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On Bill Carmody, Alternate Histories, and Dumb Luck

After an embarrassing loss to Illinois that ensures another season with no NCAA tournament, the Bill Carmody hot seat talk is heating up. But this season, and the lack of NCAA tournament appearances, matter less than you'd think.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Debating Bill Carmody's job status on any Northwestern-related site has become a painful exercise in recent years; the discussion now resembles a political debate, with rabid ideologists on both sides who've picked a side and have no interest in changing their mind or even admitting that the other side might have some semblance of a point. Perhaps most frustrating of all is the use of absurdly small sample sizes as evidence. This year has been a perfect example: after NU lost at home to Maryland and UIC, Carmody was an idiot and the anti-Carmody people made sure to let us know he should be fired. Then NU pulled off an upset at Baylor, and Carmody's supporters were there to proclaim him a genius. Then NU was blown out at home by Iowa and Carmody was an idiot again. Then they played great for three games, beating Illinois and Minnesota and hanging with #1 Indiana, and he was a genius again. Then they lost by 15 at Nebraska, idiot. Give Ohio State all they want in Columbus only 7 scholarship players available, genius. Get blown out at home by Illinois, idiot. Given the high variance nature of basketball, such reasoning is the logical equivalent of using the temperature on one day as evidence for or against global warming.*

* This is not an invitation to start a global warming discussion. In fact, please don't.

To that point, firing Carmody solely based on this season's results, which have been perfectly understandable given the extraordinary number of injuries to key players, would be silly, However, it's clear Northwestern won't make the NCAA tournament this year, and that will mean Northwestern will have failed to make the NCAA tournament for all 75 years of that tournament's existence. And Carmody himself is about to be 0 for 13 in making the NCAA tournament, a fact that on its own is enough for many fans to decide he should be gone.

I don't blame anyone who feels that way, as such a person would be correct in arguing that no other coach at a BCS conference school would have been given such latitude. But I also don't blame anyone who makes the counterpoint that Carmody is the best coach in the modern history of the program, that the past 5 years, which have seen at least 4 NIT appearances and two very near NCAA tournament misses, are more predictive of Carmody's true coaching abilities than the 8 years that came before it. Both arguments are reasonable.

Ultimately though, the argument is pointless. It's not a question of whether Carmody should keep his job; deserve got nothing to do with it. It's a question of whether the program will be better or worse under whoever is hired to replace him, And that will always be the question going forward, even after Northwestern finally makes the NCAA tournament.

As I said before, the most common point against Carmody is that he's failed to make the NCAA tournament in 13 years. His detractors point out, correctly, that at any other BCS conference program in the country, a coach who failed to make the tournament once in thirteen years would surely get fired. However, what those people fail to mention is that a coach at any other BCS program in the country who made the tournament just once in thirteen years would also surely be fired. Yet if Northwestern had managed to close out just one or two of their excruciating close losses in 2008-09 or 2011-12 and made the NCAA tournament, no one, and I mean no one, would be demanding Carmody be fired. His approval rating among Northwestern fans would be close to Pat Fitzgerald's instead of its current hot seat level. All because of changing the results of one or two possessions in one or two games over Carmody's 395 game and counting coaching career, changes that would make almost zero difference in predicting his future success.

I recently reread Nassim Taleb's brilliant first book Fooled by Randomness, and was struck by one particular piece of insight. In the book, Taleb convincingly argues that the role of chance in most people's success or failure is much greater than anyone realizes, and he builds on that point by saying that he cannot look at any bit of history without picturing the alternate histories that could have happened, but did not. With that in mind, here are some bits of almost pure luck that could have greatly altered the history of Bill Carmody's tenure at Northwestern. I'm only considering off the court things, the list would be endless if I looked at individual possessions in games.

Fall 2001: Ed McCants stays out of trouble and plays his whole career at Northwestern

We covered McCants' career a couple years back, but suffice it to say he could have made a major contribution to NU had he not gotten kicked out of school, and at the very least NU would likely have made the NIT in 2001-02 and 2004-05, and possibly done even better.

Fall 2005: Mike Thompson and T.J. Parker return for their senior seasons.

