Current Events

Values vs. Profits: Northwestern’s decision to retain basketball coach reveals a critical leadership dilemma

The news media recently reported a decision that was not earth-shattering: a long-term basketball coach who would be under contract for at least another year (or more) was not fired after a season in which his team was under consideration for the Big Dance (the NCAA tournament) but, instead, participated and lost in the first round of the NIT tournament. For a top-level college basketball team, this was not a great year, but it was not a terrible year either.

Unfortunately, Northwestern University’s basketball team has never made it to the Big Dance and, although they may have come close, two season-ending losses stimulated a clamor for Coach Bill Carmody’s head. One local sports website, for instance, made the completely ludicrous claim that NU’s continuous missing of the NCAA tournament “is definitely worse than the Cubs’ World Series streak.”

His boss, athletic director Jim Phillips, took about a week to decide that Carmody would coach again next year– even though he normally took longer to review his coaches’ performance. As he put it, “In these kinds of situations you really try to stay true to your values.”

A columnist at the Chicago Tribune who was part of the clamor, David Haugh, put it this way: this decision “made it clear that at Northwestern, winning basketball games still matters less than developing student-athletes. Honoring commitments means more than buckling to public pressure.”

It also says that, here at my own great University, where we have the highest academic standards for our athletes of any Big Ten School, and where we have consistently had over 90% of our athletes graduate within six years of enrolling (admittedly, a fairly easy standard, but the one that is used to calculate athlete’s graduation statistics), we have chosen values over profits.

Any University development office will tell you that a major sports championship increases donations – dramatically. Northwestern could certainly choose to relax its admission standards for “special” athletes. But Phillips took this opportunity to reiterate our values: “We’re far from perfect but our compass is our compass and I never want to stray from that. It is about academic integrity and graduating student-athletes … and trying to make sure we hold our guys accountable and that they represent something larger than themselves. … It is about trying to mold leaders and winning and competing for championships. It’s all part of the equation. At the heart of it, we want to win badly at Northwestern but we’re not going to win at all costs. We’re not going to do it without the right values.”

Before making his decision, Phillips did his homework: he met with the players and, in his words, he “dissected” every aspect of NU’s program and “tried to stay true to NU’s values.” Phillips acknowledged that, for some people, the decision to keep Carmody as coach is “not progress and they would say our expectations are too low. I don’t think they appreciate what we’re trying to do here and what we’ve tried to be.”

For people who think that students are students first and athletes second, this was a particularly refreshing decision. Had we decided to fire Carmody, what would that have said about Northwestern’s values? And if we did, could we be sure that it would have led to more victories? At what cost? As things stand, it will be a truly wondrous, glorious year when Northwestern plays in the NCAA tournament – and even more wondrous and glorious if the Cubs win the World Series. (Sad to say, I’m not holding my breath on that last one.)

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