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March 17, 2013One look at Jim Phillips at the podium yesterday told the story of how difficult a decision the firing of head basketball coach Bill Carmody was for the Northwestern athletic director.
With his wounded-puppy eyes, Phillips looked more like a man delivering a eulogy at a funeral than an AD announcing a coaching change.
The move to fire Carmody after 13 years in Evanston was maybe a move that Phillips didn't want to make, especially after a season in which the Wildcats lost three starters to suspension or injury.
But it was one he felt he had to in the best interests of the program.
"There is a better destination for this basketball program," Phillips said. "I believe that intellectually and I believe that emotionally."
Phillips felt compelled to remove Carmody in large part because of the coach's contract.
Last year, Phillips retained Carmody after the Wildcats once again fell short of what would have been the school's first-ever invitation to the NCAA Tournament. This time around, Carmody didn't have multiple years left on his deal, giving Phillips the disparate options of an extension or a parting of the ways.
"We were here about a year ago," said Phillips, citing last year's press conference. "I'll tell you one of the biggest differences was that we were down to one year on Bill's contract (2013-14).
"I didn't feel an extension was warranted. I think it would have been detrimental to the program and to Bill and his staff to try to recruit with less than a year on is contract.
"So, the combination of those factors resulted in us making the decision to make a change."
Many fans on the WildcatReport Basketball Board were in favor of giving Carmody one more year. This season was a lost one, they reasoned, as injuries sabotaged any hopes for another run at the Big Dance.
But college athletics do not work that way. Coaches can't recruit with just one year left on their contract. What prospective player would enter into a situation in which he wouldn't know who the head coach will be when he arrives on campus?
Going the "one more year" route would have necessitated Phillips naming Carmody's successor. That would have limited the talent pool for the job considerably and would have only been feasible if Phillips was sold on associate head coach Tavaras Hardy as Carmody's successor.
That move would have been a vote for more of the same, however. And it's clear that Phillips is intent on bringing major change with the next coach.
So it was all or nothing: either extend the contract of a 61-year-old head coach who hadn't made the promised land in 13 years, or fire him and go in a new direction. Phillips chose the latter.
Critics argue, and perhaps rightly so, that Phillips shouldn't have made the decision after this brutal death march of a season. This Wildcat team was doomed from the outset, they reasoned, as starter JerShon Cobb was suspended for the season before the opening tip and leading scorer Drew Crawford underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in December.
In a testament to Carmody's coaching ability the Wildcats were still competitive at 13-10 (4-6 Big Ten) on Feb. 9, when Jared Swopshire went down for the season with a knee injury at Iowa. That proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back, as Northwestern wouldn't win another game, closing the year on a nine-game losing streak.
Phillips said, though, that he looked at the panorama of Carmody's tenure at Northwestern in making this decision, not just the snapshot of this season.
"It was a look at 13 years" he said. "Athletic success, it does matter. It should matter."
Now Phillips must find the next coach to remove the stain of being the only major conference school to never play in the NCAAs. And he knows it will be a daunting task.
He goes into it knowing that Welsh-Ryan Arena hasn't been renovated in 30 years and that the much ballyhooed $220 million athletic facilities plan will not provide a dime for basketball.
Yesterday's sacking of Carmody also means that the next coach will ultimately be judged on one thing, and one thing only: getting to the NCAA Tournament.
After all, Carmody won more games in Evanston (192) than all but one man, and he led the Wildcats to the only 20-win seasons in school history and four of the six National Invitation Tournaments they have ever played in. Yet it still wasn't enough to hold onto his job because he didn't get the Cats to the Big Dance.
Phillips doesn't know whether the next coach will be able to do as well as the last one, but it's a gamble he is willing to take. And it's one for which he is willing to put himself squarely on the hot seat.
"There's a better destination (for Northwestern)," he said. "Certainly there's some inherent risk in that, but it was time for a change."