7:38 PM CST, February 28, 2013
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is bunkered down and buttoned up regarding the NU men's basketball program.
It's tough to fault Phillips for that. Northwestern basketball isn't a subject many people are willing to engage. Hell, I'm reluctant to talk or write about it for fear of losing my audience.
I'm holding out hope Phillips schedules a news conference shortly after Bill Carmody's Wildcats complete their limp to the finish line. It's time Carmody, who has been on the job for 13 uneventful seasons, finds a new challenge and Northwestern finds a guy who can do what Carmody and all of his predecessors could not — build a respectable program.
Why is it too much to ask of Northwestern to evolve into a program that isn't a perennial Big Ten bottom feeder? Is the occasional appearance in the only college basketball tournament people care about too tall an order?
We've gnashed teeth over much in this town. The Bears winning only one championship in the 1980s. The jinx of the billy goat or Steve Bartman. Northwestern never appearing in an NCAA tournament deserves as harsh criticism as any of it.
I want to hear Phillips outline a mission statement that holds the Northwestern basketball program to the same standards as Pat Fitzgerald's football team. There is no acceptable excuse for disparity between the two sports.
If Fitzgerald has followed the lead of his former coach, Gary Barnett, and the late Randy Walker, and successfully recruited athletes who qualified academically and succeeded against Big Ten competition, why can't the NU basketball coach?
A football team needs at least a dozen studs to contend for conference championships. A basketball team needs only two or three top-level players and it's on its way.
Perish the thought of football players being smarter than basketball players.
Fitzgerald has faced the same challenges as Carmody. The same difficult admission standards. Small stadium. Chicago being a pro town.
Still, the former two-time NU All-American linebacker puts on his big boy pants everyday (as do his players and assistants) and competes at a high level. Fitzgerald relishes the challenges and, after winning a New Year's Day bowl game against Mississippi State, now sets the bar even higher for his pesky, purple snarlers.
Outsiders may choose to look at Northwestern as that private school for brainiacs, occasionally capable of playing "The Little Engine That Could" role, but Fitzgerald doesn't. Once ground is broken on the new $220 million training facility, Fitzgerald expects to "change the landscape of college football."
I can't accept the idea there isn't some dynamic, young coach out there who can't use all of Northwestern's assets and sell a few difference makers on his basketball program. Don't tell me every Big Ten hoopster merely is training for the NBA, either. Wisconsin has been a terrific program under Bo Ryan and you don't see his former Badgers scattered all over the NBA.
An aggressive marketing campaign that includes the recent five-year agreement for events at Wrigley Field, and the success of the Wildcats' football program, have raised the bar. One can't drive too far on a major Chicago thoroughfare without seeing a billboard proclaiming Northwestern "Chicago's Big Ten Team."
If the decision-makers in Evanston truly want that to be the case, hiring a basketball coach capable of getting the Wildcats out of the gutter would make that slogan applicable in seasons other than just the fall.
Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
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