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March 16, 2013

Carmody a victim of his own success

Northwestern's firing of head coach Bill Carmody today did not exactly come as a surprise. The media had been speculating that his demise was imminent for weeks, and closing the 2012-13 season with a nine-game losing streak fanned the flames that ultimately engulfed him.

Yet when looking at his 13 years at the helm in Evanston, it is legitimate to ask whether Carmody could have done any more with what he had. He didn't take the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the school's history, and that shortcoming is probably what ultimately cost him his job. Short of that, Carmody achieved just about everything else he could have, given the many disadvantages inherent in the program.

In many ways, then, Carmody is a victim of his own success.

Carmody was, by any measure, the most successful coach Northwestern has had in at least a half century. His 192 wins are second-most in school history, behind only Arthur "Dutch" Lonborg, who won 236 from 1927-28 to 1949-50.

Lonborg, in a testament to just how hopeless the basketball program has been, is the last Northwestern coach with a winning record, and he left Evanston when Harry S. Truman was in office.

Carmody's overall winning percentage of .477 (210-192) would seem to be a major drawback until realizing that it is better than any NU coach since William Rohr, who stepped down exactly 50 years ago, in 1963. Carmody's Big Ten winning percentage of .317 (70-151) is the best since Larry Glass, who last coached in 1969.

Northwestern played basketball for 94 seasons before Carmody arrived in 2000-01 and in that time was invited to the NIT twice. Carmody made it four times in 13 years. He also led the Wildcats to the only 20-win seasons in school history, in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

His recruiting was often criticized, yet he did bring in three of the school's six all-time leading scorers, including No. 1 John Shurna, No. 4 Juice Thompson and No. 6 Vedran Vukusic. Drew Crawford was 16th before this season started and certainly would have cracked the Top 10 if he hadn't undergone shoulder surgery in December that forced him to miss the remainder of the season.

Carmody's Princeton offense was seen by many as a gimmick system that wouldn't be successful in the rugged Big Ten, yet it often allowed the Wildcats to remain competitive with less talent than most of their opponents.

Carmody's ouster was no doubt precipitated by the program's newfound higher expectations. Northwestern wants desperately to erase the stain of being the last major conference school to never play in the Big Dance, and it wants to do it sooner rather than later. That's understandable.

Yet it was Carmody himself who raised those expectations. He gave Northwestern a few bounces on the NCAA Tournament bubble for the first times in school history, and that taste of the big time helped accelerate his exit.

It certainly wasn't increased investment from the school's administration. The Wildcats play in a gym that has essentially gone untouched since a rehab in 1983, and the school's new $225 million athletic facilities improvement plan doesn't earmark a dime for basketball.

About the only thing Northwestern did for Carmody is build him some meeting rooms and a players lounge a few years ago. Those are housed in a strange cinder-block building on one end of the team's practice courts that looks like outdoor construction that was wrongly built on the interior of Welsh-Ryan Arena.

In the end, maybe it was just time for a change, for new direction on what has largely been a rudderless ship for most of its existence. Carmody had a long run, and there probably isn't another school in America that would keep a coach for 13 years without once being invited to the Dance.

That appears to be what athletic director Jim Phillips was thinking in deciding to make a change at the top. It's difficult to see another reason.



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