Northwestern extended the contract of men’s basketball coach Bill Carmody today. It was reported in the fall that NU and Carmody were working towards an extension, but I think many thought Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips would wait until the end of the current season before letting Carmody sign on the dotted line for what many suspect is a multi-year extension that will keep Carmody at NU at least through the graduation of the current freshmen class.
While I don’t agree with the Trib’s assessment that most NU fans are less than thrilled to see Carmody stay, I will say that Bill Carmody seems to have become the most divisive NU athletic figure since Gary Barnett in the weeks after his departure for Colorado. That sounds impressive, but the truth is everyone could agree that Kevin O’Neill’s attitude and outlook wasn’t a good fit for NU and that as a great of people as Bill Foster and Ricky Byrdsong were they weren’t good enough coaches to win at NU at the time. On the other hand, Carmody has won just enough games to make a sound argument he’s best NU basketball coach since Pearl Harbor was bombed, but has lost just enough to make others see him as a one trick pony whose offensive genius is overshadowed by his inability to coach defense and recruit skilled big men. People also get on Carmody because he likes red wine and shows emotion on the sidelines. Personally, I prefer white wine, but I couldn’t care less that Carmody prefers red. Also, the most successful coach in the history of college basketball, Mr. Robert Montgomery Knight, was the king of sideline antics. Personally, I go to bed each night hoping that Carmody will be even half as entertaining as Knight. Honestly, if Bill Carmody picked up a chair and threw it when NU was getting homered at home by the Big Ten refs the media coverage it would generate would probably be the best thing ever to happen to Northwestern basketball. Heck, ESPN would probably even send Knight to Evanston to interview Carmody, but I digress. Let’s get back to the point.
The issue is whether or not Carmody’s extension was the right move. Carmody’s winning percentage of .472 at NU isn’t great, but it is .112 points higher than the highest percentage of the four coaches who preceded him. Carmody’s two postseason appearances in 10 years aren’t great, but it’s better than most of Northwestern basketball history. He has directed some the most successful seasons in NU basketball history. In addition, Carmody’s recruiting has picked up and he has constructed a nucleus of talent which looks to be NU’s strongest in some time. Even with the graduation of Juice Thompson at the end of this season, NU should be strong next year with John Shurna as a senior, Drew Crawford as a junior, and a very mature sophomore in JerShon Cobb. Add a decent point guard to those three and NU might even be better than this season.
On the other hand, Carmody’s winning percentage is still below .500. He’s also only gotten to the postseason twice in 10 years and while it is Northwestern, those numbers are certainly not numbers which meet the goals Dr. Phillips or most fans have for the program (at least I hope not). Also, though, NU’s recruiting has improved, I don’t see any players who are truly difference makers or program changing recruits. The players on the roster might come together to make the NCAA Tournament, but there is clearly a small margin for error with these guys and Shurna’s injury and Kevin Coble’s departure might have pushed NU outside of that margin for error. Speaking of Coble, it sounds in many ways like he and his family were pretty selfish and motivated more by their self interests than the NU basketball program’s but one has to wonder what exactly happened between Carmody and Coble family that both sides couldn’t stick it out for one more season with so much at stake (e.g. NU in the tourney, Kevin’s shot at pro ball, Carmody’s legacy as a coach). Also, even with some recruiting improvements this year’s NU roster (supposedly one of the best ever) has one point guard and one true center. That’s not good for a team that is supposed to compete in the Big Ten.
As I hope you can see from above, I see both sides on Bill Carmody. I honestly think he’s a pretty good coach, especially on offense. Any basketball coach/player with a good eye can see that NU’s offense is very complex and hard to guard when run with good players. That’s why Carmody’s mentor Pete Carill was able to get work as an NBA assistant, the Princeton offensive schemes are 100% solid. Unfortunately, Carmody has some limitations which can’t be corrected by even the most brilliant offense. Some aren’t his fault, for example I can’t think of another major college program that conveys more of a sense of “un-big timeness” than NU. That goes for game day (can we please cut out the audio only pregame highlights no one can hear and the improv stuff that just seems dumb?) and the program’s facilities both for game play and practice. I’m not sure any coach could overcome those and break through with top-50 recruits regularly at NU. Some of Carmody’s limitations are his own fault, though. For example, the fact NU has games they simply don’t show up for has to somewhat be traced back to the coach. I’m not saying Carmody isn’t trying to fire his teams up, but clearly the psychological side of coaching isn’t a Bill Carmody strength. Carmody’s teams’ refusal to play defense is also a problem that he has to take the blame for.
If you’ve read this far you probably expect me to give you a bottom line on Bill Carmody’s extension, but I’m finding it nearly impossible to do so. No matter how much people may want to do so, Bill Carmody can’t be evaluated on the same scale as other Big Ten coaches. I honestly believe if NU could play any defense at all and had a center with a more well-rounded game than Luka Mirkovic the Wildcats would probably be in the top-25 right now. But isn’t it Carmody’s fault they don’t? Well, not if you consider he didn’t build Welsh-Ryan Arena or refuse to spend money to upgrade it any time in the last 30 years. If it had been up to me I probably wouldn’t have extended Carmody’s contract until this season was over, but just because Carmody is back doesn’t mean all his assistants will be. Maybe this offseason is finally the year NU gets a defensive expert. If I were Phillips that would have been one of my criteria for Carmody’s retention if NU doesn’t make the Big Dance. The sad fact is NU basketball has problems that won’t be solved with a coaching change. If NU really wants to be serious about competing for Big Ten Titles in basketball they’ll make an effort to ensure Welsh-Ryan and the rest of the facilities and amenities for NU’s program and its fans are up to Big Ten standards. Maybe then we can truly evaluate Bill Carmody (or any coach) on the same scale as his counterparts.