The students dressed from head to toe in royal purple gleefully stood in solidarity as the final seconds of Northwestern’s 55-48 upset of Minnesota ticked off the scoreboard. They cheered, they sang, they yelled, but they never rushed the court.
There just weren’t enough people to do it.
As the season trudged on, student attendance remained underwhelming at best and dismal at worst. You can call it burn out from a bitterly cold winter or the academic pressure of Northwestern’s quarter system. You can call it disinterest in a team lacking star power and laden with injuries. Whatever the reasons may be, the outcome was clear: Northwestern students were not motivated to see their team play in person.
However, with the impending arrival of a new head coach, that can all change.
The reasons for firing Bill Carmody were just as much existential as they were logistical. At the most basic measure of success, he coached at Northwestern for 13 years and, like each one of his predecessors, failed to lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament. The strides he made for the basketball program here are undeniable, and Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips made how much he valued Carmody’s impact explicitly clear in his remarks the evening of the head coach’s dismissal.
Yet, Phillips also repetitively referred to a “better destination” awaiting the Wildcats’ arrival. He insisted that a school with as much to offer academically, athletically, and experientially as Northwestern should be consistently achieving at a higher level - a level to which Carmody failed to bring the Wildcats.
The first logical step in fulfilling the Wildcats’ destiny is making Welsh-Ryan Arena a better destination for Northwestern students beyond a prospective facilities upgrade.
Outside the lack of an NCAA Tournament berth, it’s hard to make a compelling case to fire Carmody pinned exclusively on what fans saw on the court.
Even without Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb, Carmody was able to coach a team with, at one point, seven active scholarship players through a gauntlet of injuries and Big Ten goliaths. Few coaches can get as much out of their players or adapt their game plan like Carmody can, and that’s evident in the upsets of Minnesota and Illinois, and the close calls against Indiana and Ohio State.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough to spare him. For Phillips, a fresh face was the key to a fresh start - something that’s hard to get with someone who’s been coaching for almost a decade and half, regardless of who it might be.
And after all, a fresh face is might just be what’s needed re-engage Northwestern students with their basketball team. It would be tempting to draw a comparison between football and basketball and how successful Pat Fitzgerald has been, but that neglects the fundamental differences between each sport and their histories.
In terms of basketball fandom, there are three types of students at Northwestern: The die-hards who will make their way to Welsh-Ryan through hell or high water; the clueless, who literally could not name one person on the basketball team other than “Kain Colter, right?”; and the middle-grounders who come and go as appeal of the team waxes and wanes.
It’s the latter that can be swayed and wooed by a new head coach, someone who promises to bring the appeal of novelty in the short-run and the deliverance to the promised land Phillips sees somewhere in the near future.
That’s not to say that a new coach will come in, wave his magic wand, and end the tournament drought right away. But it’s the hope, the belief, and the eye toward the future Phillips is fostering that can get these students to fall in love with their basketball team again.
He just needs to find the right person to do it.