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

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

The Daily Northwestern

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In Focus: Hardy brings hope to NU hoops

There’s a difference between being honest and being sincere. The husband who tells his wife her dress does indeed make her backside look too big is honest. The husband who tells his wife another dress might look better is sincere.

Tavaras Hardy is sincere.

In the summer of 2006, Hardy was coaching the Illinois Defenders, an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team in Chicago’s southern suburbs. But in July, Northwestern basketball coach Bill Carmody offered Hardy a position on his staff – the former NU star would replace Craig Robinson, who left to become head coach at Brown. Hardy accepted the assistant coaching gig and promptly called every player on the Defenders to apologize for leaving in the middle of the season. He also explained that now he was a recruiter, and if all went well they could end up playing for him once again on a much larger stage.

“(Hardy) said, ‘I’m going to be watching out for you, and I hope for the best for you. And hopefully one day I’ll see you at Northwestern,” recalls one former Defender. “That was huge.”

Four years later, that standout, Drew Crawford, was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year as he helped the Wildcats to their most successful season in school history. After being recruited by Hardy, Crawford chose NU over Wake Forest and Oklahoma State, two programs that have a combined 46 NCAA Tournament appearances. That’s 46 more than NU.

“(Hardy) talks to you like he’s your equal,” Crawford says. “He keeps it real with everybody. He tells you like it is.”

Truth be told, Hardy is in no position to fib. Ask any casual college basketball fan what they know about NU and they’ll tell you this: NU is the only school from one of the six major conferences to have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament. Not exactly a shining endorsement for a 17-year-old recruit.

It’s hard to hide from history, so Hardy doesn’t even try. As a wide-eyed high schooler from Joliet, Ill., Hardy chose to play basketball at NU, a program that had recorded just two winning seasons in the previous 29 years. With a political science degree and no finance background, Hardy dove headfirst into the cutthroat investment banking world, and by the time he was in his mid-twenties he was working for J.P. Morgan and on his way to making paychecks with enough goose eggs to start a farm. A couple years later Hardy had enough, and in 2006 he took his talents back to Evanston, where he has become known as one of the Big Ten’s best recruiters.

Three of the Cats’ starters in 2011 were Hardy recruits, and Hardy has recruited all six players to sign with Northwestern since 2009. While his first class is still developing – John Shurna and Davide Curletti will be seniors in 2012 – Hardy’s recruits have helped the Wildcats score an invitation to the NIT every year they’ve been on campus. The year before Shurna and Curletti arrived in Evanston, the Cats won just one Big Ten game. An NIT berth, not to mention a trip to the NCAA Tournament, was almost unthinkable in the near future.

But as evidenced by Monday’s national championship game, where a mid-major played a nine-loss team, anything is possible in today’s version of college basketball. Granted, NU isn’t playing in the national championship game, but its recent success isn’t a coincidence – those three consecutive postseason appearances amount to the same number of invites the program received over the previous seven decades.

Hardy’s wallet might not be as fat as it could have been had he stayed at J.P. Morgan, but his move has certainly paid off.

“He’s made so much progress for this program,” Crawford says. “It’s unreal.”


It’s two weeks after Hardy’s 31st birthday and he’s sitting on the Cats’ bench at Welsh-Ryan Arena watching the squad prepare for an upcoming matchup with Penn State. He’s wearing white Adidas shoes, purple shorts and a gray NU shirt – his practice attire.

Three days earlier, on Feb. 19, Northwestern knocked off Indiana for the sixth time in its last seven tries. After losing 35 straight contests in Bloomington, Ind., the Cats have won two of their last three games at Assembly Hall. Located next to a sparkling new, $20 million dollar practice facility, Assembly Hall’s 17,472 seats make it the second largest basketball venue in the Big Ten. In contrast, Welsh-Ryan is the conference’s smallest arena by more than 5,000 seats, and it hasn’t been renovated in almost 30 years.

“We’re different than our competitors in a lot of ways,” Hardy says. “Whether it’s standards, whether it’s facilities. (NU’s) not the sexiest choice for basketball players.”

