Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

79° Evanston, IL
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Prince-ton charming

It’s about 800 miles from Princeton, N.J., to Evanston, but don’t try telling first-year Northwestern basketball coach Bill Carmody the two towns are even that close. In his first year in the Big Ten — and his second year in any Division I conference other than the Ivy League — Carmody has gotten an on-the-job lesson about the Midwest.

“There are a number of state universities, and it’s the fans, the fans are really …” Carmody says, his voice trailing off as his head shakes and his eyes widen. “There aren’t many people from Illinois that are Minnesota fans. Back East, just because you live in a state that doesn’t mean it’s the school you support. Here, it seems like it’s almost unanimous. I mean, in New Jersey, some people like the Giants. Some people like the Eagles. Some people like the Jets. Here, it’s ‘State U.'”

And that makes his new job at Private U all the more difficult. Tonight he’ll face his toughest challenge yet — NU (7-7, 0-2 Big Ten) battles defending national champion Michigan State (12-1, 1-1) at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.

Surprisingly, Carmody says he had his eye on the NU job even while the school was in turmoil shortly after its 5-25 season. But he didn’t get the call until early September, five days after the departure of now-New York Knicks assistant Kevin O’Neill.

“Since this job didn’t open up in the spring,” Carmody says, “I thought it wouldn’t open up and (I’d) wait until next year, and then who knows where you are? I think if it had opened up in the spring I was ready to get involved in the process.”

Arriving at NU so close to the season — only 61 days separated his hiring and his first exhibition game — made life crazy for the Jersey native. First he had to find a new home. Then he had to move his family to Illinois. Then he had to get his two sons started in school.

And then came the basketball.

The task at hand — turning the Wildcats around — had daunted and haunted many a coach before. Early-season action gave Carmody a whiff of how difficult his new job would be. But in the back of his mind, Carmody knew not to pay attention to the bricked shots and picked-off passes, preferring instead to see his players’ potential.

“There has not been a tradition of winning here,” Carmody says, exhibiting the candor that stuns many upon first meeting the coach. “But as much as it’s one of the reasons people tell you not to take the job, it’s also one of the reasons I wanted to take the job. There’s room to build. It’s going to take time. That’s something that was alluring.”

Carmody, a history major at Union College (N.Y.), rarely pulls any punches when talking about his team. Physically overmatched? Sure, he says. Undersized? Absolutely. Inexperienced? You bet.

Out of contention before the opening tip? Never.

Carmody comes from a Princeton program famed for the impossible victory, and in Evanston that reputation has given Cats fans reason to think this could be the guy for the job — consider the Dec. 27 upset of No. 16 Southern California.

Still, critics question whether his famed Princeton offense, all bounce passes and backdoor cuts, can work in the physical Big Ten. But it’s tough to argue with a 99-31 career record — regardless of how he got those wins.

“He’s not the kind of a guy who’s going to pull a lot of surprises, and you go, ‘Oh, my God, what was that?'” assistant coach Paul Lee says.

Lee was surprised, however, at the tail end of the Cats’ upset of USC. With seconds left, NU up three points and the ball in the Trojans’ hands, Carmody opted to foul rather than allow even a quick look at the rim.

Are you sure? Lee thought at the time.

“He got beat like that once,” Lee says now. “A guy shot a three at the buzzer, it went in and tied it up, and they lost in overtime. And we had discussed it earlier. He said if we get in that situation where we’re up three and there are five seconds left, we’re fouling the guy. And he did it, and it worked. That opened my eyes a little bit.”

It’s not unusual to look over at the NU bench and see Carmody leaning back, legs crossed and tie slightly askew. Where O’Neill cussed, Carmody kicks back.

“He always seems pretty calm and relaxed,” freshman guard Ed McCants says. “He gets upset every now and then, and we kind of know. He always does it low-key, but when he gets upset, we know.”

Carmody says he doesn’t scream because he never thought it was a productive way to communicate. He lives for practice, for instruction, not the roller-coaster of emotions that turns game day into an ulcer. He is an educator who clutches a basketball instead of a piece of chalk.

“He’s certainly not a yeller and a screamer,” Lee says. “He’s not the master motivator. He’s a teacher. He’s teaching guys how to get better.”

Game strategy is part of the job, but Carmody is the quintessential college coach, a man who thrives on honing the skills of others.

“You take (guards) Jitim Young and Ben Johnson,” he says. “These guys are OK, pretty good players. But there’s so much they have to learn and get better at, it’s incredible. And they’re both willing. That’s what I like, that’s what gets me excited about the coaching. If I’m back home at night and I say, ‘Man, these guys don’t even want to get better,’ that would bother me.”

He doesn’t see the NU program as his personal Everest — just as a hill to climb.

“I don’t have any of these great career goals,” Carmody says. “I was an assistant for 14 years at Princeton. If I’m one of those guys that’s thinking about the great work of my career and something like that, heck, I wouldn’t have stayed as an assistant. I would have gotten a head job somewhere. There were opportunities.

“I’m competitive, and I want to do it here. I want to get this program on its feet.”

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