Is Jim Phillips averse to firing coaches?

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Many have called for Northwestern to fire Bill Carmody in recent years, but firings have been rare in the NU athletics world, even amongst other coaches with long tenures and little to show for it.

(as I wrote in the comments: I had scheduled this story a few days ago with the intention of doing more research but I guess I forgot about it… I think the title comes off a bit harshly, since I have a funny feeling most schools don’t fire non-revenue coaches very often. but whatever, still an interesting look at the jobs a lot of NU’s less-talked-about coaches have done)

As we discuss whether or not Northwestern should or should not fire Bill Carmody at the end of this basketball season, its arguably more important to consider whether or not Northwestern will fire him. When you consider the recent history of the athletic department, its more than likely he won't be axed.

Athletic director Jim Phillips enjoys coaching stability. Often, it makes sense. Pat Fitzgerald is the type of guy you build a program around, he also likes to keep his staff stable. Kelly Amonte Hiller has built a dynasty. And with others, it would just be weird to fire a long-tenured coach in a non-revenue sport if they haven't done something egregiously wrong.

Others, it doesn't. Regardless, a brief scan around Northwestern's 19 sports shows a lot of people that have been in charge for long periods of time - and in situations where they haven't been, the previous job-holder had been in charge for a long period of time.

I feel like I've done this before? But I couldn't find evidence of it anywhere.

No changes under Phillips

Football: Obviously. Still Fitz.

Women's lax: Kelly Amonte Hiller is the only women's lacrosse coach Northwestern has ever had, and with a whole bunch of national titles, that'll remain the case as long as she wants it to be.

Women's tennis: Claire Pollard is in her 15th year as NU's head coach, and with 13 Big Ten titles, that makes sense.

Softball: Kate Drohan is in her 12th season as NU's coach, and with a consistently ranked team and some deep postseason runs, that also makes sense.

Men's golf: Pat Goss is in his 17th year here, isn't leaving anytime soon. NU is his alma mater and he's produced some talented golfers and won some Big Ten titles. Plus, him being Luke Donald's personal coach gives NU some airtime.

Men's soccer: Tim Lenahan really turned the program around when he took over, with a team that was a perennial cellar-dweller now competing for Big Ten championships pretty much every year.

Fencing: Laurie Schiller has been the coach for 36 years. Dude's also a history professor, so Philips would also have to wrangle with academic people in the weird situation he wanted to make a change here.

Women's swimming: Jimmy Tierney has been in charge for 19 years, and they've been reasonably successful under him.

Volleyball: Keylor Chan is in his 13th year, and although they've made the NCAA Tournament four times under Chan, they've only done it once in the past seven years. They're typically kinda near the bottom of the Big Ten.

Cross country: April Likhite was the coach from 1998-2001, leaving when the school cancelled the program, then came back when they brought it back in 2007. How long does that make her the coach for? A long time, I guess is my point.

Baseball: Paul Stevens has been the coach for 26 years, which is unreal considering the team is consistently last place in the Big Ten and has never made the NCAA Tournament, often failing to qualify for the six-team Big Ten tournament even though the conference is really weak in baseball. Like I wrote for the Daily a few years back, I'm not really sure why or how he still has a job, but I think it would be cool to be a baseball coach with really high job security and also give my sons free rides at college. (Jesus, I sucked at writing.)

Men's basketball: Err, Bill Carmody. That's why we're here.

Longtime Successors

Women's golf: Emily Fletcher was one of Jim Phillips' first hires - she was hired about a month after he took the AD job - but she came in not because of a previous firing, but because the program's first and then-only head coach, Chris Regenberg, stepped down after almost two decades. The team's been competitive under her.

Men's swimming: Jared Schroeder took over after Bob Groseth, then in charge for 20 years, retired. I covered the swim team as a freshman, and if I remember correctly, this was sort of a hand-picked thing by the retiring coach.

Wrestling: Drew Pariano has been the coach since 2010, when Tim Cysewski - who had also been coach for 20 years - handed over the reins of the program to his assistant, a guy he had coached and brought onto his staff after he graduated. The team always has some competitive guys on it.

Men's tennis: Arvid Swan left DePaul in 2007 when Paul Toricelli stepped down after 24 years as head coach. They've done decently, making the NCAA Tournament twice in his six years. This technically shouldn't even count as a change under Phillips, but its close enough.

Actual honest-to-goodness coaching changes

Women's basketball: Beth Combs stepped down in 2008, leading to the hiring of Joe McKeown. It doesn't count as a "firing", but it was a coaching change caused by the team's lack of success. Although McKeown definitely changed the women's basketball culture at NU and made the team more successful, he still hasn't made it to the NCAA Tournament here after turning George Washington into a contender.

Women's soccer: Phillips didn't renew Stephanie Foster's contract after the team went 2-16-1 in the Big Ten in 2011. He hired Michael Moynihan, who had been successful at Milwaukee, and the team won seven games in 2012.

Field hockey: Phillips fired Kelly McCollum in 2008 after her first season under his tenure. McCollum was 32-63 in charge of the Wildcats, her successor, Tracy Fuchs, has completely changed the program, which is now consistently ranked and went 16-4 this past year.

Conclusion

So there you have it: In Northwestern's 19 varsity sports, 13 have retained the same head coach under Phillips. In some, there's been good reason to keep the same head coach, in others, its been questionable. In three other sports - four, if you include the men's tennis coaching change in 2007 - the current coach is the first successor for somebody who had over 20 years at the helm of their program. In those other three - women's basketball, women's soccer, and field hockey - Northwestern made a switch at head coach, and the person who took over immediately and evidently made the program better.

Am I arguing Phillips should be firing coaches left and right? No, not really. In the 16 sports where he hasn't done so, I'd say about 10-12 have coaches who are doing really strong jobs on the field, and most of the other sports aren't big money-makers, and on-field success is just as important as developing individual student-athletes and maintaining strong standards as a program. I don't think Northwestern is particularly notable in having over a dozen coaches with more than a decade under their belt. If anything, it's a testament to NU treating their coaches well that other schools haven't been able to hire away people who have achieved success at NU.

But there's a few head scratchers in there. You can find them by reading all the little blurbs I wrote. Whether it be Phillips or the administration, whether it be good or bad, there does seem to be a tendency at Northwestern to give coaches the benefit of the doubt if they're underperforming. It's already happened several times with Bill Carmody. Will it happen again when this season is over?

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