Monday, August 12, 2019

COLD COPY: Bill Carmody, Basketball Zealot

Bill Carmody retired on June 18. Here is a brief appreciation of that I wrote and half-heartedly and unsuccessfully attempted to get published elsewhere. Readers of this blog will note that there is not much that is new here as I've rhapsodized about Carmody in previous articles on Northwestern's sports gimmicks and the strange sensation of watching Carmody take Holy Cross to the NCAA Tournament, but I am posting this here because I remembered that it exists.

Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein wrote that at a Northwestern basketball event, one fan asked head coach Bill Carmody a “long-winded and ill-informed” question about changing his Princeton offense to fit his star players.  “No,” said Bill Carmody.

The thing to know about Bill Carmody is that he is a basketball zealot.  Carmody, who retired in June from coaching after stints at Princeton, Northwestern, and Holy Cross, believes wholly and truly in the Princeton offense.  There is nothing that basketball has thrown at Carmody in nearly a quarter century of head coaching jobs-- not rule changes, stylistic revolutions, NBA players, the bludgeoning crew cuts of the Big Ten-- that Carmody has not tried to solve with a series of slowly-developing back cuts.  “The only active coach who has been loyal to an offensive system for longer than Bill Carmody,” basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy tweeted, “is Roy Williams.”

Carmody won but not a lot, appeared occasionally in the postseason but never led a team past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, made a few quips at press conferences but never made waves as the type of larger-than-life character bred by college basketball.  His greatest achievement was to take his slow, methodical, and grinding offense, fuse it with some disconcerting and undulating zone defenses, and stock his teams with strange beanpole physiques and odd, catapult jumpshooters and players with a general rec-spec handball aesthetic-- and to bring all of this into storied basketball arenas and sometimes win.

Carmody learned the Princeton offense at the hands of its inventor Pete Carrill.  He worked as Carrill’s assistant for fourteen years and then took over the program in 1996.  His Tigers made the tournament two years in a row; in the 1997-1998 season, they were ranked as highly as seventh in the nation.

But it was Carmody’s stint with Northwestern that allowed him to push his system to its absolute limit.  Here, in the Big Ten, he would face name brand programs, legendary coaches, NBA players, and raucous, hostile arenas on the road and at home, where visiting fans regularly overwhelmed the few Northwestern fans who could still stomach turning out to watch their historically moribund team get clobbered twice a week.  

The Big Ten in the early 2000s was, with few exceptions, not a home for fleet, exciting basketball.  It appealed to fans of violent, fundamental defense and lumbering. Carmody surveyed this situation and decided, as he always did, that he would slow it down.  Northwestern teams passed the ball around the perimeter and looked to find a lane for a cutter or an open jump shot for all 35 seconds if necessary; they’d wait for a sliver of daylight or missed rotation or for defenders to just get bored and walk off the court to try to find a game of basketball somewhere.  Then Northwestern would shoot, run to the other end, get violently dunked on, and start it up again.

Carmody had little time for any gladhanding niceties foisted on a college head coach, things that cut into his true love which was standing around a practice gym with arms folded muttering “aw, c’mon.”  He seemed ill-disposed to the slick salesmanship involved with recruiting and he did not have much to sell-- Northwestern had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and a spot on the team before Carmody offered only the opportunity to get glared at by Gene Keady or heckled by a visiting fan at close range because the only way for players to get to the court at Welsh-Ryan arena was to shoulder past the hot dog line.  Carmody and his staff convinced some talented local players like Jitim Young (a 6’2” guard who somehow led the team in rebounding) to join, but also began recruiting heavily overseas where Northwestern’s reputation as a basketball wasteland had less resonance. This international backcutting unit managed to pull off heretofore unimagined feats: in 2004, they managed to win as many Big Ten games as they lost for the first time since 1968; several years later, they made the N.I.T. 

Under Carmody, Northwestern did the unthinkable and became decent.  He found his greatest player, John Shurna, a spindly forward with a hideous but unstoppable jump shot that came from his chest and fired like the spring-loaded projectile from an action figure.  Those teams found themselves knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament. During the 2011-2 season, they came as agonizingly close to making the tournament as possible. The Wildcats took nearly every high-ranked team they needed to beat to overtime or the very last second and then someone would push a button for the buzzer and send them back to the N.I.T.  Shuna graduated, went on to play in Spain, and appeared in a New York Times article because he grew an enormous and ungainly beard.  They never made the tournament, and Northwestern fired Carmody after thirteen seasons.

Holy Cross hired Carmody in 2015, and something magical happened.  The Crusaders won ten games in the regular season. They lost all of their Patriot League road games and finished the regular season on a five-game losing streak.  Then, they somehow swept the conference tournament and cut down the nets. Bill Carmody was finally back in the NCAA Tournament with one of the strangest and least likely runs in the history of the sport.  And it was all there: the back cuts, the 1-3-1 zone lunging across the key, the one guy who could shoot threes, the offense grinding with the smoke and squeak of Victorian machinery designed to frustrate an opponent into just wanting to get this shit over with already-- this could have been any Bill Carmody team at any point playing the only type of basketball that he would ever allow himself to play.

1 comment:

MNWildcat said...

Beautiful and well-said.