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Northwestern's Football-Basketball Gap Isn't What You Think

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

In my two years on the Northwestern beat, I’ve come to realize a common theme — a theme that I noticed as a casual observer of the team even before I started covering the Wildcats full time: generally, NU fans are much more complimentary of their football team than their basketball team.

Obviously, I’m speaking in generalities here, and there are plenty of intelligent fans — some who want Bill Carmody fired and some who don’t. However, it’s time to put to an end this ridiculous narrative that Northwestern basketball continually falls short of the achievements of the football team.

That’s in no way a knock on Pat Fitzgerald’s squad, which is on the upswing and could potentially challenge for a Big Ten title next season. But that’s exactly the point. Last season was NU’s best season since 1995 — a win in a mid-tier bowl game was a milestone.

Yes, the football team has historically been better than the basketball team, but is the football team really setting an example of excellence that Carmody’s squad just can’t reach? Not at all.

Let’s look at the overlap between the Fitzgerald and Carmody years and see which team was better each season.

2006: Both teams were pretty terrible, with football finishing 2-6 in the conference and basketball finishing 2-14. Had the football team played as many games as the basketball team, it probably wouldn’t have done much better. We’ll call this one a tie.

2007: The football team made it back to a bowl game, while the basketball team won just one Big Ten game. Point football.

2008: NU football was the more impressive squad this year, finishing at 9-3, but the basketball team wasn’t far behind, finishing at 8-10 in the Big Ten. This one goes to football, but the basketball team wasn’t horrendous.

2009: NU football went 8-4 and 5-3 in the Big Ten, so it wins again, but NU basketball finished 7-11 in the conference and wasn’t too bad.

2010: The basketball team reached the NIT quarterfinals, while the football team made the TicketCity Bowl. Point basketball.

2011: This was the closest NU ever came to the NCAA Tournament, while the football team underachieved and finished 6-6. This one is a no-brainer.

2012: Another no-brainer, but on the other side: NU football won the Gator Bowl and finished in the top 25, while NU basketball has struggled mightily.

So the football team wins 4-2, with one year when nobody really won. But there are some important things to keep in mind:

1. The 2008 and 2009 years gave a slight edge to football, but it was very close and the basketball teams weren’t too bad.

2. Between 2008 and 2011, the basketball team steadily improved, while the football team steadily declined.

3. It’s important to note that it’s much easier to reach a bowl game than it is to reach the NCAA Tournament.

So has the football team been extraordinarily better than the basketball team? No. Not at all. It’s time for that narrative to end.

Again, this isn’t a knock on Fitzgerald and the football team at all, because the future of football in Evanston looks very bright. However, you have to consider the future when judging the basketball team, as well.

There are a lot of people who want Carmody fired because “13 years is long enough” and because “it’s always the same thing.” Frankly, that’s a lazy argument.

This year, Carmody had to deal with injuries or suspensions to three of his five best players — two of them are coming back next year — and other injuries that limited depth. How good would, say, Illinois be without Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson and Tracy Abrams? That’s a fringe NIT team, at best. Or for the football comparison, would NU football be as good without Kain Colter, Venric Mark and Ibraheim Campbell? Of course not, and that’s a much smaller percentage of the roster than what Carmody is dealing with.

Simply put, don’t judge Carmody based on this year, and if you’re going to judge him on past years, don’t act like he’s been so much worse than his football counterparts. What you should do is judge Carmody based on future potential — specifically next season, which will feature the most talented NU roster in history.

That roster includes Dave Sobolewski, JerShon Cobb and Drew Crawford, improving freshmen Alex Olah and Tre Demps, promising (soon-to-be-redshirt) freshman Sanjay Lumpkin, and talented incoming recruit Jaren Sina. And fans want to use that talent on a rebuilding season? That’s mind-blowing, especially considering an already elite coach isn’t walking through the Welsh-Ryan doors if there’s a job opening at NU.

NU basketball has a very grim past, which is surprisingly not a lot worse than its football counterpart. Now, both programs are on the rise. 2013 could be a special year for the Wildcats’ football program, but it could be just as historic for NU basketball, provided the athletic department doesn’t fire Carmody and throw that away.