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College basketball commentary: Phillips makes tough call, fires Carmody

Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody hugs Reggie Hearn after his Wildcats lost 73-59 to Iowa Thursday in a Big Ten tournament game in Chicago.
Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody hugs Reggie Hearn after his Wildcats lost 73-59 to Iowa Thursday in a Big Ten tournament game in Chicago.

Jim Phillips began the toughest day of his tenure as Northwestern athletic director at 8 a.m. Saturday by telling the father of his son’s seventh-grade basketball coach how much he respected him.

The meeting with Bill Carmody lasted long enough to fire him.

Michael Carmody, Bill’s oldest child, coaches Luke Phillips, Jim’s son, at Saint Francis Xavier School in Wilmette – just one of many close connections between the families that made Northwestern’s coaching change more painful. The tears that Phillips fought back explaining the decision in an interview weren’t forced or fake.

The news was much easier to understand than deliver.

Carmody had 13 tries to make the NCAA tournament and never did. A class act to the end, Carmody didn’t do anything wrong. He just didn’t do enough right.

Phillips perhaps could have made a stronger case for keeping Carmody after this season than last year but understandably didn’t.

He could have let fears of losing key recruits or players during the coaching transition paralyze him but wisely made a long-range call best for the program – not just certain individuals.

He could have rationalized this season’s 13-19 record was the result of key injuries and an academic suspension but opted to embrace reality.

“I just thought about totality,” Phillips said. “Bill left the program in better shape than what he inherited but there’s a better destination for us with the same values, the same compass, with what we believe is right.”

Narrowing a national coaching search will challenge Phillips differently. Perception already favors Duke assistant Chris Collins, billed as a basketball version of Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Phillips’ Northwestern legacy potentially has too much riding on the decision to eliminate any name, big or small. This is an athletic director with ambition and resources advertising a job in the country’s best basketball conference outside what Phillips calls America’s finest city. This marks the first high-profile vacancy for Phillips at Northwestern.

Yes, he remembers the last basketball coach he hired, Ricardo Patton, went 35-83 at Northern Illinois. It represents one of the few unimpressive lines in Phillips’ resume yet he realizes soon it will be repeated often.

“But I also hired Jerry Kill as the football coach [at NIU] and that went very well,” Phillips countered. “I’m not running from [hiring Patton].”

Bo Ryan coaching Wisconsin over Indiana in Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal served as the latest example of the impact the right coach can make. Phillips won’t rest until he finds that guy capable of turning Northwestern basketball into the Duke or Stanford of the Midwest.

“That’s what we strive for,” Phillips said. “Yes, we want to be Northwestern, but what’s wrong with saying we want to have the competitive success in basketball like Duke and Stanford?”

Nothing except history, skeptics point out. They repeat Northwestern never has made the NCAA tournament and recite Carmody becoming the school’s 11th straight coach to leave with a losing record. Thinking big, Phillips hears them but isn’t listening.

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