There are 351 teams playing Division I basketball, 160 of which have been in the NCAA’s top tier since it was formed before the 1948-49 season. Of those original members, five — Army, The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis of Brooklyn and William and Mary — have never played in its signature event, the NCAA tournament.
For five weeks leading up to the conference tournaments, The Washington Post will examine each of them.
In the spring of 1986, Bill Foster was a candidate for the basketball coaching job at Northwestern. Eight years earlier, Foster had coached Duke to the national championship game, taking the Blue Devils from a tie for last place in the ACC the previous season to the Final Four — and, ultimately, the final two.
He had left Duke two years later to take the job at South Carolina, where things had not gone so well. Which was why he had interviewed at Northwestern. During the Final Four that year in Dallas, Foster was asked frequently whether he thought he might get the job.
“The good news is, I think I can get it,” Foster answered. “The bad news is, I’ll probably take it.”
He was joking — sort of. In the end, Foster took the job and, like most of those before him, lived to regret it. Seven years later, Foster retired from coaching. In five previous coaching stops, Foster had never had an overall losing record. At Northwestern, he was 54-141, never once winning 10 games. In Big Ten play, the Wildcats were 13-113.
“Bill Foster was a very good coach,” said Chris Collins, who now sits in what was once Foster’s chair. “I watched his teams play as a kid. They were always prepared and played hard. They just weren’t good enough.”
Quite simply, that has been the problem: The Wildcats of the Big Ten, the only team from one of the five most powerful college conferences to have never made the NCAA tournament, just haven’t been good enough. And in truth, they’ve never really come that close.
“My junior year, Coach [Bill] Carmody had us come in to watch the selection show,” John Shurna, Class of 2012, remembered. “I think we all knew we weren’t getting in. We thought if we’d beaten Minnesota [in the Big Ten tournament] we might have a shot, but after we lost [the next] game we knew it was unlikely. Still, not seeing our name was disappointing. You kind of knew it was coming, but somewhere down deep, you hoped.”
Carmody, who is now the coach at Holy Cross, is still uncomfortable talking about his 13 years at Northwestern. He got the program at least into the neighborhood of the tournament, if not quite to the doorstep. Four years in a row the Wildcats went to the National Invitation Tournament.
“I’ve never talked about what happened there,” Carmody said recently. “I just don’t want to do it. It’s nothing against anyone there — it’s not. I just don’t want to talk about it.”
The one question Carmody did respond to — sort of — was his decision to bring the team together on that Selection Sunday five years ago.
“I did?” he said. “Honestly, I don’t remember why.” Told that Shurna believed the team needed to beat Minnesota to have a realistic shot to get into the tournament, Carmody quickly said: “We probably needed to win two more, not one.”
He hasn’t forgotten everything — even though he might wish that he had.
Chris Collins knew Northwestern’s history well when he was asked to fly to Atlanta and meet with Athletic Director Jim Phillips in March 2013. He had grown up in Northbrook, Ill., less than a half-hour from Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, and had been recruited by Foster in 1991 when he was entering his senior year at Glenbrook North High School.
“Honestly, I respected Coach Foster, but they just weren’t on my radar,” Collins said. “I’d followed them as a kid, but they just weren’t very good. I wanted to go someplace where I’d have a chance to compete for championships.”
That place turned out to be Duke. It was there that Collins got to know assistant coach Tommy Amaker. When Amaker became the head coach at Seton Hall, Collins was one of his assistants.
“I had always thought Northwestern could be a great job,” Amaker said. “When I was growing up in Washington, John Thompson had built Georgetown into a national power. I thought there were similarities: great academic school in a big city. I liked the idea a lot.”
Amaker interviewed for the Northwestern job after Foster stepped down but decided not to pursue it. “I was 27,” he said. “It was going to be a big job. I went back and talked to Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] about it and we agreed it wasn’t the right time.”
Amaker is now at Harvard and not going anywhere. But he encouraged Collins — as did Krzyzewski — to pursue Northwestern after Phillips fired Carmody.
“Tommy and Coach K, along with my dad [basketball analyst and former NBA player and coach Doug Collins] have always been my mentors,” Collins said. “They all thought it was the right job for me at the right time in my life.”
Northwestern’s past is littered with good coaches who have failed. The last coach to leave the school with a winning record was Arthur “Dutch” Lonborg, who was 236-203-1 from 1927 to 1950 and coached the school’s only conference championship teams (in the Western Conference) in 1931 and 1933. Since then, 11 coaches have come and gone, all with losing records.
