Our Very Own NUBHG & 100 Other Reasons Why NU Hoops Feels Cursed

As far as football crutches go, you have to hand it to Iowa blog, BlackHeartGoldPants.com.  They created an acronym that became ubiquitous  in college football based on their inexplicable string of bad luck at the running back position.  Since Shonn Greene departed the land of the bumblebee colors for greener pastures, the Hawkeyes have seen more RBs get injured, transfer or kicked out of school than you can imagine.  They deftly coined the acronym AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) and the awkward looking and impossible to pronounce shorthand made its way in to mainstream college football media. “Mark Weisman looks like a beast, have no fear, AIRBHG will have its way with him.

I’ve got a newsflash for you Hawkeyes fans. AIRBHG doesn’t hold a “bah, humbug” to Northwestern basketball’s misfortunes over the last, oh, 75 years. In the basking of our Gator Bowl victory, NU Athletics fans felt almost impervious to the embarrassment that is our basketball tradition. Yet, with starter JerShon Cobb suspended for the year, our leading scorer Drew Crawford injured for the year and seemingly every other player getting injured when they step on the floor, just two games in to the 2013 conference season and you really find yourself asking “what the hell did we do to deserve this?”

If a ‘Cat has nine lives then Bill Carmody is the king of the ‘Cats and is on season and life number 14.  I promised to not engage in a “who’s after Carmody?” debate during this season so I won’t go there right now. Instead, it’s time to dig under the bowels of Welsh-Ryan Arena and try to find out what bones we buried to find our fan base collectively pressing its noses against the glass as we watch another year go by without us getting inside that March Madness bubble. Let’s begin where I always begin. With me.

There I was in 1990 eating my post basketball practice box of cereal reading The Basketball Times. It was a weekly hoops rag and the cover read “Transfermania: Northwestern Basketball”.  I  was a DIII level player getting recruited by the mini Ivy types (Middlebury, Tufts, etc..) primarily in New England. I read about this Midwestern school that had the likes of Rex Walters, Kevin Nixon, Evan Pedersen and a seemingly solid roster (I admit at this moment I didn’t even know they were in the Big Ten as I had never heard of the school) all departing a coach who had led two schools (Duke, South Carolina) to Final Fours. The coach’s name was Bill Foster and he was in the twi part of the twilight part of his career.  I’d come to later find out he simply lost it in one halftime tirade. He snapped. The players’ were at wits end and said “I’m out  of here”.  I was naïve enough to think perhaps I could walk-on to this moribund program as I read on about the article inquiring if Northwestern should depart the conference because its academic standards seemed to preclude it from having a fair shot against the loaded Big Ten.

I was actually the last man cut on  Bill Foster’s final team as my senior (I was a sophomore) fraternity buddy, Tommy Kramer, got the call. I’ll never forget assistant Shawn Parrish telling me it was a coin flip, but I was a sophomore and Foster didn’t want to have to make more than a one year commitment to anyone, hence the much deserving Kansas guard got the nod. It crushed me at the time.   I had worked countless hours for that moment and perhaps I said something then and there that fanned the flame of the curse.

However, that is beyond even my ego. By the time you set foot on campus, you  learn that the very first NCAA Tournament was actually held at Patten Gymnasium, even though it stood where Tech now stands. NU didn’t even invite itself to that first Final Four back in 1939 and has never received an invite to basketball’s promised land. You know that.  But, there are some things along the way that you may not know.

The Original Patten Gym, Site of the 1939 NCAA Final Four

Folks tend to have a myopic view of their time at college. It’s all about them, then and there. I remember thinking Northwestern was loaded my junio year as guys like Pat Baldwin at the point, Todd Leslie at the shooting guard, Ced Neloms, Kip Kirkpatrick and Kevin Rankin were a formidable force. It was Ricky Byrdsong’s first year and the team had started 9-0 in non-conference.  Confidence was building and the building was rocking. Yet, there was game one, the opener against Big Dog Glenn  Robinson, Cuonzo Martin and a ranked Purdue team. The conference was pretty much as it is this year – loaded.  Welsh-Ryan was out of control. Northwestern had Purdue on the ropes and down one with time about to expire. Big Dog was trapped baseline behind the basket with the final seconds ticking away and he proceeded to hit a turnaround jumper, double-teamed from behind the backboard. It would start a nine game losing streak that saw us lose in every imaginable close game fashion.  The losing streak was punctuated by NU head coach Ricky Byrdsong taking his now infamous “Walk on the Wildside” at Minnesota. He left the team and walked in to the stands. He fraternized with fans. High-fived the Gopher and gave the Minneapolis faithful the oddest sight they have ever seen at a home game.  The players were embarrassed and so were the fans. The program garnered national headlines once again in ways that made you say “what the hell did we do to deserve this?”

