It's rare in the modern sports culture that a fanbase is so divided on a person who has brought them unprecedented success. Entering his 13th season as the head coach of Northwestern’s basketball program, that is precisely the situation Bill Carmody finds himself in.
But in contrast to the feelings expressed in the nearly 7-year-old Fire Bill Carmody blog (complete with its own Twitter page), Big Ten coaches were seemingly shoving each other out of the way to get to the front of the Bill Carmody fan club at Big Ten Basketball Media Day.
“I’m the biggest Bill Carmody fan there is,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “He does it the right way. He’s unique. He stands outside the box, but he’s built a heck of a program.”
Since Carmody arrived at Northwestern in 2000, the Wildcats are 3-18 against Izzo’s Spartans. However, two of those wins have come in the past four seasons and each of those wins came against Michigan State squads that were ranked in the top 10.
“He’s sensational. Every time that we have played them … the preparation is a root canal to get ready for that game. It’s much worse than a root canal,” said Michigan head coach John Beilein, whose relationship with Carmody dates back 40 years, when he played at Division III Wheeling Jesuit against Carmody’s Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.
Beilein has good reason to compare getting ready to play Carmody’s teams to highly invasive oral surgery. Since he arrived in Ann Arbor to coach the Wolverines in 2007, he is 5-4 against Northwestern. However, three of those wins have come in overtime.
What makes preparation for Northwestern so difficult is its unique style on both sides of the ball. Carmody’s teams run the Princeton offense and the 1-3-1 zone, their primary defensive set, both of which are distinctive in Division I basketball. Coaches in the Big Ten have unanimously praised Carmody for employing these strategies, even after having played against them for over a decade. They recognize that if they still need to put in extra work to get ready for Northwestern, it would put non-conference teams at a significant disadvantage.
“I’ve said this the last two years when they were on the cusp. I hope they get in because they’re the type of team that could go through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament with no problems at all because they’re just so unique,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said.
Matta can show off a 12-1 record against Carmody since becoming Ohio State’s head coach in 2004. However, those wins have gotten tougher to come by. Two of those last four came by two points or less and the third came in overtime.
Carmody’s results from his 12 seasons at Northwestern have certainly been mixed. In only his second year with the program, the Wildcats finished seventh in the Big Ten for the first time in 18 years. Two years later, they finished fifth in the conference for the first time in 35 years.
Inconsistency has given him a 66-136 record in the Big Ten, far from stellar. But that record has come at a time when the Big Ten has been consistently ranked as the strongest conference in college basketball.
Carmody also came into a school with virtually no historical basketball success. The last head coach at Northwestern to finish with a winning record was Arthur “Dutch” Lonborg, who coached the team from 1927-50. In the 50 years between the Lonborg and Carmody eras, Northwestern had 10 men’s basketball coaches. None of them finished their career in Evanston above .500.
Beyond playing in the most difficult conference in the sport and joining perhaps the least storied basketball program in a major conference, other Big Ten coaches recognize that Carmody is operating with disadvantages that have tied his hands more than they would at other schools.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that Northwestern has a little different academic standards,” Izzo said. “They’re proud of that and I respect that. But that does hamper you in recruiting some.”
It is that obstacle that Carmody has started to overcome. Under his watch, John Shurna became the leading scorer in school history. This offseason, he also garnered a commitment from point guard Jaren Sina, the first Top 100 recruit in school history. As talented players have continued to get on board, the program has put together winning seasons in each of the past four years.
“I think probably the biggest thing he’s done is he’s upped the caliber of players he’s got, and therefore, better players make better coaches,” Matta said. “I root for them every time they play except for when we’re playing them. I know the work he’s put in.”
There is a sense of irony in the fact that as he has raised the standards of his own program, Carmody has simultaneously raised expectations of himself. By putting the Northwestern basketball program into the spotlight with his recent successes, he has also done more to expose any of his failures.
Now that Carmody has arrived at the highest point any Northwestern basketball coach has ever reached, he has no choice but to keep on climbing or lose his job in the process.
“He’s got to take the next step. He knows it. That’s not putting pressure on him; that’s just part of the profession we live in,” Izzo said. “If he does take that next step – wow, watch out because then I think it builds momentum, and it gives him a chance to sell all the great things he has to sell like a unique offense, incredible academic standards and a great city.”
After Northwestern’s 76-55 loss to Washington in the second round of the NIT, it was far from clear as to whether or not Carmody would return the following season, despite having led the school to a record four-straight postseason tournament appearances. It appears the only thing that will earn him any job security is that elusive March Madness berth.
But to Beilein and other Big Ten coaches, it is a mystery as to why Bill Carmody’s name would ever be on the hot seat.
“All I know is that guy is one of the best coaches in the country,” Beilein said. “Not just in the Big Ten. In the country.”