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Column: For Northwestern Basketball, A Coaching Change Is Not Enough To Move Forward

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

One of the seminal debates in modern political science thinking regards the dividing line between structure and agency. In short, structuralists explain phenomenon by ascribing causal mechanisms to the environment or “structure” that defines a specific situation or operation. Agency proponents, to the contrary, believe the individual in power is more important – that no matter the resources or avenues for improvement available, the individual decision maker wields more power than the environment surrounding him.

Having read an introductory graf about political theory, two questions should make themselves very clear to you: 1) What does any of this have to do with Northwestern basketball, Bill Carmody, or even sports in general? and 2) Where else, but Northwestern, would you find a sports writer screwy enough to connect political theorization to the current state of Wildcats basketball? I’ll let you handle the latter in your own time with predictable ridicule and mean jokes about the general eccentricity of the average Northwestern student, their atypical placement alongside students of other Big Ten schools, the “weirdness” and “nerdiness” so evident on campus – trust me, I’ve heard it all.

To address the first question, consider that on Thursday night, after the Wildcats ended their season with an opening-round loss in the Big Ten Tournament to Iowa, as Carmody was besieged by queries surrounding his job security, a coaching nearing the end of his tenure – indeed, Carmody’s dismissal would be made official Saturday morning – implied, even if indirectly, that the reason fans and alumni and administrators remain unhappy with the progress of the basketball program is less something he, himself, could have improved than a web of institutional limitations and financial barriers.

“Football and basketball are apples and oranges,” Carmody said when asked about the basketball program being stuck in neutral, and the sheer untimeliness and inevitability of being compared to the rising football program, where recruiting, win totals and general momentum continue to surge under Pat Fitzgerald. Speaking from the United Center media podium late Thursday night, Carmody may have seen the end of the road. In fact, his status may have already been decided.

But he couldn’t be more right: there is no comparing Northwestern football and basketball – attempting to do so would be like asking someone driving a minivan to keep pace with a pack of expensive sports cars in a road race. The only similarity is that the two sports fall under the same university name. That name, Northwestern athletics, does not offer the same structural benefits for both sports. The above theoretical argument isn’t really an argument at all: football is king in Evanston.

There are other schools where this is the case, obviously. There are also other schools where football trumps basketball – financially, administratively, fan-support wise – yet both coexist alongside one another as ascendant and nationally-competitive brands. Ohio State’s legendary football program, for example, is one of the most hallowed college sports entities in the current landscape, and it exists alongside a basketball program that, especially in recent years, has begun to elevate itself among the sport’s national blueblood powers. There are other examples, some less pronounced than others, but the basic point is that supporting two successful revenue-producing sports programs is not impossible. It doesn’t just come down to athletic department budget – which, admittedly, puts Ohio State in a separate category. It’s about supplying the resources and genuine commitment to set Northwestern basketball on an upward trajectory. For much of Carmody’s tenure, as the football team continued to rise in the regional and national landscape, to stake out new positive frontiers in the recruiting world, to lift its yearly expectations – that has not happened. The commitment and resources have not been made readily available.

When discussing the structure of the basketball program, a framework comparison must be made to football, and that comparison reflects a drastic mismatch. The strides being made on the gridiron are singular and uniquely specific and symptomatic not of a department-wide commitment to athletic greatness, but of concentrated financial and authoritative support for one sport. This is, inarguably, a “football school.” I’m not sure that was ever up for debate in the first place, but if the financial and administrative backing – the first step of Northwestern’s grand facilities plan, fittingly, is geared towards consolidating “football activities” on campus -- runs its operations with a football-first mindset, and hoops fan interest generally lags behind the broader support observed for the football program, then we’re dealing with two different propositions entirely, and the basic standards for results should be treated as such.

Over his tenure, Bill Carmody elevated those standards. He toiled to change the inherent structural malaise of a long-dormant program. He turned a 3-13 11th place Big Ten finisher into a program (when healthy) that could at least entertain the idea of playing for an NCAA Tournament birth. He elevated the talent level. He raised expectations to the point where NIT appearances and seventh-place Big Ten finishes were viewed with general unsatisfactory disdain and increasing scrutiny – where not even a horrific string of crippling injuries (and suspension) to three of his four best players was enough to earn him the benefit of coaching out the final year of his contract with the prospect of taking the best team of his tenure to the Big Dance.

