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March 19, 2012Last Friday night's loss at Washington in the second round of the NIT meant the end of the season for Northwestern's basketball team. It also marked the final game all-time leading scorer John Shurna's career.
The question is whether it was also Bill Carmody's last game as coach of the Wildcats.
That question is expected to be answered by athletic director Jim Phillips this week. And for Phillips, there is no easy answer.
Carmody just completed his 12th season in Evanston. He was given a contract extension last season that is believed to run through the 2012-13 season, so a decision must be made, one way or the other. The Wildcats will either keep Carmody -- likely until he wants to step down -- or make a move to replace him.
In this day and age, coaches don't go into the final year of their contracts without some clarity around their futures. Recruiting prospects are not likely to commit to a program where they don't know who will be sitting on the bench for their first, let alone their fourth, season.
So schools typically give the coach in question an extension or fire him. Coaches also may resign or announce their impending retirement, either of which allows the school to get on with the business of hiring the next coach.
Carmody's resignation or retirement -- either effective immediately or at the end of next season -- would take Phillips off the hot seat. Phillips could then launch a coaching search for a successor or announce that assistant Tavaras Hardy will be the next leader of the program.
That's the quickest, easiest and least painful outcome.
It's not a far-fetched scenario, either. Carmody is 60 years old and must be financially secure for the rest of his life. With 179 wins, he is Northwestern's second all-time winningest coach (Arthur Lonborg, with 236, is the only one with more). He has taken the Wildcats to four of their seven NIT appearances in history (and consecutively), and he is the only man to rack up 20 wins at NU (and he did it twice).
A man at his age doesn't need the aggravation, stress and seemingly daily calls for his job.
On the other hand, he hasn't yet achieved what he seemingly came to Northwestern to do: take the Wildcats to the Big Dance.
That really is the only argument for all those fans that support Carmody's ouster, and it's a compelling one. He's had a dozen years to lead Northwestern to the Promised Land and erase the stigma associated with being the only major-conference team to have never been invited to the NCAA Tournament, and he hasn't done it. Twelve years is more than enough time, the thinking goes, and if he wasn't able to do it over the last two years, when he's had the likes of Shurna, Michael "Juice" Thompson and Drew Crawford at his disposal, he likely never will.
It may seem unfair to judge a coach with a standard that has never been achieved before in the history of the program, but that is the current state of a Northwestern fan base that is tired of being on the outside, looking in. Carmody has taken the program from Point A (oblivion) to Point B (four straight winning records and NIT berths). Someone else, many think, might be needed to take the Wildcats to Point C (the NCAA Tournament).
(The irony is that on the other side of the athletic complex on Central Street, football coach Pat Fitzgerald is signed through 2020 without winning a Big Ten title -- something both of his predecessors achieved within four years -- let alone capturing something that the program had never won before.)
All of that is on one side of the ledger when Phillips makes a decision. There are also competing reasons for retention on the other.
Northwestern's program is perhaps at a higher point right now than it has been in more than 40 years. The Wildcats are 76-55 (.580) over the last four seasons, and this senior class goes out as the winningest in history. They have appeared in the post-season in each of the last four years, and have won three NIT games over the last two. In the Big Ten, they have gone 30-42 (.417), the best four-year stretch since Larry Glass led the Cats to a 28-28 (.500) record from 1966-69. And they have been in the NCAA bubble conversations the last two seasons for the first time in history.
Recruiting, too, has been on an upswing, especially since Hardy came on board in 2006. Two of NU's top four all-time leading scorers -- Shurna and Thompson -- were Carmody recruits over the last five years. More recently, JerShon Cobb (ranked 103rd in 2010) and Kale Abrahamson (138th in 2012) were both national Top 150 recruits.
So back and forth it goes. Carmody has been the most successful NU coach since the 1940s, say his supporters. He hasn't made the tournament and someone else deserves a shot, say the naysayers. He gets more out of less than any coach in the league, say the supporters. That means he can't recruit well enough, say the naysayers. He's a coaching genius, say the supporters. His teams can't defend or rebound, say the naysayers. The Wildcats were so close to making the Dance this year, losing five Big Ten games by a total of 12 points, say the supporters. That just proves he doesn't know how to win close games, say the naysayers.
Of course, all of the above are basketball arguments. Phillips, however, will have to weigh other matters that are decided in conference rooms and not on hardwood courts.
Perhaps the biggest off-the-court issue is facilities, the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The Wildcats hired a firm to do a facilities rehabilitation plan, and it was supposed to be proposed to the board of trustees and announced to the public, with much fanfare, last September.
Six months later, those plans have yet to be made public. Sources say that the plan received pushback from the trustees and lips have been tight since.
NU's future basketball coach -- whether it is Carmody, Hardy or a program outsider -- will need a facilities upgrade to continue to compete in the Big Ten. And whatever the plan, it will require some sizable donations from Wildcat boosters.
Will those boosters be as willing to dig into their pockets if Carmody is retained? Or will a new face be apt to rake in more dollars? Fair or not, Phillips will have to consider those points as well.
If the WildcatReport Basketball Board is any indication, the Northwestern fan base is just about split on the Carmody question, and has been for quite some time. A recent, non-scientific message board poll had 53 percent of respondents in favor of bringing Carmody back, and 47 percent in favor of his ouster, as of this writing.
There are reasons to keep him and reasons to get rid of him, and plenty of supporters on both sides.
The bottom line? It's a good week not to be Jim Phillips.