Long before me, however, this type of stuff was seemingly crushing Wildcat basketball fans’ souls. One of the more interesting tidbits in Northwestern basketball revolved around legendary Tex Winter, the Naismith Hall of Fame coach who invented the triangle offense that became a staple of Phil Jackson’s teams. Winter coached at Northwestern from 1973-78 after a stint in the NBA with the Houston Rockets. He’d coached another purple Wildcats, K-State, from 1953-1968 and upon taking the job at NU was so appalled by the floor he drove down to K-State and took the old Wildcats floor and drove it in a semi, by himself, to Evanston where he had it assembled.  One of the fascinating things about McGaw Hall, the predecessor to Welsh-Ryan, was the fact it featured a dirt track within the arena.  Think about that for a second.  Fans would walk over dirt to go to and from concessions and the like.

The Dirt Track Inside McGaw Hall That Lasted Until 1982

I’ve had the pleasure of becoming friends with former Wildcat head basketball coach Rich Falk over the years. The diehard fan still tailgates in the East lot with his sons and their families for EVERY football game. Name another former head coach that was fired that still does that. Falk, like Fitz, was an All Big Ten level talent who had the honor of coaching at his alma mater. Just two years ago I dug in with him at a tailgate and asked him about his coaching experience prior to getting the call at NU. “I had none”, he said. I was stunned. I reminded him that he was All Big Ten and that he played professionally with the Celtics and asked him to lay out how that could possibly be. It actually wasn’t true. Rich was an assistant coach under Brad Snyder and then was Tex Winter’s head assistant. Rich diplomatically told me how Tex walked out of Evanston saying “you can’t win here” and how his conversation with Tex, upon taking the job, was less than inspiring in terms of the prospects of the job.  Remember that myopic perspective I mentioned? Well, if you talk to any fans that were around for Falk’s teams, they’ll tell you that he had the single most talented teams that we’ve ever had, this side of Otto Graham.  To me, a milestone on the NU hoops timeline is the famous ’82-’83 season which featured the school’s first NIT appearance, just three seasons in to the Falk era (reminder: Rich Falk beat Magic Johnson an d the national champion Spartans in his rookie season at McGaw Hall).   The irony? That was the very year Pat Ryan stepped up to help change things with a major investment and they remodeled the arena and named it in honor of Pat and his wife Shirley (her maiden name is Welsh, hence the Welsh-Ryan).  The ‘Cats played their home games at DePaul’s then famous on-campus arena, Alumni Hall.  Here it was, an NIT team in an era that had only 32 NCAA Tournament teams (meaning NU would’ve likely been one of the top 64 teams for certain) and the fans could even see the games on campus.  Rich Falk still holds the scoring record in the building, by the way, with 49 points against Iowa in 1964.  I’ve tried several times to get NU to recognize this fact, formally, yet they somehow consider Welsh-Ryan a different place, when in fact, it is the same damn building. Evan Eschmeyer is credited with the most points in the building, but it simply isn’t true. Perhaps Rich cursed the place on his way out as they don’t even recognize a record that he very much earned.

Rich, like Carmody, brought NU to a competitive level against the heyday era Big Ten. Yet, it wasn’t enough as the administration wanted more and was able to get Bill Foster and his perfect resume to come to Evanston. Foster had put Duke back on the map while Falk was getting started in Evanston. The Blue Devils famous Dream Team was his and while Coach K rightfully gets all the props he was coming in to a situation that was not far removed from a Final Four appearance.  Foster led four different rebuilding projects and led four teams to 20-win seasons (Rutgers, Utah, Duke, South Carolina), but resigned at USC after a heart attack in 1986.  The Gamecocks would get hit with sanctions for violations on his watch, but Northwestern had made the decision for Mr. Turnaround to work his magic in Evanston.  Newsflash – the experiment didn’t work. Transfermania imploded the team and Foster would resign in 1993 at the end of Bruce Corrie’s run as AD. Foster became interim AD and hired Byrdsong.

