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.
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.
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.