Fourteen years ago Hardy chose NU over several “sexier” options, including Purdue, Illinois and Indiana. Ironically, it may have been NU’s futility that convinced Hardy to sign with coach Kevin O’Neill. Not only could Hardy be a part of something that had never been done before by helping the Cats snag that elusive NCAA Tournament berth, he could also notch considerable playing time as a freshman. For Hardy, NU’s academic prestige was an afterthought.

“When I saw the Northwestern product – the opportunity to play, build a program – I just really bought into that,” Hardy says. “I felt like I would have a chance to play at Indiana, but this was more of an impact story.”

When Hardy signed with NU in June 1998, either Indiana, Purdue or Illinois had won 13 of the past 19 Big Ten Basketball Championships. But on the gridiron the Cats were in the midst of the most successful run in school history – two consecutive Big Ten titles and their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1949. Hardy started to take notice of NU, and the interest was mutual. The first recruiting questionnaire Hardy received as a sophomore was from Ricky Byrdsong’s staff at NU. It didn’t hurt that at the time Hardy was playing on one of the most talked-about AAU teams in the country. Coached by the legendary Larry Butler, Hardy played alongside future NBA stars Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette on the Illinois Warriors. For Hardy, a 6-foot-7 forward who could barely dunk, the experience jump-started his basketball career.

“These guys come down the lane, like 6-foot-3 guards, and they’re hammering on people in the paint,” Hardy says. “It really made me realize how much harder I needed to work on my body and on my game if I needed to compete at that level. It took me to another level.”

As questionnaires rolled in, Hardy had to eliminate any school that required a plane flight. Funds were tight for Marene Hardy and her three children, and Tavaras couldn’t afford to commute cross-country. Tavaras, who didn’t meet his father, Archie, until he was 13, said his mother provided her children simple but straightforward advice.

“My mom’s message to us was, ‘Do the right things in life, work hard at what you do, strive to be good at what you do,'” Hardy recalls. “We sort of figured out our own path after that.”

Four years ahead of him in school, Hardy’s sister Monica received a scholarship to play volleyball at Purdue. Watching his sister go through the college selection process proved invaluable for Hardy, and when it was his turn he sought her counsel. As an eighth grader Hardy had taken his big sister’s advice about high school, and he followed in her footsteps at Providence Catholic High School, a predominantly white, middle-to-upper class school about 20 minutes outside of Joliet. And even though she played volleyball at Purdue, Monica knew the Boilermakers weren’t a good fit for Tavaras. Hardy’s best opportunity to play early was at NU, so Monica pushed the purple.

“I knew myself and I listened to my sister who had helped me know myself,” Hardy says. “She knew that if I wasn’t going to have a chance to compete for time as a freshman I wouldn’t be happy, and we saw that opportunity with Northwestern.”


This isn’t the first time Hardy has been charged with bringing players to a talent-deprived program, but the las
t time he recruited it wasn’t part of his job description.

O’Neill’s staff asked Hardy to host a recruit during his second week on campus. That recruit, Winston Blake, signed with NU on his visit. A couple weeks later, Hardy hosted a prep standout from Minnesota named Ben Johnson. Johnson had offers from basketball powerhouses like Michigan State and Arizona, but Hardy sold him on NU. After that Jason Burke came to visit, and lo and behold Hardy worked his magic once again. In selling Blake, Johnson and Burke on NU, Hardy used much the same pitch then that he does today.

“When I tell recruits about this situation I’m 100 percent authentic,” Hardy says. “I really believe in it because I went through it. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

Hardy is almost always at a disadvantage the moment he walks into a recruit’s living room. NU has become known as somewhat of a basketball black hole, and the Wildcats’ woes are well-documented. In the past 60 years, 11 coaches have rolled through Evanston, and none of them left with a winning record. In fact, most were far from it. Tex Winter, the innovator of the triangle offense who was recently elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, lost twice as many games as he won. Bill Foster, a former National Coach of the Year who came within seven points of a National Championship in 1978, went 13-113 in the Big Ten in seven years at the helm. Kevin O’Neill, a future NBA coach, lasted just three years and never finished above eighth in the Big Ten.