The mid 1990s is really when you begin to wonder “what the hell did we do to deserve this?” My fellow classmates, the class of 1995 included the likes of Dion Lee, Matt Purdy and Dewey Williams. The three players infamously were at the heart of a reverse point shaving scandal that had ties to football RB Dennis Lundy and Notre Dame placekicker and ringleader Kevin Pendergast.  That’s right, Northwestern players were making bets that Northwestern would NOT cover the spread, which based on how awful we were that year, were pretty high. When the ‘Cats FAILED to lose by more than the point spread at Michigan, the wheels came off the ruse and the next thing you know the Feds were swarming Evanston and a guy named Patrick Fitzgerald (no joke), the US Attorney, put the Wildcats program back in order by exposing the entire thing.  Think about that – a “Fitz” technically brought the hammer down on our hoops program (yet, somehow this didn’t constitute an NCAA Violation). You kept wondering “what the hell did we do to deserve this?”, but I certainly was glad that Bill Foster hadn’t kept me as he saved  me from being associated with this disgrace of a team.

Perhaps the biggest misfit of all, though was Kevin O’Neill.  The carpet bagging, hothead keeper of a tongue that said things that turned blue hair fans red was something else. He actually put together one of the more athletic teams in NU history, having inherited Evan Eschmeyer and piecing together an NIT team that featured David Newman, Steve Lepore and Tavaras Hardy.  However, from the moment he accepted the job, the high energy, ascerbic f-bomb dropping coach didn’t seem to be the right fit. I’ll never forget his post press conference interview with Eric Collins the day he was announced as the new head coach.  Collins asked him if the departure from Tennessee was acrimonious.  O’Neill deadpanned “what does that mean?”.   O’Neill’s legacy was one of invented swear words that echoed among empty Welsh-Ryan arena in those dreadful December non-conference match-ups against teams you can’t place on a map.  His departure led to then NU president Henry Bienen continuing the Princeton-ization of NU by bringing in Carmody.

There is one major footnote though in all of this that still makes me cringe. The fact that our former head coach, Ricky Byrdsong, was murdered on July 2, 1999 in  a hate crime while out for a walk with his family.  Mentioning this act in the context of this post is a dicey proposition. I don’t in any way want to come across as trivializing Byrdsong or the still unthinkable events that ended his life. However, I’d be remiss by leaving out this heinous act and the impact its had on the Northwestern basketball family.  More than a decade later one of the brightest things that has happened is the incredible support and fundraising that occurs in Evanston every summer in memory of Coach Byrdsong.

Obviously, the life events of Byrdsong far outweigh the trivial nature of basketball related doings and non-doings in Evanston, but like it or not, it is part of the overall history and it makes you say “what the hell did we do to deserve this?”.

When I focus on the basketball “luck” or lack thereof when it comes to NU, I always go to injuries. I had the pleasure of seeing Evan Eschmeyer play in practice as a freshman and Kevin Rankin, Pat Baldwin and all of those guys will tell you he was the most dominant player on the floor. As you know he would go on to have major foot injuries that ultimately led him to a 6-year stay in Evanston, yet he never got to play with that Rankin/Leslie/Baldwin NIT team and as good as he was when he finally took the floor, he was a shadow of his former self from that freshman year. That level of Evan Eschmeyer on THAT team and I’m confident they go to the Big Dance that year. It’s an injury trend that has riddled NU.

The Carmody era is marked by a similar “what if?”.  Just when it seems like all of the pieces of the puzzle are about to come together, something goes terribly wrong.  Kevin Coble injures his foot and is out for the year, precluding him from being on the floor with John Shurna.  Finally healed, two of the Big Ten’s  leading scorers – Coble and Shurna – were set to play and THIS was to be the year. Then, a Coble/Carmody squabble happens over a Italy summer tour and Coble quits the team, and stays in school to finish his degree.  You know the deal from there. Shurna hurts his foot in a Mount Saint Mary’s game and manages to hobble through a season. Tre Demps misses his freshman year with a shoulder injury. JerShon Cobb gets hurt and then gets sidelined for this year due to academics. Cerina gets hurt in the first ten minutes of the season. Reggie Hearn sprains his ankle. And yes, Drew Crawford, our savior of the year for this year, goes down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Add in Sanjay Lumpkin’s season-ending wrist injury and Alex Marcotullio’s back and you have a laughable list of calamaties that make you ask “what the hell did we do to deserve this?”.