He shifted the paradigm, the programmatic demands; which in some ways can be seen as a self-damaging development. Carmody’s undeniable progress brought Northwestern basketball into uncharted territory, and his failure to move further – to the NCAA Tournament, mostly – was, in essence, his undoing. The structure was altered, but not because of some newfound commitment to basketball success. It was Carmody, himself, that shepherded the program to new heights. Carmody, the “agent” of humble Ivy League origins, squeezed every last bit of success out of Northwestern’s basketball structure.

A breaking point was reached – Carmody’s progress had slowed, Northwestern still hadn’t gotten over the Tournament hump and there was a general sense (not just from Jim Phillips and the athletic department, but fans, too) that the program was stuck in neutral. Letting Carmody go wasn’t an indefensible move to make if the alternative, starting with a new head coach, means the program is willing to move past its structural limitations to strive for the progress Carmody wasn’t able to achieve.

No coach – not Duke assistant Chris Collins or Lehigh coach Brett Reed or Bucknell’s Dave Paulsen or Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew – can advance the program without more significant structural change. If Northwestern’s athletic department powers-that-be expect a new coach to suddenly turn the Wildcats into an annual Big Ten contender without addressing some of the program’s internal limitations, then firing Carmody was the wrong decision. If football interest continues to supersede commitment to basketball progress, Northwestern, in hiring a new coach, is moving laterally, not forward.

If providing the requisite monetary, academic, facilities and genuine interest is what Phillips and the rest of the athletic department have in mind, then it makes total sense to try and reinvigorate the program with a new fresh face and a stronger commitment to excellence. My question is: which one is it? Will the next Northwestern basketball coach be given the academic, financial and administrative leeway to further Carmody’s progress? Or will the same wall of mediocrity that detonated Carmody’s tenure befell whatever replacement steps in this offseason?

Another question: how far, exactly, can this program go? With the right “agent” in place, where is a realistic ceiling for Northwestern basketball? The NCAA Tournament is a starting point, sure, and Carmody’s inability to get there – the constant juxtaposition of Tournament drought and Wildcats hoops was a sickening refrain, even for the objective observer – became one of those ubiquitously cited statistics that never goes away and becomes synonymous with a coach’s name (and in this case, the program’s name) in casual conversations. But what is the next step, the envisioned end point for the next Northwestern basketball coach?

Competing on the same plane as annual Big Ten powers like Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State is, structural change or not, not a realistic immediate goal. Neither Carmody, Collins or Phil Jackson, for that matter, can suddenly morph the Wildcats into a Midwest hoops powerhouse. A more reasonable proposition would be something in the mold of Stanford or Vanderbilt – two academic powerhouses with established winning cultures, who have consistently brought in the right mix of talent despite academic constraints to challenge their respective high-major league cohabitants.

The difference is, those programs have expanded the model to include basketball. They have discovered how to maneuver around academic constraints, have identified and refined a unique recruiting populace and have won consistently because of a concerted commitment to success. At those institutions, the necessary tools and resources are in place. All it took was the right leading individuals (Stanford: Trent Johnson, Mike Montgomery; Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings) to leverage the benefits at hand into a routine and persistent winner.

As is stands, Northwestern is increasing its athletic ceiling – in football. And the results plainly bear it out. The Wildcats are on a winning trajectory, no doubt, and the athletic department has been there every step of the way in furthering that development. Generating the same kind of success and enthusiasm on the basketball side will require the same kind of institutional support. Without better facilities, a more liberal checkbook and at least some compromise in academic stringency, the basketball program – no matter who steps in to replace Carmody – will continue to ride a treadmill of Big Ten mediocrity.

If firing Bill Carmody is an isolated event, an avenue to diffuse fan apathy or simply to “shake things up”, then Northwestern’s priorities are all wrong. Carmody himself wasn’t the problem so much as it was the structural environment he pushed and manipulated and stretched over a 13-year tenure. Don’t take this as a defense of Carmody – because it’s not. My position on Carmody has nothing to do with what I’m advocating for Northwestern’s basketball program.

A cosmetic change in agency – Carmody’s dismissal – was a justifiable, even predictable change. It’s just that the next phase of Northwestern basketball, under new leadership, can’t function under the same structural constraints as the last one. Stoking excitement with a new face of the program is a step. The next logical one is eliminating, or at least softening, the institutional shackles that conspired to stall out Carmody’s steadily improving tenure.

The next guy in charge won’t survive much longer, either, if higher-level change is not enacted. Without a structural change, Northwestern basketball is quitting on an excellent basketball coach – one Ohio State coach Thad Matta, after his team’s victory Saturday in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, called “maybe the best offensive mind of any coach I’ve ever seen” – for an hopelessly optimistic alternative. The story will end the same way, in complaints and a disgruntled fan base and, without doubt, another coaching vacancy.