Becht: Bill Carmody firing a just decision made at an unjust time

Becht: Bill Carmody firing a just decision made at an unjust time

Colin Becht, Columnist

These are words I never thought I’d write.

Not because I never thought Northwestern would fire men’s basketball coach Bill Carmody, but because for a long time, I wanted Carmody fired. I just don’t think he should have been fired now.

I had a column planned last year calling for Carmody’s ouster. I was going to thank him for the progress he brought to the program, but Carmody had not proven to be the right guy to take NU to the next level — a consistent NCAA Tournament contender.

NU disagreed with my take at that time. A year later, athletic director Jim Phillips has changed his tune – and so have I.

It’s not that I disagree with Phillips’ decision to fire Carmody because I’ve had a change of heart and suddenly believe that Carmody is the greatest thing to happen to NU athletics since three-sport superstar Otto Graham. I disagree with the decision because NU didn’t have the grounds to fire Carmody at this moment.

Phillips could have fired Carmody when his inability to settle a relatively minor injury dispute with Kevin Coble led to the star forward’s departure, likely costing the Cats an NCAA Tournament berth in 2011. Coble deserves some blame for this, too, but as the coach, Carmody has a higher expectation of maturity.

Phillips could have also fired Carmody when the coach’s strategic failings late in games likely blew another promising shot at the NCAA Tournament in 2012.

These were the mistakes and failures, combined with 12 years of no NCAA Tournament bids, that I thought justified Carmody’s dismissal last year. When NU declined to do so, it allowed the statute of limitations to expire on those grievances.

That doesn’t mean NU couldn’t have used those errors as part of the case to fire Carmody at a later date. It does mean, however, that NU needed to add something more than the earlier evidence to validate why Carmody was brought back immediately following those failures but wouldn’t be now.

So what exactly did NU add to the case against Carmody that finally tipped the scales?

Phillips didn’t offer a reason other than that he didn’t want Carmody coaching next year with only that one year on his contract. But surely NU could have offered even a one-year extension to avoid that situation.

This season will conclude without an NCAA Tournament bid for the 13th straight year. To Phillips, and to many others, that was enough. But weren’t 12 enough, too? And if they weren’t, what was especially bad about No. 13?

Yes, NU won just four games in the Big Ten and played dismally, if not embarrassingly. But how much could really be expected from a team playing in the best conference in the nation with a vastly depleted squad?

The margin for error was so slim, yet the Cats had to battle without their indisputably best player (senior forward Drew Crawford) for all but 10 games, arguably their best guard for the entire season (junior guard JerShon Cobb), and their best rebounder for the final eight games (graduate student forward Jared Swopshire). Just three players were healthy or talented enough to play in every game.

The blame for this season’s failures, so clearly the result of acts of nature, cannot fall on Carmody.

So should Bill Carmody be fired? Yes. Should he have been fired now? No. It’s double jeopardy for crimes of which he was already guilty, yet from which NU chose to move on.

The Cats seem poised for an NCAA Tournament berth next year with nearly all the talent of this year returning, including Crawford, whose injury will probably give him a fifth year of eligibility. Add in another strong recruiting class — players who committed to Carmody and his staff — and it’s not unreasonable to feel optimistic about the 2013-14 season.

Phillips said the level of the returning talent made his decision more difficult. It should have made the decision simple.

No savior is walking through the door for the NU coaching job. Despite Carmody’s steps to improve the program, it’s still a tough job with bad facilities and academic standards that scare away much of the top talent. NU may be unable to land a good replacement through the fault of no current administrator.

Even if Phillips knocks his first head coaching hire for an NU revenue sport out of the park, successful coaching changes frequently take time to pay off. NU will be switching its offensive and defensive system. (If it doesn’t, what was the point of firing Carmody?) Schematic shifts are hard to pull off quickly. If NU believes it has wasted tournament-caliber teams in recent years — I think it has, too — then why is it risking wasting another one?

The combination of this season, brought down by factors out of Carmody’s control, and the prospects for next season make Carmody’s firing a fair action committed at an unfair time. Unfortunately, fairness is no longer much of a value of collegiate athletics. NU can only hope the decision isn’t also a mistake in terms that still are valued, namely results.