clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Column: Bill Carmody Raised the Bar for Northwestern's Next Coach

by Luke Srodulski (@lukeysrodulski)

Bill Carmody is a brave man. That much is certain.

Before he came to Northwestern, he had a great coaching gig at a storied program, Princeton. It looked like he was headed for many years of success there, to join the likes of legends Butch van Breda Kolff and Pete Carril. But then, he took a risk that most mid-major coaches now would scoff at.

He left.

Not for a program that is widely considered to be greater. That would have been understandable. Rather, he came to Northwestern, a school with 23 fewer NCAA Tournament berths than Princeton.

Hell, in Carmody’s four years at Princeton, he brought them two more tourney appearances than Northwestern has ever had. Still, he willingly accepted the daunting challenge of leading the Wildcats to the promised land in an unforgiving conference. It was a challenge that several respectable coaches had tried and failed at.

Tex Winter, the mastermind behind the triangle offense who helped Phil Jackson win multiple NBA Championships, never finished with a winning record in his five years. Bill Foster brought Duke to basketball prominence before handing the reigns off to Mike Krzyzewski, but he never finished with a better record than 9-19 during his time at Northwestern.

Carmody saw the challenges, and he accepted them. It was a program that had boasted just three winning records in the past 30 years, but Carmody delivered five in his tenure. In 2004, he won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award, the first in school history. Northwestern basketball had been seen as a joke for many years, and he made it relevant.

Recruiting was a bit of an issue. Other Big Ten programs were getting blue-chip players, but the Wildcats continued to get off-the-radar recruits who weren’t getting much attention. Even that can’t be put all on Carmody. The facilities were lacking, and it’s hard to convince someone to come to a program with such little history.

After thirteen years, it all caught up to him. Injuries were a killer in what proved to be his final chance to lead his team to the tournament. When he was let go, it came as little surprise to anyone.

If the state of Northwestern sports hadn’t changed so much over the past decade, Carmody’s name would still be posted at the entrance to his office in Welsh-Ryan. The fact is, expectations have drastically changed.

Athletic director Jim Phillips said Saturday that Carmody’s firing was based on his 13 years here, not just the disappointing final season. If so, that says a lot about what’s expected of the basketball program.

Having double-digit wins is no longer good enough. Being a middle-of-the-back Big Ten team is no longer good enough. And most importantly, falling just short of the Big Dance is no longer good enough.

On the surface, it seems like the next Wildcat coach has a much easier job than Carmody did. Northwestern is no longer a laughing stock. They’ve proven themselves worthy of competing in a conference like the Big Ten. The recent years of success have made it much cooler to come to Evanston to play basketball.

Instead, his successor will have a hard time deciding to accept the job, because he will have to take a risk as well. The facilities are subpar, the recruiting is difficult, and the competition is the best in the country. Yet somehow, Carmody found a way to have success, and it still wasn’t enough to save his job.

That’s exactly why Northwestern is such an unattractive job opening. With all its disadvantages, fans should probably have no business expecting success, but they’ve gotten it. Carmody brought great expectations upon himself by becoming the second winningest coach in school history, and those same expectations got him fired.

So rather than applauding his firing, fans should be thanking him for his services. He found success never before seen from Northwestern, and in doing so, he developed a culture where winning is expected.

Without Carmody, just a winning record would be good enough, but now it’s NCAA Tournament or bust. The incoming coach will know that, and he may rue his predecessor for making it that way. Anyone else, however, should be thanking him.