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How Chris Collins is building Chicago's Big Ten team

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After years away, Chris Collins has come home to bring a new attitude to Northwestern basketball.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — As he walked into his new office overlooking the practice court inside Welsh-Ryan Arena in September, Northwestern men’s basketball coach Chris Collins apologized for the room’s bare, purple-painted walls. Aside from the green stem of a plant leaning against a cabinet, some cluttered papers on the desk and a basketball and collage commemorating his hiring, it could have been anyone’s office. He hadn’t, yet, left his mark.

He continued to say he had been pretty busy since he was hired this spring.

For example, just days earlier, Collins had flown out to Berkeley for an alumni event and to attend the Northwestern football team’s season-opener. But between the ceremonial first pitches and various community events, Collins and his staff have managed to put together one of the nation’s most surprising and highly-touted recruiting classes.

It’s all part of a massive construction project, at least that’s how it sounds coming from Collins. He talks about "building" and "laying foundations" like he’s trying to recruit mechanical engineers to Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering rather than basketball players. In many cases, though, he happens to be recruiting both.

"If you look at any successful business, team or athletic program, people always talk about culture," Collins said. "That’s the thing we’ve tried to really build from day one. It’s not about the plays you run. We’ll figure out the best way for us to be competitive on the floor, but I think it starts with a foundation of building that winning culture, that team culture, rallying around each other.

"Throughout our workouts in the spring and the summer a lot of what we’ve done is to try and develop that and to have leadership from the older guys. When you eventually get where you want to go, when players come in as freshman they fall in line with the culture. When they don’t, they stick out like a sore thumb. I was fortunate to be around a place like that for a long time to be able to see, first hand, what that meant."

As hard as Collins and his staff have been working to set a certain standard throughout his first offseason with his current players, a major part of this culture change can be seen just on the horizon.

ESPN has Northwestern’s 2014 recruiting class ranked in the nation’s top 20, ahead and right around some of the country’s top basketball powerhouses.

At Northwestern, as compared to many other programs, it’s different. Collins can’t boast about the tangible success of the program. Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament. The first-time head coach can’t show his outstanding record in graduating his players to the parents of a potential recruit. He doesn’t have state-of-the-art facilities to show off.

What he can sell, though, are the perks of playing the Big Ten, being close to Chicago and getting an education from one of the most prestigious schools in the world. He chooses to sell all of those things, and knows they’re invaluable assets.

But above all else, the 39-year-old freshman sells belief.

———

"The fact is that Chicago’s my home. I always had an affinity for eventually wanting to come back home and being in a city that I love."

THE CONNECTION

Basketball has taken Chris Collins all over the world.

He played professionally in Finland after graduating from Duke. Also, during his years as an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, he joined USA basketball for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 FIBA World Championships in Turkey and the 2012 London Olympics.

But on March 27, 2013, when Northwestern University officially named Collins as their new head coach, he finally returned to where it all started.

"The fact is that Chicago’s my home," Collins said. "I always had an affinity for eventually wanting to come back home and being in a city that I love."

Collins grew up in the town of Northbrook, Ill., about a 20-minute drive north of Evanston on the Edens. But former Chicago high school basketball star and current Duke freshman Jabari Parker made clear in his press conference announcing his decision to attend Duke that Collins is not from Chicago — he's from the suburbs.

Collins, who recruited Parker to Duke, said he and Parker often poked fun at each other about their neighborhoods and about who would win if their high school teams were able to play each other.

This suburb — Northbrook — looks the same as every other one around it: countless subdivided neighborhoods with similarly styled houses and a couple downtown-like shopping areas. The main thing that separates Northbrook from the surrounding towns in the North Shore — a group of suburbs north of Chicago that are close to Lake Michigan—is its premier high school basketball program.

"There’s no question, I’m proud to be from out here," Collins, a former Mr. Basketball winner in Illinois and graduate of Glenbrook North High School, said. "We’ve shown, in this area, and you can look at the number of players that played high-level basketball from this North Shore area, a lot that are there right now… I feel comfortable. I know when I played and I know what I’ve done, I know I’m respected in this city. That’s all that matters to me. People can say what they want, but I feel comfortable with the inner-city coaches and the players. To me, it’s all one in the same."

It’s just basketball.

Recruiting the Chicago area has been tough for schools like Northwestern and DePaul. Schools that one would assume would have such strong roots in the city based on their proximity. But year after year, Chicago’s top high school talents — some of the best in the country — spurn Northwestern. Collins did the same when he graduated high school. But Collins says he’s out to change that notion, aiming to capitalize on the hot bed of talent just a few stops away on the "L."

"Obviously a big sell you want for a Chicago kid is the ability to stay home. We pride ourselves on being Chicago’s Big Ten Team. That’s the marketing plan, right?" he said half-joking.

Collins’ coaching staff reflects the importance of establishing a sound recruiting base using Chicago connections.

He made his first hire in April, adding Patrick Baldwin. A 1994 graduate of Northwestern, Baldwin brings a direct connection to the Chicago area having starred for the Wildcats. In June, Collins added his high school coach and former-NBA assistant Brian James. Armon Gates, a Chicago native, joined Collins as an assistant as well. Gates left the staff at Loyola University in Chicago to come to Evanston.

