” is a key metric in evaluation of their job, and thus they enjoy an extremely rare upside – longevity. Fitz is the second longest tenured coach in the B1G. Odds are pretty darn good by the time his contract expiration date approaches (2020) he’ll be one of the top handful of tenured coaches in the country. Bill Carmody started in 2000-2001 and there are very few coaches in BCS conferences that have a longer tenure. Only Tom Izzo (’95-’96) beats him in the Big Ten and when you look at ALL of the BCS conferences it is a thin and prestigious list – Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Billy Donovan at Florida (my hero), Jim Calhoun at UConn, Coach K at Duke, Kevin Stallings at Vandy (by one year) and Rick Barnes at Texas. That’s it.
You can say what you want, but try finding revenue sport coaches that are each seven seasons in respectively. Put this in the context of BCS conferences and good luck. Fitz and Carmody have both elevated the head coaching positions to future coaches at Northwestern. Granted, Fitz has done more to improve the role than Carmody, but should he actually break through the March Madness drought, it will have huge implications for the next in line. Again, Jim Phillips, in my opinion gets unfairly pegged as “promoting mediocrity” by keeping Carmody on board, but I get the perspective of “we’ve never been this close and we’ve done it back-to-back close”. Fitz is 10 wins away (50) from becoming the all-time wins leader in the 120-plus year of football at NU. He’s over .500 after six years in the program. Find me the last time that was done. I went on the record advocating change in basketball, however, every single time I referenced this I was the one saying “thank you” to Bill for having raised the bar and the profile of the position. Fitz accomplished that two years ago.
The bottom-line is that Northwestern is not a bottom-line “win or else” place. This does NOT mean it accepts mediocrity, but rather is committed to winning the “right way”. Now, we can argue, and I have, that the winning metric should have a higher emphasis (see Bill Carmody) as getting the program from one level to the next does not mean the coach is the guy to get it to the next level. But, to simply say that the administration doesn’t care about winning or accepts mediocrity isn’t correct. The criteria are different at Northwestern. It’s not a crutch, it is an intentional approach.
On a day like today when the news continues to hurt, it’s always good for a dose of perspective. Wanting to win AND do it the right way is not advocating medicority. It’s hopefully called a reminder about perspective.
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