The purpose of coaching

We get hung up on the scoreboard too much. When I say that, I am not being some old school, idealistic person who preaches “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” I would rephrase it and say “if you do things the right away, the wins will start coming.” I want the teams who I root for to win with all my heart. And I realize that sports at the Division One and especially the professional level are big business. For instance, Kyle Brotzman’s missed field goal against Nevada cost Boise State three million dollars.

But the role of the head coach goes way beyond wins and losses.

That brings us to Bill Carmody.

Carmody is the head coach of the Northwestern University men’s basketball program. He’s the second-longest tenured men’s hoops coach in the Big Ten. Let’s get this out of the way: his record is not very good. He’s never led Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament (nor has anyone else). On the surface, it would appear he’s more than worn out his welcome. If you were judging him purely on wins and losses, he should have been fired a long time ago. Popular NU blog Lake the Posts wrote today that after the the Wildcats’ embarrassing loss to Penn State that Carmody’s time is up. He writes off the administration’s patience with Carmody as a product of former NU president and “Princeton buddy” Henry Bienen’s loyalty.

This, of course, is absurd, and is a misunderstanding of why Carmody has been around for so long and why he’ll continue to be Northwestern’s coach whether fans are happy or not.

Most fans pay lip service to what’s really important about coaching, but at the end of the day they come back to the won-loss record, and that’s a mistake.

No matter the sport, the most important thing about coaching is your players buying in to what you’re preaching. Everything else follows from that very simple point. At the professional level, it’s mostly managing egos with some instruction. At the college level, it’s mostly teaching the players how to play the game. Although there are certainly egos to manage in college as well. But no matter what you’re doing, it’s all about the players wanting to play and liking to play for you.

I’ve seen from first hand experience why this matters. As a freshman and sophomore at Northwestern University, I traveled frequently with the women’s basketball team. To say the atmosphere on the team bus and at the team meals was toxic would be an understatement. One time we were in the elevator and the coach shouted “hold the door”, and got on. After she got off the elevator, one of the players said “we should have closed it on her.”

Naturally, the team’s record was terrible and the coach finally left after my sophomore year. NU brought in Joe McKeown and the players liked him instantly. He connected with them and the turnaround has been remarkable, both off and on the court. Traveling with the team my last two years was fun because a great weight had been lifted off the program.

The reason why the players liking the coach and buying in to what he or she is preaching is so important is that athletics is all about building. You cannot build a sustainable program if you continue to just cycle through coaches or have a coach no one likes hang around. You can definitely win in the short-term with a coach the players don’t seem to listen to if you have the talent, but eventually that program will collapse.

Northwestern players like and respect Bill Carmody. This has been clear to me on the trips I’ve taken with the team. The atmosphere is always loose and the players feel at ease. He is an interesting man because he’s very intellectual. His disarming honesty is refreshing. You won’t hear him making grand statements. He avoids hyperbole. He’s not “RAH RAH” like other Big Ten coaches (Tom Crean comes to mind), but he gets his points across quite effectively. He came from Princeton and runs a unique offense that will occasionally look very ugly because it relies so much on the three-point shot. For instance, the Penn State game was terrible because quite simply nothing would fall. Carmody’s motto of “make shots” is brilliant in its simplicity. But he can’t control if every player on the team happens to have an off night.

Another measure of a good coach is whether or not his peers respect him. Talking to other Big Ten coaches, they don’t just give platitudes like “he’s a good coach, his teams are tough”, they go above and beyond the usual statements and they rave about Carmody’s ability. Tom Izzo once told me that he thinks Bill Carmody is one of the top coaches in the entire nation.

Izzo would know a thing or two about good coaching. NU has not seen the results yet on the court for a variety of reasons. Reason number one in my opinion is that you cannot recruit with the big boys when your facilities are so rotten. NU’s practice gym is quite frankly an embarrassment. Even when they try to change something for the better, they screw up. Welsh Ryan Arena added a bunch of banners in the rafters to make it look more impressive. Only problem: they screwed up the men’s basketball banner. They only credited the ‘Cats with four NIT appearances when in reality they’ve made five. I’m not going to give a history lesson, but NU’s hoops history has zero tradition. Actually, worse than that, they have negative tradition. There is almost nothing to be proud of and no real draw for recruits. People always say “if Stanford and Duke can do it why can’t NU?” Well, we can, but we’re going to have to be very patient.

That being said, the administration is making admirable efforts to turn NU sports into something to be reckoned with. In my opinion, during his time at NU Carmody has helped the cause by doing more with less. There’s a web site called “Fire Bill Carmody.” Their tagline is “because 8th place is not good enough.” Well, no, it’s not. But a lot of NU fans see the climb as almost impossible if Carmody remains on board. They forget that all it takes to make the NCAA Tournament any given year is 5th or 6th place…assuming your non-conference record is good. In recent years, NU’s overall record has been close to NCAA worthy, yet people write it off as due to easy non-conference schedules. NU tried to schedule Duke, but Duke backed out of a home and home arrangement. They did play eventual national runner-ups Butler last year. The thing is…no one wants to come to Welsh Ryan Arena because they know how dangerous the ‘Cats are at home. NU is close…and the reason they are so close is Carmody. It’s not a coincidence that the program has made the NIT the past two years after hitting rock bottom my sophomore season. We’ve seen a new dedication from the administration that has supported Carmody and given him more to worth with. It’s not enough yet, but it’s getting there.

In college, academics are considered quaint, a relic of the past. Not at Northwestern. Bill Carmody has guided NU to a PERFECT APR over the past four years. In my opinion, one very important measure of a college coach is how he encourages his athletes to also succeed in the classroom. There are only two rounds in the NBA draft. Life continues after college and Bill Carmody has prepared every student-athlete who has come through this men’s basketball program for great success in life. I would take a Bill Carmody over a John Calipari every…single…time.

When a coach is universally respected by his players and fellow coaches, he’s a good coach no matter the record by his name.

When a coach is dedicated to the development of his players both on and off the court or playing field, he’s a good coach no matter the record by his name.

When a coach does more with less resources, he is a good coach no matter the record by his name.

Bill Carmody is a very good coach. The wins will start increasing, the losses will start decreasing, and people will find it silly one day looking back that they ever wanted him fired. The reasons behind NU’s lack of success over the years goes beyond simply who the head coach has been. Throwing Carmody under the bus is ignoring how good a coach he is and how much more support he’s starting to get.

So the next time you’re thinking about calling for the coach of your favorite team to get the ax, do some thinking, look beyond the obvious. Sports is more than the final score sometimes. If you do things the right way, eventually those scores will turn in your favor. It’s taking Bill Carmody and Northwestern longer than many fans would like, but you get the sense they’re just a few points here and there from reaching the promised land.

One Response to The purpose of coaching

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