EVANSTON, Ill. -- In the early spring of 2008, I was sitting at a crowded sports bar in Skokie watching the afternoon games during the first round of the NCAA tournament. When I sat down at the table, I noticed a familiar face at the table next to us, drinking a glass of red wine while he watched the opening slate of games.
There was an air of refinement to this man. He had to be content with himself and his surroundings, because you don't see too many men casually drinking a glass of red wine on a weekday afternoon at a sports bar in Skokie.
The amateur oenophile was Bill Carmody, fresh off an 8-22 season, and when I saw him, I immediately said this was the perfect snapshot of Northwestern basketball. It's the first day of the NCAA tournament and their coach is at a sports bar drinking a glass of wine.
Of course. How perfect.
Fast forward 20 months, and Carmody is walking briskly onto the floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena during a late-morning practice before the team's Wednesday matchup with No. 11 Butler to correct a player on the principles of his Princeton-style offense.
"It's simple," he said. "When the ball's here, you do this. When the ball is there, you do this."
Simple. Right. Carmody's offense, as 1-2-3 as organic chemistry, was learned at the feet of legendary coach Pete Carril for 14 years before taking over at Princeton and leading the Tigers as high as No. 7 in the polls and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament in 1998. He was rewarded with a chance to coach in the Big Ten. The big time. But it hasn't worked out like he thought it would, and you can see it wearing on him during games.
Carmody is a sight to see on the floor. At 120-149 over his nine seasons at Northwestern (last year's 17-14 record was only his second winning season at the school) he has been in charge of some disjointed, under-talented teams. He's not afraid to show his displeasure with them -- and everyone around him -- while standing on the court. Carmody is not a raging nut like his predecessor, Kevin O'Neill, but he still puts on a show. Northwestern's players enjoy Carmody's biting, deadpan style of humor as much as they joke about his histrionics.
"I wish they put a camera on him during games," injured star forward Kevin Coble said. "I'd watch that tape right after watching our game tape. You've got him stomping, turning around, doing the jacket grab. It's cool there's really just a select group that gets to see it on a regular basis."
Coble is the story right now, and it's not a good one. The 6-foot-8 senior from Scottsdale, Ariz., a second-team All-Big Ten player last season and by far the program's best player, fractured his foot during practice last week. The Lisfranc fracture, a dislocation and fracture of joints at the top of the foot between the ankle and the toes, will require surgery. Coble won't be able to practice again until March, which means he's likely going to take a medical redshirt and play a fifth year. Senior swingman Jeff Ryan, a solid role player out of Glenbrook South High School, hurt his knee in the season opener and he, too, will miss the season.
Coble made national headlines two years ago when he missed preseason practice and the first nine games to be with his mother, who was battling breast cancer in Arizona. She recovered and is a constant, positive presence at games.
"It puts some things in perspective, certainly," he said. "What she had was certainly more concerning than a little foot injury. In the big picture, this is something small, almost a drop in the ocean."
When Coble's injury was announced, a reporter tried to soften the blow in a question to Carmody, noting maybe it was a "blessing in disguise" that Coble could play next season, when the Big Ten is conceivably weaker. Carmody scoffed. There is no way to find a positive to this situation.
"Come on," Carmody said Tuesday. "Let's be serious."
In all seriousness, everyone knows Northwestern is perhaps the most woebegone basketball program in the whole country. For its entire tortured history, Northwestern has been a maddening anomaly, the only "big conference" school never to make the NCAA tournament. Ironically, Northwestern hosted the first NCAA tournament in 1939, six years after its last conference championship.
In all seriousness, once Coble went down, everyone knew this was going to be another one of those Northwestern seasons: Fourteen wins and a first-round exit in the Big Ten tournament.
This was supposed to be the year it all changed. Several publications actually picked the Wildcats to make the NCAA tournament, which is rarer than Bob Huggins coaching a team of academic All-Americans. Northwestern put together a solid run last year, beating Florida State, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, among others, to tie the school record with 17 wins and make the NIT for just the fourth time. Coble worked on his game, adding a few pounds to his bony physique and the young, unusually tall Wildcats worked on their game all summer and fall.
Then, going up for a rebound in practice, Coble landed wrong on his foot. No one was around him. Carmody didn't even notice it happened.
"I heard we were cursed worse than the Cubs," Coble said. "That didn't really mean anything to me, coming from Arizona. But after talking to people and hearing stories, it was like, you get some momentum and then you take some of this and it takes time to adjust again. It's like one thing after the next. But that's all external, and it doesn't change our goals. We have four veteran starters and some guys who played a lot of minutes, plus [freshman guard Drew Crawford] is coming along."
John Shurna, a 6-8 sophomore from Glenbard West High School, is one of the guys that needs to get more aggressive to replace Coble's scoring. Shurna started every game last season, averaging 7.3 points with limited opportunities. He made the U.S. Under-19 team that won a gold medal at the FIBA World Championships in New Zealand this past summer, along with two Butler players, Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, both of whom he'll face Wednesday.
Carmody expects Shurna to keep developing this season and isn't putting any expectations on him to fill Coble's role.
"Last year he only averaged seven points a game, but he only played 18 minutes a game, so is it a big thing to be in the starting five and average 14?" Carmody said. "Is that a big deal? You can call it stepping up, you can call it what you want. I think it's normal progression."
Jeremy Nash, a bench guy his first three season, scored 20 points in the team's 77-55 season-opening win over Northern Illinois. Luka Mirkovic, a string bean 6-11 forward/center, had 14 points. Recruiting has picked up for Carmody with former NU star Tavaras Hardy leading the charge. Four of the five starters, with Coble out, are from Chicago, with Naperville's Crawford (son of NBA ref Danny Crawford) and starting point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson, a rare City League find, joining Shurna, Nash and Mirkovic.
The Wildcats have some depth on the bench as well, with at least another four guys in the rotation, including 7-0 center Kyle Rowley. The Lake Forest Academy product is getting back into shape after a foot injury.
While expectations without Coble should be tempered, Carmody isn't looking for excuses.
"I just told our guys some people say there's an opportunity for guys now. But I say there's always been an opportunity in practice, there has been every year," he said. "If you're outplaying Kevin Coble when he's not hurt, you're playing over him. I think there's too much made about opportunity and this 'might be a blessing in disguise' and all that happy stuff. Let's play. I've been saying all along we've got nine or 10 guys who can play."
Carmody doesn't have much use for narratives, noting basketball is nothing more than "five guys in white uniforms playing five guys in dark uniforms." After so many losing seasons, you have to wonder how long he can take it or, conversely, how long it will be until Northwestern tries to find a new savior. But all we have now is the season before us and a glint of possibility once again obscured by the shadow of impending failure.
"What's that thing they've been saying the last 10 years? 'It is what it is'?" Carmody said. "Why wasn't that around in the 1980s or '90s? That's it. It is what it is."
That's a pretty succinct way to describe Northwestern basketball. It is what it is. I hope for their sake that what they are is a surprise to us all.