Trust me when I tell you it isn’t all bad luck.  You have to coach fundamentals, like rebounding, which we don’t do, or at least obviously don’t execute.  You can’t win when you get outrebounded by a 2:1 ratio.  You can’t win when your decent 15-foot jump shooting center stands at the free throw line with his back to the basket in the offense, and every opponent knows you can sag on him to clog up the lanes.  But, let’s not go there today.

I love cozy Welsh-Ryan Arena, but I’d be all for razing the joint. I’ve been to Cameron Indoor Stadium, which other than the strategically placed mah0gany wood, is really not much different than Welsh-Ryan, yet it’s perceived to be “charming” because they win and the fans are nuts. Welsh-Ryan is mocked by opposing fans as a “high school gym”, which is in part because we lose.  I’ve begun to think there are some skeletons under that arena. The $225 Million fundraising campaign for the Ryan Fieldhouse project, the lakefront practice facility, has temporarily curbed talk about “what’s next?” for the basketball and football arena, but don’t kid yourself. They both need to be addressed since we are full-on in the collegiate arms race.  It’s that type of commitment that will be part of an overall reboot to NU basketball that is sorely needed, for regardless of when Carmody leaves, his successor will be sitting there with a laundry list of “must haves” to compete.  Until then, I’ll use football as my proof-in-the-pudding that curses are psychological crutches, but man, can they seem real.

  • ImperioPollo

    Wait, was that Patrick Fitzgerald the same Patrick Fitzgerald that prosecuted George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich? Or are there really that many Patrick Fitzgeralds working as DAs?

    Or could they all be the same…? My god, FITZ IS A TIME LORD!

    • David

      Patrick Fitzgerald is a US Attorney. The DA is a locally elected position. US Attorney is a Presidential Appointment. Point Shaving would be a Federal issue. Patrick Fitzgerald is also the prosecutor who charged Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame scandal…on a process crime.

  • Nirvana91

    I thought it was AIRBHG?

    • wcgrad

      So did I…

      • It is. I screwed up.

        • Marc

          Easy to remember, and pronounce: Air-Big Hungry Giant. Like Air Jordan, but makes less from sneaker endorsements.

  • Jonathan Hodges

    The Curse of Patten Gym is alive and well: http://hailtopurple.com/jhodges/comment12c10b.html

  • C FEENEY f

    You left out Brian Ballarini in your FED hit list !! He had alot to do with this !!

    • Thanks. Tried to erase this all from my memory banks.

  • Anonymous

    Brian Cook actually coined the term, though Black Heart Gold Pants made it what it is today

  • bd005

    LTP –

    You missed the season ending injuries to Vedran Vukusic and Ivan Tolic during the 2002-3 season which had Jitim Young, Winston Blake, TJ Parker, Hachad, Jason Burke and A. Jennings.

    • Indeed. I also missed the fact Rich Falk had three starters out in his last year and started a pair of walk-ons. The list goes on and on and on…

  • bandcat

    My biggest disappointment was not having the opportunity to see Coble play with Shurna/Crawford and Juice…Sometimes you have to make your own Luck.

  • Ron

    You’re missing one factor on the Falk era. Aside from the NIT year (which actually came in his 5th season), his teams weren’t all that great. His 2nd through 4th year teams were 9 and 10 win teams (overall), with 5 or fewer wins in the B1G.

    But his first 4 years coincided exactly with the nadir of the football program – the infamous 1-42-1 years. Those were also my 4 years. And even for someone who doesn’t like basketball, and who dreads this time of year sports-wise, he gave us a whole lot more fun than the football experience did.

  • Nubobby95

    4 words – Bill Carmody needs to go.

  • Jbonez

    C’mon people! We were on fire tonight!

  • If we are looking for a cause for the NUBHG… I think this is it: http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/1931champs/

  • George M

    I have followed NU basketball for over 40 years. In my opinion, the 1983 team was our best. That team had good seniors in Stack, Rathel, and Jenkins and good juniors in Goode and Aaron. The 1984 team (first at Welsh Ryan) was also promising and had three solid freshman in Berg, Watts and Fullen. The 84 team, I believe, was .500 and lost several close games due to missed free throws. The wheels came off for Falk in 85 and 86, at least in part due to injuries. Those teams had two walk-ons in the starting rotation.

