Northwestern athletic director did what he had to do

Firing of classy Carmody difficult for Phillips but now opportunity beckons if he hires right guy

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Chicago Tribune sports columnist David Haugh and sports reporter Fred Mitchell on the departure of Northwestern coach Bill Carmody. (Posted: March 16, 2013)

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.

"It's hard,'' an emotional Phillips said.

The news was much easier to understand than deliver.

Carmody had 13 chances to make the NCAA tournament and never did. A class act to the final day, 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. I was in a position I couldn't extend (his contract) either. Then I put him in a situation where everybody knows he has one more year left? That has lasting effects. It gets to the point where you have to make the tough call.''

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. As qualified as Collins is, based on a 30-minute conversation with Phillips, it would be wise to keep an open mind to potential candidates. Phillips sure is.

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).''

Nor will Phillips back down from any debate over Northwestern's admission policies limiting the recruiting pool — "No, we're where we should be,'' he said — or their outdated facilities threatening future recruiting success. The school announced plans last fall to build a $220 million "lakefront megacenter'' that dominated his agenda so Phillips bristled when asked how he would address the state of basketball facilities.

"That idea's become a little bit of an urban legend,'' Phillips said.

The word crutch could apply too. So Welsh-Ryan Arena isn't a college basketball Taj Mahal. Ever been to Hinkle Fieldhouse? Yet Butler somehow managed back-to-back Final Fours behind one of America's brightest coaches in Brad Stevens. Old buildings have charm when programs win but become excuses when they lose. By the way, Phillips would be wise to make sure Stevens remains committed to Butler.

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.

"Is that how we truly want to live, saying something has not been done in the past and we're not going to change it?'' Phillips asked. "Yeah, I'm disappointed we're a punch line about not being in the NCAA tournament but should that indicate our destiny and our future? I don't buy that.''

Phillips started selling hope again Saturday. Don't be surprised if the line is long outside his office.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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