Falling in love with coach Bill Carmody no longer a crime (Men’s basketball)

Jim Martinho column

Bill Carmody brainwashed me.

I drank the purple Kool-Aid. Took the bait hook, line and sinker. Let the Notorious Billy C’s words just hypnotize me.

Surely it wasn’t intentional, but that’s what four months of almost daily interaction with the Northwestern men’s basketball coach will do to you. Maybe it was his East Coast cynicism, his often brutal honesty, or his Conan O’Brien-esque mannerisms, but I’d watch “Late Night with Bill Carmody” any night of the week — especially if he got Ivan Tolic to co-host.

Carmody had me believing he could work miracles.

Carmody’s sense of humor often comes through in sound bytes, but to get the whole package you have to witness him work a room in person. And it’s an intelligent humor. Witness this post-game press conference exchange from last season:

Me: Coach, how important was it to have less turnovers in the —

BC: You mean “fewer” turnovers.

Me: Uh, yeah. Right.

The man knows his grammar. I can respect that. But it was his honesty that really sucked me in. In case you missed it, NU had a pretty rough season last year, finishing 11-17 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten. Unlike certain other major sports coaches at NU, Carmody didn’t hesitate to talk about his team’s weaknesses. He once said the term power forward was an “oxymoron” on the Wildcats’ roster, and that a “drunken sailor” could pull down as many rebounds as his frontcourt.

Carmody blamed many of the team’s deficiencies on the loss of forward Vedran Vukusic for the season. Can’t rebound? Vedran will fix that. Can’t shoot the three? Vedran to the rescue. Can’t defend the low post? Wait until V-Squared is back.

So despite the Cats’ struggles — they were often blown out of games in the first half by mediocre Big Ten teams like Minnesota and Ohio State — I had confidence that Carmody was the guy to turn the program around. He’d shown he could recruit at least as well as predecessor Kevin O’Neill, finally had the athletes to run his Princeton offense in the Big Ten and would welcome back a healthy Vukusic this season.

But when NU came out and went 5-6 in the non-conference slate earlier this year including losses to Rutgers (ouch) and Mississippi Valley State (just plain sad), it was disappointing. Kind of like seeing Mike Ditka on Levitra commercials.

With a sub-.500 record heading into the Big Ten schedule, hopes for the postseason looked grim, and suddenly Carmody didn’t look like the savior he once did.

Then some strange stuff happened. NU went on the road and downed Iowa. Blue-chip center Michael Thompson transferred from Duke. The Cats upset Illinois. Then Purdue. Then Wisconsin. Suddenly everything Carmody touched turned to gold. While the Cats still need to make an inspired run to reach the postseason, NU is no longer the laughingstock of the Big Ten. Wins over middle-of-the-pack teams like Purdue and Iowa shouldn’t be considered upsets anymore, and upsets of the Fighting Illini and Badgers — two teams whose talent levels NU couldn’t come close to matching last season — foster hope for a Big Ten tournament run.

Carmody deserves all the credit for the turnaround. The Cats may not make the ultimate breakthrough — an NCAA Tournament berth — until next season or even the year after, but when you take over a program following a winless Big Ten season, and seven players either quit or transfer, any progress has to be measured in baby steps. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, and NU has finally gotten out of the crib, thanks to Carmody.

So if NU beats Indiana tonight, feel free to taunt Hoosiers players, watch Mike Davis’ trademark “you-can’t-call-that-foul-I’m-gonna-get-fired” face, and relish sitting on the sunny side of .500 in the conference. But don’t storm the court after the game. Act like you’ve been there before.

If you’ve attended many games since Carmody arrived, you probably have.

Online Editor Jim Martinho is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]