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Thursday, March 14, 2013
Updated: March 15, 9:48 AM ET
Bill Carmody's time has come

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Part of me wished that Northwestern beat Iowa just so coach Bill Carmody could possibly pull a Costanza, "going out on top" by leaving his postgame news conference with a "Good night everybody!" and a wave.

That dream had as much chance of happening as Northwestern winning the NCAA tournament. Or heck, even making it.

Northwestern, the Charlie Brown of Big Ten basketball, ended its season Thursday night in the Big Ten tournament with a 73-59 loss. Carmody will almost surely be fired after a particularly miserable season.

If he's not, it'll be a shock. You can't find a person who believes he will be back for the final year of his contract. Carmody wouldn't directly address it Thursday after the loss, but he knows there's no Princeton defense for this situation.

Those familiar, ephemeral expectations of finally making the NCAA tournament, for the first time in school history, were decimated by injuries and a suspension. Given the injuries, no one quite blames Carmody, a very well-respected coach, for the misery of this particular season.

But his 13-year tenure is defined by the program's Cubs-like tournament streak, and now a striking dissonance with the success of the football team. The only reason to bring him back is pity and the faint notion that he could finally make the tournament next season.

It's always next season. Maybe there's a reason the athletic department has aligned itself with the Cubs.

Bill Carmody
Bill Carmody's time at Northwestern could be coming to an end after 13 seasons and no NCAA tournament appearances.

If athletic director Jim Phillips and president Morton Schapiro wanted status quo, they could keep Carmody, who fields a very nice group of "student athletes" and has turned the program for a moribund joke to just a frustratingly mediocre NIT team.

But in the end, it's all about winning in March.

"Everyone's goal is to get in the NCAA tournament," Carmody said. "So we haven't been able to accomplish that. But in a hundred years we haven't been able to accomplish that. And there's not that much different now about what Northwestern offers than it was when Kevin O'Neill was here and [Ricky] Byrdsong and Bill Foster and all those."

Carmody is saying the facilities have never changed, the basketball team continues to be overlooked by the administration and boosters. But all they wanted was one tournament appearance.

Northwestern's situation is different now. Expectations have changed in the administration and among prominent alumni. Football coach Pat Fitzgerald would hate to hear this, but he has changed the paradigm.

He has shown that you can win consistently at Northwestern without changing the ethos of the university. Fitzgerald is charismatic, intense and seemingly dedicated to winning with a sense of class, so the alumni and the board can enjoy college sports and still feel superior to their peers.

From what I know, the people in charge like Carmody the person, they just can't stand his basketball program. Not anymore. The Princeton offense, the bad losses, the general malaise that shrouds the program.

The state of this program can't all be pinned on Carmody. He's the best coach the Wildcats have had, maybe ever. It has taken time, but he made them consistent enough to make four straight NITs. At almost every other school, that would get the coach ridiculed and fired. At Northwestern, that's progress.

Four straight winning seasons, including back-to-back 20-win efforts, preceded this one with NCAA tournament flirtations going unrequited. Carmody is 5-13 in the Big Ten tournament and has never won more than one game in a tournament. He never has had a winning record in the conference, finishing .500 just once.

Thirteen years is a long time. You know how many jobs his predecessor Kevin O'Neill has had since leaving in 2000? Seven. O'Neill is a bad example, but it shows the patience Northwestern has had with Carmody.

From Vedran Vukusic to John Shurna, Carmody has landed solid Big Ten players, but he could never field a deep team that could really compete in the Big Ten. There's a reason Carmody's media guide brags about how many of his teams have won six conference games in a season. That's good?

From what I know, there is no list to replace Carmody, no feelers have been launched. No one wants to embarrass Carmody. But no one wants to see him coach another game. No more Princeton offense.

Duke assistant Chris Collins is the hot name, and I'm told the school will pursue him if a change is made. While Northwestern's hang-ups -- no winning tradition, poor facilities -- are well-known, don't think there aren't viable candidates.

Schapiro, Phillips and the school's board of trustees want an exciting basketball team to represent their university, one that can compete with their peers. The Big Ten is full of coaches who create an exciting brand of basketball and you can bet the purple-clad bigwigs, who sat and watched another loss with bleak, scornful faces, are sick of being a second-class basketball team.

The Big Ten tournament, back in Chicago for the first time since 2007, drew an amazingly small turnout of purple-clad fans. It echoes the continuing problems Northwestern has drawing at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where visiting teams dominate the gym.

Student interest is minimal. It's not cool to go to Northwestern games. Those indifferent students graduate and their interest dims even more. Northwestern basketball is something to joke about on Facebook.

Phillips, who was hired from Northern Illinois in 2008, right after Northwestern's last losing season in basketball, has been an amazing fundraiser, with a new $225 million lakeshore athletics facility coming soon. That will modernize an athletic department once known only for its failures and outdated facilities.

But the basketball facilities need attention too. Carmody said "the gap might be widening" in the "arms race" between schools. Translated: It's time for "Chicago's Big Ten team" to act like one.

That's a wakeup call the university needs. The alumni and donors love Fitzgerald and the football team, which broke a very long bowl win drought last season. But they don't love basketball.

"Well, you know, football and basketball are apples and oranges," Carmody said. "We have been in the postseason, the NIT, all that kind of stuff. And football raises. Money comes in from football. People said 85 percent [of fundraising is for] football and basketball is like 15 percent. And our administration knows that and they're going to do something about that."

They do have to do something about it, and Carmody knows it's him.

Carmody has gotten this team as far as it's going to go. Northwestern needs someone who embodies its brand, a salesman as much as a tactician.

This falls on Phillips, who hasn't had to make a big coaching decision yet. Considering his last basketball hire was Ricardo Patton at Northern Illinois, let's hope he listens to his advisors.

Collins, a Northbrook native, will be a top candidate, but not the only one. Expect some unusual names. Phillips will rely on well-connected board members and friends to help him flesh out a national search.

But to me, Collins is the guy. He's young and carries with him the stench of success. He has a name brand, from his famous father and more than a decade sitting next to a snarling Coach K. They need to pay him and promise him real change.

Carmody did a decent job, and every coach respects him, but how many schools would let a coach go 13 years without making an NCAA tournament?

Just one.

Northwestern basketball needs a new identity and it needs it now. There is no going out on top for Carmody. Just a normal exit.