Press conferences can reveal a lot about a coach’s personality. They gauge public grace and articulateness. They serve as an official “welcome” platform and a symbolic commencement into a new coaching era.
They cannot uncover the personal nuances of a coach’s character and teaching methods. For that, you need someone with a close personal relationship, someone who communicates with him frequently years after learning under his wing. For Northwestern head coach Chris Collins, you need someone like Jon Scheyer.
Three years after helping Duke win its fourth national championship, Scheyer is playing with Gran Canaria of the Spanish ACB, one of the top basketball leagues in Europe. His high school recruitment and college career are impossible to untie from Collins, and even as he takes his game overseas and more time elapses between his last game as a Blue Devil, Collins’ influence on Scheyer is not lost.
There is nothing standard about their relationship – from his recruitment out of Glenbrook North (Collins’ alma mater), to the various improvements Collins implemented in his game, to the life lessons learned off the court. Close or personal doesn’t do it justice; Scheyer thinks of Collins more as an “older brother.”
You can understand why Scheyer’s perspective might be different from that of any player Collins coached, and why his insight is an enlightening scope from which to visualize Collins’ prospective command over Northwestern’s basketball program.
It was the middle of a typical grinding ACC season, and No. 3 Duke was traveling to play No. 10 Clemson in early February. Scheyer was a junior, Duke’s leader in minutes played, three-point field goals, assists and steals. He would later go on to win the ACC Tournament MVP as Duke earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, won two games and bowed out in the Sweet 16.
None of that – nor the national championship Scheyer would win the following season – would have been possible without a humbling blowout and the instructive meeting that followed. Duke left Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, SC, that day with a 27-point loss to stomach. It was only Duke’s second ACC defeat on the season, but coach Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t hide his frustration. “That is as bad as you can play,” he told reporters afterward.
The most memorable takeaway from that game for Scheyer wasn’t coach K’s stern post-game censure. It was the powerful advice Collins gave him that would wind up changing the course of his career, and the larger trajectory of his team over the next year and a half. Collins sat down with Scheyer and offered him a choice: get better or regret the lost accomplishments.
“It was a wakeup call for me,” Scheyer said last week. “All of a sudden you’re in your junior year, and you start to realize you don’t have a ton of time left. I feel like that was a turning point for me.”
One year later, Scheyer and the Blue Devils were cutting down the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium after a two-point win over Butler in the national championship game. These kinds of one-on-one pow-wows were part of what made Collins such an approachable presence on the court, and Scheyer cites numerous instances when Collins would pull him aside, address the (sometimes harsh) realities of his performance and help him grow into a better player every step of the way.
“We had a lot of heart-to-heart meetings,” he said. “When I wasn’t performing on the court, he would just lay it out for me and say I needed to get better.”
Different Duke assistants managed different aspects of the Blue Devils’ self-sustaining powerhouse program, and Collins’ specific role, Scheyer says, was to work with guards. Scheyer interacted with Collins extensively on a day-to-day basis, and the instruction he received – both on the court and off – was invaluable in his development.
“He helped me grow so much over four years,” he said.
Before he ever reached Duke, Scheyer was a heavily recruited guard out of Glenbrook North High School. Like Collins, who also attended Glenbrook North, Scheyer was selected to the McDonald’s All-America team and after weighing offers from Arizona and Illinois, decided to attend Duke.
It would be unreasonable to assume Collins was the sole driving force behind Scheyer’s decision to join one of the most successful college hoops programs of the past quarter century. “The opportunity there was great academically and athletically. I wanted to win a national championship,” he said. Collins walked him through the process, and his familiarity with local high schools and the Chicago recruiting scene in general comforted Scheyer throughout his recruitment.
“It was funny to be able to talk to freely about the high school teams with him [Collins],” he said. “I was able to relate to him because he knew the area I was coming from.”