When Bill Carmody arrived in the summer of 2000 he took over a team that had gone winless in conference play the previous year. In a telling reminder of just how troubled the program was, Carmody was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2004 after his team finished 14-15 and tied for fifth in the conference.

But there’s more to life than basketball, and in talking with recruits, Hardy reminds them of all NU has to offer: a world-class city minutes away, outstanding academics and the chance to compete in one of the country’s premier conferences. Soft-spoken and quick to the point, Hardy doesn’t have the over-the-top personality of many college basketball coaches. He believes in what he’s saying and that comes across very well. The way Hardy sells the school, it’s a wonder NU hasn’t competed for a Big Ten Title in decades.

“(Hardy) can also look (a recruit’s) mom and dad in the eyes and say, ‘Look, if your son comes here and plays for Northwestern we’ll not only make him the best player we can, but we’re also going to position him to be very successful in life,'” says Kip Kirkpatrick, a friend, colleague and former NU basketball player. “I’ve always told him that I thought that he could sit in the living room and say, ‘We’re not just going to help you get to the NBA, but after you do that we’re going to help you own an NBA team.’ That’s a pretty unique recruiting pitch.”

Hardy’s sincerity makes it easy to develop a rapport with high school students, and those bonds have proved crucial.

“In recruiting, relationships is the biggest thing,” says Evan Daniels, a national recruiting analyst with “(Hardy’s) done a very good job of establishing relationships not only in the Midwest but around the country.”

Former NU star and current Big Ten Network broadcaster Tim Doyle noted that recruits and players sympathize with Hardy because he was in their shoes not too long ago.

“When he spoke, guys on the team responded,” Doyle says. “We remembered what he was able to do on the court. He’s always had a good vision, and he has been a life-changer at Northwestern.”

One year after Crawford committed to NU, a senior from Georgia named JerShon Cobb took a trip to Evanston. Cobb liked his visit so much he committed immediately after returning to Atlanta, and in doing so he became one of the most touted recruits in the school’s history. According to Cobb, a crucial part of Hardy’s pitch was that he could play early. While injuries plagued Cobb at the beginning and end of the season, he started every game he was healthy.

“I didn’t feel like I could trust all the coaches I talked to and that was a big factor for me,” Cobb says. “(Hardy) was honest about everything he told me.”

Hardy doesn’t need to lie to recruits about the benefits of playing in Evanston and the doors an NU degree can open. After all, Hardy has been there and done that.


Charles Dickens probably wasn’t thinking about NU basketball when he penned “A Tale of Two Cities,” but Hardy’s career at NU truly was the best of times and the worst of times. Hardy’s four years in Evanston were marked by a rare trip to the NIT (just the third in the school’s history) followed by a winless conference campaign. After O’Neill resigned in the summer of 2000, Carmody took over and things looked promising once again. During Hardy’s senior season, the Wildcats finished seventh in the Big Ten with an overall record of 16-13. NU recorded wins over Michigan State, a Final Four team the previous year, and 17th-ranked Iowa, but the Wildcats also lost six games by 10 points or fewer. While all of the Big Ten teams that had finished with a winning record in the past two decades got invited to a postseason tournament, NU found itself without a bid.

Thus, like every player who has played at NU since the first NCAA tournament in 1939, Hardy’s resume is marred by something it does not include: a trip to the Big Dance. Still, Hardy’s unprecedented success did not go unnoticed. A four-year starter, Hardy ended his career as NU’s all-time leader in games started. As a senior he was awarded third team All-Big Ten Honors, becoming the first player not named Evan Eschmeyer to be elected to the All Conference squad in six years. Perhaps just as notable, Hardy came away with a renewed interest in the game of basketball, something he credits to Carmody’s innovative schemes.

“What I learned, and I learned it midway through my junior year, is that it was more fun the way (Carmody) was teaching us,” Hardy says. “I just saw the game in a different light. That was the biggest joy of it. Just the improvement, the way we played five guys working together to help each other score. Five guys working together to help each other defend.”

