By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Northwestern football program has lost 11 of its last 15 games, hasn’t won a bowl since 1948 and is run by a head coach with a six-year record of 36-34.
Yet in January, Pat Fitzgerald’s contract was extended through the Year 2020.
Meanwhile, the Northwestern basketball program hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament ever, has had only six winning seasons in the past 26 and is run by a head coach with an 11-year record of 160-177.
Yet in January, Bill Carmody’s contract was extended through the Year 2013.
Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report ranked NU as the 12th-best college in the country. The school demands academic excellence. So why does its athletic program so revel in mediocrity?
“I don’t want to brush off wins and losses,” NU’s ballyhooed athletic director Jim Phillips said while doing exactly that nine months ago as he discussed the two-year contract extension given to Carmody. “But, you can also appreciate integrity and graduation rates and NCAA compliance. Wins and losses are important but only part of an overall evaluation process.”
Sorry, but I’m not buying it, Jim.
Certainly, compliance is crucial. And, yes, graduation rates are important (especially at a school like NU). But while all of that’s great, the fact is when you’re in a Big Boy conference, as Northwestern is with the Big Ten, the only question determining any and all coaching extensions should be this: Do you win?
After all, academic heavyweights Duke and Stanford do it. So why does NU barely seem to even try?
Honestly, where else but Evanston will you find the coaches of a major-conference school’s two most high-profile sports programs boasting a combined 17 years of experience – and displaying a combined winning percentage of .482?
Which includes a combined .335 percentage in conference games, by the way.
At 11 a.m. today, the Northwestern football team plays at Indiana, hoping to snap a five-game losing streak in which it’s given up 35 points per game. The Wildcats would like you to believe that they’ve struggled only since their (cough, cough) Heisman-candidate quarterback Dan Persa went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon last November in a 21-17 win over Iowa. But the reality is, NU had dropped three of the previous four games before Persa was injured.
They’ve won just two games since – and those came this season against 1-6 Boston College and FCS member Eastern Illinois.
Now, NU did go a solid 9-4 in Fitzgerald’s third year in 2008, but the team has seen its win totals decrease in each of the three seasons since (8, 7 and 2 so far this year). The 36-year-old Fitzgerald also has failed in each of his three bowl games – a Northwestern trend since earning its last postseason victory in the ’48 Rose Bowl. Yet somehow Coach Fitz has created the national illusion that he’s a top-line young coach worthy of overtures from the likes of Michigan.
He isn’t. Not from what I’ve seen, at least. Nonetheless, a hoodwinked Phillips gave him a decade-long contract extension this year.
“With 10 years, I don’t know if we can have a stronger statement of our commitment [to Fitzgerald],” Phillips said in January. “I’ve said time and time again that he is so important to Northwestern football, but also to the [athletic] department and the university. This is a reflection on how people feel about Pat.”
But, Jim, how do people at Northwestern feel about wins? Do they matter at all? And, if not, well jeez, shouldn’t they?
Back to basketball, Phillips has also lauded Carmody for his three straight seasons of reaching the postseason – the NIT, mind you. But, at the same time, he’s ignored his 0-for-11 drought in earning an NCAA bid – something that simply shouldn’t be that difficult to attain. Not when you play in the Big Ten and have been running a program for more than a decade.
Since taking over the Northwestern athletic program in 2008, Phillips has been celebrated by Chicago media for such things as calling NU “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” (which it isn’t), scheduling a game at Wrigley Field (which it lost) and staging an ill-advised campaign billing Persa as a Heisman candidate (which he isn’t).
Phillips has proven himself so far to be a master of promotion and smokescreen, but it’s time that he instead puts a clear focus on what matters the most in his profession: Victories.
At Northwestern, the school motto is Quaecumque sunt vera, which translates in English to “Whatsoever things are true.” And the truth of the thing at NU is that its AD should be demanding excellence from his coaches rather than rewarding them for mediocrity.
No whatsoevers about it.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.