A Letter to Jim Phillips

In a letter addressed to Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips, Ben Goren explains why Bill Carmody should keep his job as head coach of the basketball team.

Dear Jim Phillips,

This year was bad. Really bad. 13-19, only four conference wins and nine straight losses was hard to watch and a massive disappointment for a team that came in to the season with aspirations of an NCAA tournament, so naturally questions are going to be asked of the man at the helm. And when that man has been in charge of a team for 13 years and is still stuck on zero NCAA tournament appearances, the answer appears to be “Fire him.” But lets think about this for a moment.

The overwhelming atmosphere around Northwestern sports is that of “flash.” New Under Armor jerseys and kicks that, let’s be honest, anyone would drop some serious coin on, a new facility on the shores of Lake Michigan, dominance in non-revenue sports, the whole department appears to be all about instant success and, perhaps more importantly, trying to establish a fan base of non-alumni. In that vain, Carmody is a black sheep. He is, in every way, the anti-Pat Fitzgerald. He isn’t charismatic. He’s not someone who will get in front of a podium and sing the fight song. He doesn’t do coach speak. He’s painfully honest, rough around the edges and someone you could see sipping red wine in his house instead of someone you would want to chill with at a bar.

But let’s not forget in what a different state the basketball program is compared to every other athletic program at Northwestern. Northwestern is The. Worst. Program. In. Division. One. Basketball. Zero tournament appearances. None. But it is a program that is tournament-less, not only Bill Carmody. Northwestern has a rare combination of no history, extremely tight academic requirements, and zero facilities in an era where facilities are the thing that drives a program. Shon Morris, one of the best players to ever play at NU and now an analyst for the Big Ten Network said it this way. “The best way to put it is if facilities is an arms race, Northwestern basketball right now is fighting a nuclear war with a cap gun.” Jim Jackson, former Ohio State great and BTN analyst was asked what can be done to combat such facilities. He said, “You can’t.” Before you decide to drop the axe, Dr. Phillips, consider what needs to be done for the program. “New SPAC” will be great for regular students like me and the football program, but what is it doing for basketball? The new arrangement with Wrigley Field will be awesome for baseball, lacrosse, soccer and football, but what did basketball get out of it? I’ll let you guess the answer. What do you think an 18 year-old kid with offers to play ball at Wisconsin or Illinois thinks when he sees all these plans for everything that’s not basketball? I’m guessing he sees a school that doesn’t value its basketball program. The rumors are that maybe in eight years or so when New SPAC is done there will be room for a new facility and maybe a new Welsh-Ryan. I’m sure that recruits are really jacked for that. You know, four years after they’re gone.

But let’s say that all these things have been taken into account and you still want to pull the plug. What’s the plan then? Who are you going to bring in? Maybe a famous basketball mind like a Brad Stevens or a Shaka Smart, someone who could revolutionize the game of basketball. Sounds like Tex Winter. You know, right hand man to Phil Jackson? Pro Basketball Hall of Fame and College Basketball Hall of Fame member? Co-innovator of the triangle offense? Yeah he coached here. He went 44-87. Then maybe someone more familiar with the college game? From a historically great program? Chris Collins, assistant coach at Duke is a name being thrown out. Wouldn’t it be great to have a coach with ties to a powerhouse? Oh yeah, Northwestern tried that too, except with a head coach who was the National Coach of the Year. His name was Bill Foster. Remember what he did here? Probably not. 54-141 isn’t exactly memorable. Then maybe it’s time for a great recruiter? Someone who can come in and steal some players from Illinois and other programs poaching from the Chicago area? There’s a bottomless gold mine of basketball talent 45 minutes from Northwestern’s campus, if someone could control that, Northwestern could compete with anyone right? Northwestern’s tried that too. His name was Kevin O’Neill, who took Marquette to two NCAA tournaments including a sweet sixteen. He went 30-56, including a solid 5-25 in his last year, leaving Bill Carmody with an eviscerated lineup. And if Bill Carmody does get the axe, what would that say to any coach considering the opening? If the best coach in program history can be fired in a season when the top two players get hurt for the year, the most promising freshmen goes out for the year, and the only remaining scoring threat is playing hurt, what hope is there for job security? And looking back at your history of basketball hires, it’s hard to feel real comfortable that if a change is made, the program is going to move forward. Your one hire at NIU, Ricardo Patton, went 35-83 before being shown the door. He never won more than ten games in a season.

Maybe thirteen years should be enough time to rebuild most programs. But Northwestern is not most programs. The starting point guard when Bill Carmody came to campus, Collier Drayton, was legally blind in one eye. The starting center, Aaron Jennings, ran with a limp because one of his legs was an inch and a half shorter than the other. When someone says, “It can’t get any worse than zero tournament appearances,” maybe you should get out the record book and look at some of the squads Northwestern put together over the last 20 years. The progress has been slow, but it’s been evident. Northwestern went to four straight NIT’s. That sounds like nothing, but it’s the best four year stretch at Northwestern since the thirties. Look at the recruiting in recent years. John Shurna. Drew Crawford. Jershon Cobb. Alex Olah. Jaren Sina. Sina’s father by the way had something to say about Carmody’s future. “I’m not saying Jaren won’t come but it will be very difficult for him to step on the floor at Northwestern if coach Carmody doesn’t stay.” The program is coming around. Don’t cut off the head now.

There’s no doubt that Northwestern basketball is not where it wants to be. But firing the bus driver is not going to help anything. It’s the entire bus that needs to be revamped. That means more than just new shoes and uniforms.

Benjamin H. Goren

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