clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Column: The NU "Way" Could Change a Bit, and It's Okay to Acknowledge That

This morning, we retweeted an article indicating that Northwestern had contacted former star Louisville forward Chane Behanan. NU has been chasing possible frontcourt transfers for awhile, so that part wasn't a surprise. But given Behanan's fallout at Louisville, he didn't exactly seem like the type of player NU usually recruits. So, I tweeted this...

To my surprise, people got upset, including other media members. Some may have thought I was condoning Chris Collins and his staff talking to Behanan, and if that was the case, I'm sorry I worded it poorly, but that's not at all what I was getting at. Rather, I was saying that it's atypical for a player in Behanan's position to be of interest to NU. To catch you up on the Behanan saga, he was suspended indefinitely before the season, but eventually allowed back on the team. Then, on New Year's Eve, Pitino kicked him off the team. The reason isn't relevant to the overall point of this piece, but for those interested, Behanan announced he is "getting help" at a rehabilitation center.

Pitino declined to give a reason other than, "He just did not do the right thing over and over and over."

So, back to the tweet that sparked some outrage: Does that really seem like the kind of player NU has historically gone after? Not a kid with one or two mistakes, but one who messes up "over and over and over?" Remember, the question isn't whether NU should be reaching out to him — frankly, I don't have an opinion, and I think it should be up to Chris Collins — it's whether that's someone NU typically gets to play sports in Evanston. The answer is, of course not.

Remember, this is Northwestern, a school that shoves its APR scores and lack of discipline problems in the face of anyone who will listen. This is a school whose football coach reiterates constantly that "discipline beings in recruiting." Sure, some of it is over the top for the cameras, and I've been more skeptical of the "NU is a goody-good" notion than most. But the track record speaks for itself — generally, NU athletes perform well academically and stay out of trouble relative to their peers at other schools.

Does anything we know about Chane Behanan — someone whose coach said kept doing the wrong thing — fit that ideal? Not really. This doesn't mean Behanan can't change, nor does it mean anyone should be skeptical of having Behanan play for them — he's a terrific basketball player and I'm not going to judge any coach for taking him — it just means he isn't the type of player NU tends to take a chance on.

But that's not the biggest issue here. The biggest issue is that NU is at a very interesting crossroads in the athletics vs. academics dilemma, and people don't seem to want to address the issue. What do you want the job of a basketball coach to be? Do you want it to be to win basketball games or "build young men?"

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples did a good job addressing the dilemma before the college football season, particularly the "My school's coach does it the right way, your school's players are thugs" idiocy.

Sorry to disappoint you, but this isn't going to be a #HOTSPORTSTAKE, where I shame Collins for even thinking about talking to a player with presumed character issues. Again, I don't care what Collins does. But what I do care about is fans ignoring the tradeoff you might have to make if you want to win basketball games.

And that's exactly what Collins is trying to do — win basketball games — because that's his job. He's not going out looking for bad guys, nor is any college basketball coach. Rather, Collins is looking for the best basketball players, because if you want to be a big-time program, that's what you have to do. It's the same inconvenient truth that others seem to be ignoring — that if NU wants to bring in a transfer player, it's going to have to convince someone from its current team to leave. We live in an era of "smarm," when people see it as rude to acknowledge inconvenient truths, so I understand the ignorance, but it's still troubling.

It's only fair to give Collins the benefit of the doubt on these choices, because it's his team and he'll pay the consequences if he gambles wrong. But it's also fair to acknowledge that this is a different "way" than NU is used to, and it's a way that NU fans have criticized before when their team was losing games to teams who played by those same rules.

I'm sure this is going to get some backlash, because of the "My school's coach does it the right way, your school's players are thugs" mentality. And the truth is, there isn't a right way. Even Stanford, the school that has the reputation for best balancing academics and athletics, has had a morality scandal that probably shouldn't have been a scandal. There isn't one way that helps you parade APR scores and and a different way that helps you win basketball games. Rather, there's a spectrum, and NU seems to be doing some things more consistent with the latter end, because its basketball coach thinks that will help win basketball games.

Northwestern isn't going to get Chane Behanan, and heck, there's no evidence NU even offered him a spot on the team. But as the Wildcats head into their NUEra, this kind of thing is bound to happen again. Things might change, new things that aren't consistent with NU's past. That doesn't mean you should condemn these changes — both you and Collins have a right to decide whether the "cost of doing business" is worth it — but it also doesn't mean you should ignore them, even if they're not consistent with your image of NU.