Thompson quit basketball due to a heart condition and Parker left NU to go play in Europe. Neither of those guys were great, but in their place NU played a rotation of Michael Jenkins and Sterling Williams at point guard and Bernard Cote and Vince Scott at center. Despite those massive limitations, they still went 6-10 in the Big Ten. With those two, this is probably at least an 8-8 Big Ten team, although granted, the Big Ten was awful.

Spring 2006: Craig Robinson doesn't leave NU to become head coach at Brown

One of the rare moments of turmoil that has benefited Northwestern (their program has been more fragile than anti-fragile), you could actually argue that Robinson leaving was the most positive development of the Carmody era because it opened up a spot for recruiter extraordinaire Tavaras Hardy on the coaching staff. Robinson, currently coaching at Oregon State, has had success recruiting in Corvallis (although not at winning games), but as a Northwestern assistant in charge of recruiting, he had a very tough time recruiting Big Ten caliber players. Hardy, meanwhile, has been huge in recruiting for NU, landing Juice Thompson, John Shurna, Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Dave Sobolewski among others. Carmody is probably gone by now without Hardy. In fact...

Spring 2007 to Fall 2008: The NU administration does what's obvious and fires Carmody after a 3-31 stretch in Big Ten play over 2 years

I still have no idea how he survived this. I guess he was friends with school president Henry Bienen or something? Weird even today.

Fall 2009: Kevin Coble doesn't suffer a Lisfranc fracture in practice a week before the season opener.

Without even getting into Coble's decision to forego his senior season the year after, which can at least partially blamed on Carmody (the degree is a matter of debate), this one was just atrocious luck. NU won 20 games this season even without Coble, with him they're almost certainly on the bubble.

There are more of these, but it should be clear by now: there are a ton of factors completely outside of Carmody's control (or any other head coaches). Some of these helped him or Northwestern, others hurt him. All told, you would think that after 13 years, in which NU often had competitive teams, enough good fortune would occur in one season to break the NCAA tournament drought. But even if it had, that doesn't mean Carmody deserves to keep his job.

Many Northwestern fans seem to view making the NCAA tournament as some sort of magic elixir that will forever change the program. And in the short term, they're right, it would be incredible. As who has obsessively followed the program for 14+ years, blown off social engagements to watch meaningless games, and even forced two friends to watch Northwestern play Purdue a couple weeks ago ( I had to pay for all the drinks the night before in exchange), Northwestern finally making the NCAA tournament will be one of the greatest sports days of my life. But when the next season starts, unless that tournament appearance results in a very deep run and thus becomes a boon for recruiting, Northwestern will start the next season in a position similar to the one they're in right now. And if the team goes back to being bad, everyone who jumped on the bandwagon during the run to the NCAAs will jump back off even quicker.

To see this, let's take a look at the Big Ten's other whipping boy in basketball: Penn State. While Northwestern gets most of the press as the Big Ten's worst basketball program. over Bill Carmody's tenure Northwestern has actually won 12 more conference games than Penn State (69 to 57), despite Carmody's well-documented struggles against Ed DeChellis. Of course the reason Northwestern is considered worse is because they haven't made the NCAAs in that stretch, while Penn State has gone twice (and won the NIT). But the point is, Penn State's NCAA tournament appearances didn't exactly predict future success. In 2001, Penn State made it all the way to the Sweet 16, a run highlighted by a second round upset of 2 seed North Carolina. They followed that up by going 9-55 in the Big Ten over the next four years (that is not a typo). And you probably remember Penn State making the NCAA tournament in 2011, behind Talor Battle and Jeff Brooks. They've built on that successful season by going 4-27 in the Big Ten since then.

I don't think either of those Penn State teams were much better than Bill Carmody's best Northwestern teams, if it all. It was just a case of a historically weak program capitalizing on a rare opportunity to make the tournament. Northwestern, unfortunately, hasn't been able to do that under Bill Carmody yet.. I would say that based on his past five years in Evanston, Northwestern is likely to get another opportunity in the near future, perhaps as early as next season. Of course, Carmody might not even be here next year, which could be both good or bad, depending on who's hired instead**. But if he's still around, here's to hoping Carmody tames fate and takes advantage of the next chance.

**If I were going to consider other candidates, I would take a hard look at coaches who have won at schools with stringent admissions standards, highlighted by Harvard's Tommy Amaker or Bucknell's Dave Paulsen. But that's a discussion for another day.