Bill Carmody has improved the ‘Cats basketball program, but after 13 seasons, it is time for a change in leadership. Additionally, it is time to upgrade the investment in the basketball program.
Let the debate begin. Should Northwestern retain Bill Carmody or let him go? That is the question everyone in purple will be discussing during this year’s Big Ten Tournament. The answer will come from Northwestern VP of Athletics & Recreation, Jim Phillips, early next week. I have no delusions that my opinion matters in this situation (nor should it). However, I believe this community of readers represents a large and mostly educated representation of the Northwestern Athletics’ fan base. We’ll hear what you think in the comments section and in the LTP poll on the right panel of this blog. Before I jump in further, I ask that you be respectful to one another in your comments. Almost everyone here passionately wants Northwestern to succeed, so remember we have the same goal in mind. Please, no personal attacks, as this particular topic seems to bring out the worst in some of you.
I’m thankful for the work Bill Carmody has done in his 13 seasons. Despite going 192-209 during his 13 seasons, he elevated the ‘Cats from laughingstock of the conference to at least a respectable, “tough out” among the Big Ten Conference. He implemented a system that enabled Northwestern to dictate tempo and style of play, often neutralizing drastic differences in talent. He is one of the more honest coaches in the country, telling you like it is, rather than spin doctoring what he knew we saw too. His players never got in to trouble, and despite pressure to win and win now, he emphasized education and the rules as indicated by JerShon Cobb’s season-long suspension for academics. Despite a half decade run of an unusually high number of injuries to the best players on the team, not once did he complain or make excuses about it. Simply put, Carmody should be commended for elevating the program from where it was to where it is. But, for us to get to the “next level”, I don’t believe Bill will get us there. These reasons are part of the package that make you pause, before stepping back and say “it is time for a change.”
The number one reason for the camp calling to keep Carmody, for yet another “one more year” stint, is beyond compelling. As we all know, Northwestern lost the services of three starters this season – Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and for the last seven plus games, Jared Swopshire. Add in the loss of freshman, Sanjay Lumpkin and reserve big men Chier Ajou, preferred walk-on Aaron Liberman and the injury-plagued season of big man Nikola Cerina, and you have a case for the most cursed team in the history of the B1G.
However, after 13 seasons, when I ask the bigger picture question, “is Bill Carmody the guy who is going to get us to the level of an NCAA Tournament team, one that consistently competes to be in the top half of the conference”? The answer, to me, is “no”.
One of the most knee-jerk reactions to the future projection perspective is the relative futile past of Northwestern basketball. No coach has been over .500 in my 40-year lifetime. No coach has taken a team to more than one NIT, let alone four straight like Carmody did from ’09-’12. Teddy Greenstein brilliantly illustrated (or rather the Chicago Tribune’s graphic design team did) the contrast between Carmody’s 13 seasons (Carmody’s 192-209, 70-150 vs Foster/Byrdsong/O’Neill’s 111-254, 30-198). There is no question he has improved upon our futile historical marks. While admitting this is an improvement, why is it bad to have higher expectations?
Many will call me out for underplaying the loss of three starters this season. That is fair. However, when I look to next year, I see a disturbing trend that leads me to believe we’ll be no closer to breaking through than we were this year. Many are pinning the “one more year” mantra on the back of Drew Crawford, the return of JerShon Cobb and the high potential of incoming point guard Jaren Sina, the highest rated recruit of the Carmody era (along with JerShon Cobb). What few are talking about is the absence of any kind of post play. This isn’t a one year wonder. Bill Carmody’s teams have lacked any type of low post presence and the quality of big men we’ve had in Evanston has been underwhelming, at best. The Princeton offense has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Call it a chicken-and-egg scenario, or whatever you want, but the type of big men we attract, ones who can pass, are more comfortable at the free throw line extended than down in the block, are ones that have a hard time coming up with plays when we need them in the final minutes of games.
If you go back and watch the litany of close games we’ve lost in recent years in the B1G, you’ll see a theme. When it matters most, opponents pound it inside, and more often than not, win the battle on the boards to ultimately beat us. Think about how many times a Jared Sullinger or Derrick Nix or insert big man here has crushed our soul in the waning moments of a game. Carmody’s system has been stellar for keeping us in games, but ultimately has not won enough. Next year, we’ll indeed be deep at guard, actually relatively loaded, by our standards, but we’ll be once again handicapped in the post. We’ve had little history to support that we can develop big men to drastically improve during their tenure at Northwestern and the scouting report will be the same next year.