  • PurpleHayes

    Late to the party, but wanted to congratulate LTP on a terrific post. This deeply insightful telling of the story felt like digging out an old diary. I first walked into the running-track McGaw in 1971 as my high school had advanced to the IHSA supersectional, and it was probably the last time the building impressed me! (Oak Lawn trounced New Trier that day FYI and we advanced to Champaign.) Having then survived the Brad Snyder era as an NU undergrad (LTP didn’t mention the likes of Bryan Ashbaugh, but little reason to do so), and everything since, LTP you hit all the major points artfully. In the 32-team NCAA days, the NIT was a bigger deal, and thus the 1983 team (and the St. Patty’s day trouncing of ND in the first round, followed by the last-second loss to DePaul in Round Two), probably remains the high point of the program. That’s pretty sad as a high-water mark, but even worse, our undefeated B10 home schedule in ’83 didn’t even happen in McGaw, which was under renevation! I have 40+ years of McGaw/Welsh-Ryan memories, and yet if we had the opportunity to destroy it, I would gladly push the detonator. Painful to read, but thanks LTP for capturing it so fairly and concisely.

  • bob svete

    LTP: I can’t say I enjoyed your walk down memory lane but this is a subject near and dear to my heart having played for NU in the 70’s – as it is to many of my former teammates that I’ve kept in touch with over the years. Believe me when I say that sometimes its very painful to reflect on all the blood sweat and tears you can expend and still know that you came up well short. You reflect on whether NU was worth the effort. After all, for many of us, there were other schools we could have attended, yet we were all attracted to NU first as a school, and second the challenge of playing in the B10 and trying to establish a new direction for NU basketball that was too intoxicating to resist. (Talk about a bunch of 18 year old Don Quixotes’.) I expect that those attractions to recruits haven’t changed. We can discuss the reasons for failure ad nauseum, but let’s talk about the future. In the parlance of good ol’ Biz school palabra, there is a “best practices” that Jim Phillips can analyze and use as a blueprint. And it’s no surprise…it’s the renaissance of NU football. Again, only real Wildcat fans know how far the program has come over these many years. It is frankly,…remarkable. Now many would agree with everything I have stated here and would come to the conclusion that, “yeah, just go out and find another Pat Fitzgerald”. I would second that if a candidate was available that was so obvious. (Frankly, I think Rich Falk was that guy but why they didn’t give him more time is beyond me.) What I believe would be more instructive would be to go back to the very beginning, the Gary Barnett years. Beginning with Coach Barnett and his own belief system, he somehow assembled and instilled in his players the belief and will in themselves to overcome that overwhelming fog of defeatism that hung over the school and that program like a plague. Sound easy? No way. Somehow, those group of players dug so deep and stayed so mentally tough that they began to turn the tide of defeatism against all the obvious excuses; it’s too academically tough to attract top recruits, the facilities are embarassing for a B10 school, the student body and alumni are apathetic and most importantly, the administration looks at NU athletics as unfortunate necessity as a charter B10 member. Many of these excuses still exist. The facilities need desperate upgrade, but thankfully, its nice to see that the administration’s attitude to athletics has changed beginning with Mr Bienen and now Mr Shapiro. (I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, Morty – don’t let us down!) Whoever may be appointed as the new NU basketball coach in the future, the first thing I would do is interview many of Barnett’s former players and listen carefully on how a different belief system was instilled within themselves by Barnett and his coaching staff. After these interviews, I bet a profile would emerge – a mental toughness profile. Being an athlete at NU is not for the feint of heart. Yes, this makes the recruiting process a bit tougher but who do you want? A guy that’s willing to fight or a guy that will just accept it? My emphasis on Barnett’s tenure is no disrespect to everything Fitz and his players have accomplished as well as Coach Walker and his troops. As Fitz stated in the postgame, they won on the shoulders of all the coaches and players in the past, Fitz included. He gets it, he knows what it takes. But it began with a special core of Barnett’s players who refused to be sucked into the past legacy. Who rose above being athlectically overmatched and who were looked upon by the press and its fans as a “nice curiosity”. These players started it all. And I refuse to believe that it can’t be done for basketball. For what it’s worth, this is simply my reflection on where the NU basketball program currently is, (Square 1) and how and where it needs to go. Thanks for allowing me to rant. :)

    • PurpleHayes

      Whew! My post came just before this one, and I’m sure glad I referred to Bryan Ashbaugh rather than Bob Svete in describing the painful Brad Snyder days….great perspective, Bob.