There was something beyond mere locational familiarity that allowed Scheyer to connect with Collins right off the bat. More than any other coach, Collins clearly and thoroughly delineated his intentions for Scheyer at Duke. He outlined a well-conceived plan by which Scheyer could fully realize his talents at the college level, laid out the specifics of his place in the backcourt rotation, and most of all, exuded a genuine passion for the game itself – the same unbridled joy you witnessed Collins convey as he took the podium for his introductory press conference last week.
“We were both very emotional people,” he said. “But no one loves the game more than he does. He’s so passionate.”
All of these qualities must now be adapted to fit his new place of employment, and Scheyer believes Collins is ready to do exactly that. He took time last week to watch Collins’ introductory press conference, and has since congratulated Northwestern’s coach on his new position. Scheyer saw the same passion he experienced for four years (and more) during his high school days and college career.
“I think he fully believes in Northwestern, and his passion and energy will really come through,” Scheyer said. “He has a lot to sell.”
The most important item of business is recruiting. It is the fundamental sustenance of every college program, and something Collins said he plans to pursue “vigorously” in the early months of his tenure.
Based off his experience with Collins on the recruiting trail, Scheyer believes Northwestern is about to receive a jolt of energy and borderline-obsessive hoops enthusiasm. And as recruiting pitches go, Collins has more than decades-long ties to Chicago coaches to rely on.
There’s the small matter of working under the winningest coach in NCAA history for 13 years, or, you know, the fact he coached LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest of Team USA from 2006-2012.
“I think it will mean a lot to recruits to see how passionate about the game he is,” he said. “Saying you coached LeBron can’t hurt, either.”
Recruiting is a strong indicator of future success, but it’s how Collins uses the players he brings in that will determine whether or not he’s able to follow through on his ambitious proclamations – “a top-notch basketball program,” was the way Collins put it at last week’s press conference – about the future of Northwestern basketball.
On that front, Scheyer believes Collins is well-equipped to excel right away – particularly on the offensive end.
“He is great at coming up with plays,” he said. “Offensively, he’s just awesome.”
Offensive wizardry is a term players and coaches used to describe former coach Bill Carmody – including Ohio State’s Thad Matta, who after learning of Carmody’s dismissal called him “the best offensive mind of any coach I’ve ever seen in my life.” Another defining staple of Carmody’s coaching was the Princeton offense, a complex system predicated on ball screens and backdoor cuts and handoffs.
You can expect something different under Collins. The specifics are unclear at this point, but Scheyer did stress one word when describing Collins’ offensive principles.
“He’s the type of coach who gives players freedom,” he said.
The main expectation, in essence, is for Collins to diagnose his personnel through film study and practice, grow to understand each player’s strengths and weaknesses, then construct an offensive system that best matches and elevates those players’ capabilities.
“I’m very excited to see what he comes up with,” Scheyer said.
Using Collins’ experience at Duke as a direct template for your expectations and wishes of Northwestern’s next basketball coach misses the point. Collins will take everything he learned under Krzyzewski and other Duke coaches, the stuff Scheyer gleaned from Collins over years of interaction, and fuse it with his vision of what a successful head coach at a “top-notch” Big Ten program should be.
Anything beyond optimistic speculation, even from someone as well-connected with Collins as Scheyer, is aimless conjecture.
“Obviously I don’t know what he’s going to be like as a head coach,” Scheyer said.
The best we can do at this point in time is go off what we do know. That category stacks up measurably well for Collins – we know he maintains strong relationships with local high school and AAU coaches, that his energy and passion will bring a welcomed cosmetic change to Northwestern’s arguably stuck-in-neutral hoops progression, that he brings years of experience working with some of the best college coaches and best basketball players in the world.
Hearing these stories from Scheyer, a credible past and present point of reference, gave substance to Collins’ impressive but intangible character profile. Scheyer offered a vivid anecdotal snapshot of what to expect when Collins gets off and running with Northwestern basketball.
It is a bright picture indeed.