Most of us realize that breaking through the 75-year drought of never qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is our annual Holy Grail. While I realize this is a mammoth hurdle, I ask “then what?” Do you really think that all of a sudden we magically become a top tier B1G team? The very same system that has led to a climax of an 8-8 league record – a full decade ago – will somehow attract the talent to push us in to the conference’s elite? By contrast, Bo Ryan, who entered the B1G at nearly the same time as Carmody, has yet to finish outside of the top four in any one of his seasons. Before you scoff at the comparison (Ryan inherited a program that had a Final Four run in 2000), know that the ‘Cats have gone head to head with the Badgers on more players than any other team in the conference. We’ve had similar talent level at guard play many years, but the Badgers blow us away by attracting bruisers for big men, and, as unsexy as it is, Ryan’s hallmark bulldog defensive approach is the difference maker.
Northwestern’s teams under Carmody have lacked consistent fundamentals. The near upset of Michigan State yesterday highlighted a point that had me in disbelief – we outrebounded a B1G team! Carmody’s teams are horrific at rebounding. Forget talent, we don’t execute the fundamentals of boxing out in games. We get doubled up on second chance points regularly. We regularly have multiple guys without the hunger gene on “D”. You can point to talent discrepancy as the main culprit as it relates to lateral foot speed and other basic keys to defense, but I’d argue part of it is the philosophy of the system, part of it is coaching and part of it is a lack of priorities.
The strong voices calling for Coach Carmody to stay, usually have the caveat of “for one more year.” I’ve met few fans who think he has the hall pass for life, although there are a few of you who believe he should and then hand it off to assistant coach Tavaras Hardy. If the overwhelming majority of fans believe that Carmody should get one more year, and it is a get in to the NCAA Tournament or goodbye, I argue we’re beyond an outside shot and that we should be using this talent base to give the next coach a running start. Carmody has had the fortune of getting not only one more year, but five more years after a two year stint (’07, ’08) where he won just three B1G games, seven years in to his tenure. There isn’t a program in the world that would’ve let a coach stay on after those back-to-back debacles. The one more year mentality is rooted in relating everything to our horrible past. The fear is, should Carmody go, Drew Crawford will use the one-year-wonder rule and pick his school of choice to transfer to and play immediately, perhaps for a contender. Jaren Sina will reconsider his decision and we’ll fall years back from where we are now. The reality of where we are now is a program that has risen from perennially dead last, to a more competitive tenant in the B1G basement.
The single biggest smoking gun in the bigger picture of Northwestern basketball, is facilities. We’re 12th out of 12 in the B1G and falling behind quickly. Coach Carmody’s salary is reportedly 11th in the conference, ahead of only Penn State’s Pat Chambers. Our arena, as much as I love it, is woefully outdated. Band-aid attempts to upgrade the lockerrooms and the coaches’ offices are laughingly short of our B1G competition.
Fans calling to keep Carmody will point out that change for the sake of change doesn’t ensure anything. They’re right. The big question is who do you replace Carmody with and what makes you think things will be any different? You can’t understate the handicaps that Carmody inherited. A program at rock bottom, poor facilities, and of course, the most stringent academic requirements – by far – in the most competitive conference in the country. Northwestern must finally address the facilities and a major investment upgrade to the program as a whole. I for one am for overpaying the marketplace to get the right person. So what if it takes $3 million per year to get the right guy in at Northwestern? Trim the toilet budget in the $225 million lakeside practice facility down to $220 million. Should we be successful and break through to the next level, increased donations from alumni and incremental ticket sales and sponsorship revenue will replenish the coach’s salary uptick. I’ll be the first to admit that bringing in a Chris Collins or Dave Paulsen or any of the other 10 candidates Teddy Greenstein speculated about, has zero guarantee of success. It may fail. We may go backwards. However, the commitment to the program must be beyond just hiring a new coaching staff. It needs a complete overhaul.
Some will say this is risky. I beg to differ. Northwestern basketball has been irrelevant for decades with the lone exception of a few moments when we’ve actually had a glimpse of NCAA Tourney potential, and even then, it has been because of the outlier factor of the story, the ultimate underdog moment, moreso than a change in attitude outside of the 5,000 or so season ticket holder/diehard fans. I haven’t even gone in to the relative success of the football program as a marker for expectations of a revenue sport. I respect you too much to do so. You already know the drill. My larger point is that after 13 seasons of going from the worst program in the conference to a below-average program in the conference that is at least modestly respected, I have higher expectations as a fan. As much I respect and thank Bill Carmody for his time at Northwestern, I do not believe he is the guy who is going to get us over the hump to even a sixth or fifth place level team year in and year out. Using the weight of our past as the reason for not making a change makes no sense to me. However, making a change in coaching without addressing the bigger picture issues that loom, would also be irresponsible.
I am appreciative of Bill Carmody and the admirable job he has done to get us to a more respectable level. I believe, however, it is time to make a change to try and get to the next level. Let the debate continue.