After spending one year in Finland playing for KTP Basket Oy, Hardy returned to Chicago and landed an internship with Bank One’s private equity company, One Equity Partners. While interning at Bank One, Hardy started looking around for full-time positions in banking or analytical work. But when word spread that Hardy was planning on leaving, Bank One CFO Heidi Miller requested a private audience with him. Miller convinced Hardy to stay by offering him a position in the bank’s corporate finance program. Everyone else in the program had some type of business background, but Hardy was a political science major who spent the last year playing basketball in Europe. What separated Hardy was his amiable nature.

“I had no problem going up to the CEO and saying, ‘Yo, did you watch the game last night?'” Hardy says. “That sort of personable, you-can’t-teach kind of stuff; my skill set was a little different. At the end of the day, I was trying to learn what they knew and they were trying to learn what I already had.”

It’s that self-assurance that allows Hardy to walk into the office of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or into the living room of a recruit and feel immediately comfortable. Kirkpatrick, the former NU basketball player who convinced Hardy to take the position at Bank One, remembers that after Hardy finished the corporate finance program he went right to work planning a new wealth management venture aimed at professional athletes.

“It wasn’t the greatest business plan in the world,” Kirkpatrick says. “But when you heard him give a presentation you just knew he could get it done because he believed in it.”

After J.P. Morgan bought Bank One in January of 2004, Hardy and several friends made a pact to move to J.P. M
organ’s headquarters in New York.

There was just one problem.

Several months earlier, Monica had been diagnosed with cancer, and none of the treatment was working. As Hardy’s future became increasingly brighter, his sister’s grew dim.

On May 21, 2004, Monica Hardy passed away. She was 28.

“(Monica) had set the tone for us and we followed in her footsteps for so long,” Hardy says. “Not to have her you just have to sort of adjust … you’re moving on without a piece of who you are.”


Hardy stayed in the Windy City after Monica’s death, and at the invitation of Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, Hardy began co-coaching an AAU team in Chicago’s southern suburbs. What started as a small commitment quickly grew, and soon Hardy was coaching two teams and spending several nights a week traveling 40 minutes to Hinsdale, Ill., for practice. In June 2006 Hardy resigned from J.P. Morgan because Merrill Lynch offered him “a bunch of money,” and around the same time NU assistant coach Craig Robinson was named head coach at Brown. Robinson invited Hardy to join him in Providence, R.I., but Hardy was reluctant to leave Chicago, where he and his wife Billée had gotten married one year earlier. Instead he inquired about Robinson’s spot on Carmody’s staff. Shortly after Robinson left, Hardy sat down with Carmody, who did his best to convince Hardy to keep his day job.

“I said, ‘You’re a Northwestern guy from Joliet, you’ve got a degree, you’re doing great,” Carmody recalls. “‘You’re not dumb enough to be a coach, right?'”

But Hardy had other thoughts.

“I couldn’t turn it down, all these lightbulbs in my head went off,” Hardy remembers. “I knew (Carmody) was a great coach, I knew I would learn from him and I have learned so much as a basketball coach. I felt like I could help him get better players, and I felt like if we got him better players, there’s no stopping us from winning at the highest level.”

NU may never have five-star recruits or McDonald’s All-Americans roaming the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena, but in an era marked by great parity in college basketball, that isn’t necessarily what breeds success. One-and-done players have left traditional basketball powerhouses in shambles, and this year the combined seeds of the Final Four teams reached an all-time high. Butler, a mid-major with an enrollment half the size of NU, made its second consecutive trip to the national championship game. If there was ever a time for the Cats to crack their NCAA curse, it’s now.

One decade removed from his own hardwood heartbreak, Tavaras Hardy is trying to help one of the country’s lowliest programs do something it hasn’t done in the past 70 years. For someone used to succeeding against all odds, Hardy may be faced with his biggest challenge yet.

So far, so good.

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In Focus: Hardy brings hope to NU hoops