The last time Northwestern finished with a winning conference record and in the top half of the Big Ten was 1967-68, when a Larry Glass-coached team went 8-6 and finished fourth. Since then, the Wildcats have had more winless conference records (two) than .500 conference records (one, when Carmody’s fourth team went 8-8).
Collins knew all that when he sat down with Phillips in a headhunter’s office in Atlanta. Phillips interviewed seven coaches in a three-day period. Collins was the only one without head coaching experience.
“He checked every other box,” Phillips said. “He had played and coached for arguably the best college coach ever. He had the family pedigree because of Doug. He was going to be comfortable recruiting at a school with tough academics. More than anything, though, I felt a connection when we sat down and talked. It was two Chicago kids who understood one another, and I was convinced he had what it would take to get the job done.”
Phillips, who attended Illinois and started out as an assistant basketball coach after college, came to Northwestern from Northern Illinois in 2008 and watched Carmody inch closer to the NCAA tournament grail.
“Bill is a great basketball coach,” Phillips said. “He did a wonderful job getting us from Point A to Point B. But he just couldn’t quite get to Point C. I cried when I told him I was making a change, I really did. One person doesn’t fail. We all did. I felt, to some extent, that I had let him down. But we need to get to Point C. That’s what I hired Chris to do.”
When he arrived, Collins immediately addressed concerns with the school’s recruiting budget and travel arrangements.
“I knew from my Duke experience how much that stuff mattered, especially in recruiting,” he said. “I told Jim we needed to get our boosters to help. The team needed to fly privately to games. My staff and I needed to be able to get to places quickly when recruiting. The funny thing is, as soon as he began talking to people to try to raise the extra money their reaction was, ‘Of course, where have you been in the past?’ ”
Collins is now in his third season. The Wildcats were 14-19 and 15-17 his first two seasons. After Saturday’s 58-56 win over Illinois, they are 17-9 overall, 5-8 in the Big Ten this season. Collins put together a soft nonconference schedule and it produced a 12-1 start.
“We needed some confidence and, frankly, even if we don’t make the NCAAs this year, we should have a chance to be in the NIT,” he said. “That isn’t the goal — but it’s a step. I think we’ve put most of the off-court things we need in place. Now comes the hardest part — the on-court things — the wins.”
There have been some solid wins this season: vs. Wisconsin, at Virginia Tech . But the head-turning win hasn’t come yet. An overtime loss at Maryland in January was a missed opportunity.
“I think if it’s going to happen, Chris is the guy to make it happen,” said former DePaul coach Joey Meyer, who helped his late father, Ray, rebuild the fallen program there in the 1970s. Meyer now does color commentary on Northwestern’s radio network. “He’s doing everything right. He’s organized, he communicates well; his practices miss nothing. He’s a lot closer now than two years ago — just not quite there yet.”
Phillips knows the NCAA tournament will be the elephant in the room until someone kicks it out. “Even when it doesn’t come up in conversation with people, it’s there — unspoken,” he said. “We don’t run from it. The only thing I tell Chris is that he and his players aren’t responsible for past history.”
This year’s team was hurt when sophomore forward Vic Law, probably Collins’s most high-profile recruit, had labrum surgery on his shoulder in November, forcing him to redshirt. Senior center Alex Olah broke his foot and missed the first six games of the Big Ten season. Olah and Tre Demps are the only key players who will graduate after this season, and Collins believes he has another good recruiting class coming in.
“As an alumnus, I like what I’m seeing,” said Drew Crawford, a redshirt senior on Collins’s first team who is now playing in Israel. “When he first got the job I was pretty certain I was going to play my fifth year as a graduate student somewhere else. But as soon as I sat down with him, he captured me. I knew I wanted to play for him.”
Crawford and his teammates noticed one difference between Carmody and Collins right away. “Coach Carmody ran the Princeton offense, which is intricate and detailed and hard to get right,” Crawford said. “So we spent a lot of practice time on offense. With Coach Collins it was defense, defense, defense.”
Shurna, who is playing in Spain, watches games on delay via his iPad. So does Crawford. They often text with one another about their alma mater.
“I check the score first,” said Shurna, Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer (2,038 points). “If it’s a tough loss, I don’t watch. I honestly believe they’re going to break through soon. When I decided to go there, getting to the tournament was a big goal. We were close in a lot of big games that would have given us a real chance. It just never quite happened.”
The good news is that Northwestern’s 77-year NCAA tournament drought isn’t close to the longest dry spell in the Chicago area.
“I’m a lifelong Cubs fan,” Collins said, laughing. “I know what 1908 means and I think they’re going to end that streak soon.”
He smiled. “How great it would be, if we both broke through in the same year?”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.