A defense for Bill Carmody
We hear your calls. We can see them plainly in the comments sections to articles like this one and in the frustration by the team’s struggles to break through and get to that next level like the football team has. Like with football, now that the team has tasted success the fans want more of it or more consistency.
Bill Carmody’s now 13- going on 14-year tenure as Northwestern’s coach has been a roller coaster ride. He took over a program that was painfully circling the drain and tried to install a pragmatic offense that would take advantage of the kind of players Northwestern would bring in. To this point, Carmody has turned the program around from those early days. Comparing where Northwestern has been to where it is today shows that change.
Carmody has won a school-record 179 games entering this season and has added to that with 13 more wins this season. Carmody has also led the Cats to four straight NIT berths, something unprecedented in the school’s history. And Carmody actually has a .485 win percentage, the third highest in Northwestern history. He is actually one of five coaches to have a win percentage of .400 or better — the others are Larry Glass (1963-69), William Rohr (1957-63), Harold Olsen (1950-52) and Arthur Lonberg (1927-50). Lonberg is the only coach in Northwestern history to finish with a record better than .500.
So enter this discussion knowing that Carmody has put together the most successful run of Northwestern basketball in more than 70 years and has done something at Northwestern that had not been done in nearly 50 years.
Ultimately though, past results are no indication of future success. And that is what this game has become for Bill Carmody. How does he get Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament level and realize the potential and dreams we have all seen. If Gary Barnett can get the Purple to Pasadena in two years — and Pat Fitzgerald can get NU to a January bowl game within four years, for that mater — why has it taken Bill Carmody 13-plus years to get NU to the NCAA Tournament promised land? Why did it take nine years to reach even the NIT?
There is a bit of a faulty comparison here. Football is not basketball. While more teams make the tournament in basketball than there are bowl games in football, there are significantly more teams in basketball and being in a major conference is not the be-all, end-all. It is easier to find success and compete in basketball from a mid-major conference. That could also be an argument against Carmody’s tenure at Northwestern, but a lot of those mid-major teams rarely play as difficult a schedule as NU has to play in the Big Ten.
Leave that argument aside for the moment. The recruiting issue is certainly the biggest indictment anyone can make of the Carmody era.
Carmody though does some great things that are often not appreciated. Especially when the team goes through disappointing seasons like this one. Yes, this season is going to be the worst one for the Wildcats since the 8-22, 1-17 disaster of 2008. But even that year was Juice Thompson’s freshman year, so good things did come from it (including some spectacular scoring performances from Kevin Coble).
The point is though, the talent Northwestern has been able to get into Evanston, Carmody has helped reach its fullest potential on the court. When you take a look at how some of these teams have panned out with the players on the roster and how competitive they have been, you have to look at Carmody and the job he has been able to do. A team with this much of a talent deficit has always been able to compete, if not win. Carmody’s exacting Princeton Offense has helped close that talent gap on so many occasions and give Northwestern a chance.
More than that though, year after year, his teams have bought into this system. They run it precisely and rarely deviate. That is both its weakness and its strength.
Recently, of course, the team has struggled to score. New roles and injuries have knocked the team off kilter and Carmody has to find a way to make it work for the final stretch of the season.
On a macro level, recruiting is the big issue. It has already been mentioned and no analysis of Carmody’s job, good or bad, can be made without that caveat. Northwestern’s recruiting has been and is lacking compared to the rest of the teams in the Big Ten. That has put Northwestern in the hole from the beginning of each season.
However, there is also no denying that Carmody has gotten his most talented teams in Evanston in the last four or five years. Shurna was an NBA-caliber talent. Michael Thompson was the first player from the Chicago Public School league to attend Northwestern and turned into a super player and leader. Kevin Coble was a great scorer who was able to contribute as a freshman and lead the team in scoring for his entire career. Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski, JerShon Cobb have all been guys who have stepped in immediately and been major contributors.
Even transfers are looking carefully at Northwestern and believing in what Bill Carmody is selling.
Not every player pans out. For every Juice Thompson there is a Nick Fruendt or Mike Capocci. Neither of those players found their “fit” at Northwestern. And Carmody has failed throughout his tenure to find a center he could develop and make fit into his system — namely a center who can step out and occasionally drain a 3-pointer and help spread the floor.
However, considering where Northwestern was to where it is today and even to some extent early in Carmody’s tenure, Carmody has been a great success at Northwestern. He turned a team consistently blown out and at the bottom of the Big Ten standings into a team that opponents have to prepare for mentally and physically to defeat. He has taken a group of players often ignored by other major schools and made them more than competitive in the Big Ten. And when he has had teams with the talent to win, he has done so.
Has he reached the mountain top of the NCAA Tournament? No.
His teams have always been missing that last little piece to get there. To consider though where Northwestern was to where it is now — being enraged that the NIT is not even in the conversation — has to be some sign that what Carmody is doing is working.
Again, past results do not determine future success. And Carmody’s future is certainly tied into how his team performs the rest of this year and in future years. Northwestern is tired of just knocking on the door.
For now, with all that he is accomplished, Carmody should remain the man to answer the call.