When Northwestern lost to Iowa in the opening round of the B1G Tournament last Thursday, a miserable 13-19 season came to a merciful end. Decimated by injuries and a season-long suspension to guard JerShon Cobb, the Wildcats again failed to lift the expectation of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
Although he had built the program up from near-extinction to mediocrity, Bill Carmody was fired as head coach on Saturday. An overall record of 192-210 over 13 seasons would suggest that his firing was justified. However, considering the notably stringent academic standards of the university, the well-respected coach should not be blamed directly for the program’s struggles.
Instead, he should be celebrated as the best coach the school has ever had (which, I’ll admit, is not saying much). It took time, but Carmody was able to coach the Wildcats to the best stretch in program history with four straight NIT appearances. Going 13 seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance would get a coach fired at any other school, but at Northwestern, back-to-back 20-win seasons is considered success.
Granted, Carmody was just like any other Northwestern coach in that he failed to lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament, once and for all. Northwestern is the only school from a major conference to never make the Big Dance. It’s a dubious distinction, one that has often been paralleled to the Cubs’ World Series drought.
All the administration, boosters, fans (albeit very few) and alumni wanted was just one tournament. While it didn’t help that student attendance at Welsh-Ryan Arena was abysmal, the football program under Pat Fitzgerald was setting new standards. Coming off their first bowl victory since 1949 in January–which should speak for the reputation of the university–Fitzgerald has shown that it is possible to win consistently in Evanston with rare highly-qualified Division I student-athletes.
Following up on four consecutive near-misses with this past season’s debacle, the elephant in the room finally stomped on Carmody. “There’s always next year” was no longer an excuse for Carmody and the athletic department. With only one year remaining on his contract, he simply ran out of time to make it happen.
It is unclear who Northwestern will pursue going forward. Duke assistant Chris Collins has been considered a possibility, but realistically, it will be difficult a land a viable candidate to a program with no winning tradition and poor, outdated facilities.
The program certainly stands in far better shape today than when Carmody arrived from Princeton in 2000. Its inability to finally break through to the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t fall directly on Carmody, since the university’s infamously strict academic standards left him with a very limited talent pool of recruits to work with in the first place.
In today’s world, winning is too important. While coaches certainly cannot be blamed for their team’s untimely and unforeseen injuries and suspensions, they are responsible for wins and losses that may result from them. It isn’t fair, but it’s the reality of the coaching profession, because, after all, they are in charge of the program.
Carmody was a good coach throughout his tenure at Northwestern, winning more games than any other coach in school history. But in the end, he ultimately did not win enough.