"I want to be a program where, with our local talent, we are a factor," Collins said. "Now, you’re not going to get every guy. But, I think we’ve kind of shown, even in year one, the high-level prospects, whether they come here or not, we’re getting on those lists. You’ve got to take baby steps. That’s a first step to capture the attention of the local guys and be an option for them to look at. And then you have to get a couple kids that want to come. That’s the step that’s going to take you to greater heights."

The opportunity is there. There hasn’t been a college team that’s captured Chicago. Sure, teams have had moments. DePaul had some good years in the early ‘90s and Illinois had some really exciting teams under Bill Self and Bruce Webber, but nothing has stuck.

"I’ve always felt like the city of Chicago was waiting for a college team to capture it. It’s such a great sports town," Collins said. "I just think that’s part of the excitement for me, one of the things I was excited about this job. I feel like Chicago is the best sports city in the country. You see how people embrace the Bulls, the Cubs, the White Sox, the Bears, the Blackhawks and I just feel it’s an opportunity for us to become that local team and become that college team that people really rally around."

Before even coaching a game, a change has become apparent. For example, on Oct. 21, Northwestern announced that the program has sold more basketball season tickets for the 2013-14 season that it ever has before.

"When I go around at the store or at the restaurant or whatever," Collins said, "I think people are excited. They would love for us to turn the corner and become good and to be able to come in here and see high-level basketball. I think it could become a really hot ticket and a great atmosphere. But that’s thinking down the line. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. It’s one step at a time. But I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think we could get to that point."

———

"Recruiting is about relationships at the end of the day."

THE RELATIONSHIP

Collins’ end-goal, as he states, starts with small steps; the cultivation of relationships that blossom into future recruits down the road. These are the type of recruits that keep a program going.

Even though he is now a head coach, Collins says he doesn’t expect his role in recruiting to change much from his days at Duke.

"The assistant coaches are the ones that, a lot of the time, are behind the scenes: the grinders and touching all the right people, making all the calls, doing all the texts," he said. "I think it’s been helpful for me because I’ve been in that role for so long that I’m still in that mindset. I’ve kind of approached the recruiting — even though I am now a head coach and I am the leader — to still do the things I did when I was an assistant coach."

According to ESPN Chicago’s Scott Powers, who has covered high school basketball in Chicago for 12 years, that’s where Collins can separate himself from former Northwestern coach Bill Carmody.

"I don’t think Bill enjoyed recruiting. It was just something that he had to do and did it as much as he thought he had to, what was necessary," Powers said. "There’s kind of the grinding mentality that a lot of old school coaches have. They want to be seen as much and make as many phone calls as they can and just do whatever they can to get a kid. I think Carmody did the minimum."

Collins believes in creating a more personal connection with his recruits.

"Recruiting," he says, "is about relationships at the end of the day."

Now, Powers says he can sense a change in Northwestern’s presence in high school and AAU gyms across Chicago.

"I think, already, Chris Collins is being seen a lot more than Carmody was," Powers said. "People see his face and are reaching out hands. He’s shaking those hands and meeting those people that you might not necessarily be talking to every day, but you want to create a relationship for later on. I think, from that standpoint, he may already be doing more on the recruiting trail than Bill did while at Northwestern."

One key example of the difference in styles between Carmody and Collins is the case of Vic Law. Law, a senior at Chicago’s St. Rita High School, is a four-star recruit and ESPN ranks him as the 17th best small forward in the country and as the 66th best overall player in the class of 2014.

For Law, Northwestern had always been an enticing option: he’s from the Chicago area, his sister Simone plays for nearby Loyola University in Chicago and he’s an extremely high-achieving student. But according to his father Vic Law Sr., the Law family felt uneasy about Northwestern fairly early in the recruiting process.

"When we went up there to visit [sophomore year]," Law Sr. told Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn. "Carmody came across as arrogant — like that the university would sell itself, and either you want to come here or you don't. And I'm saying to myself, 'You haven't won anything!' You had a sour taste in your mouth when you left, and to be honest with you, had Carmody still been there, we never would have considered Northwestern. Not ever. That's how bad it was for us."

Collins acknowledges the success Carmody had at Northwestern, saying that the program is in a far better place now that it was when he took over in 2000. He even went as far to say that if the program was in the same state as it was when Carmody took over, it would have been a much tougher decision for him to take the job.

"What I’ve tried to do, to be honest, is come in and be a clean slate," Collins said. "Our whole thing is that it’s a new start, a new era of Northwestern basketball. That doesn’t take away anything from any of the coaches from the past, especially Coach Carmody. I respect what he did. He did his thing his way and it was successful. For me, I have to do it my way and our way."

———

"You have to sell your positives, not dwell on your negatives."

THE PITCH

Chris Collins’ philosophy on recruiting is simple.

"You have to sell your positives, not dwell on your negatives," he says.

The positives, at least to Collins are clear: superb academics, Division I basketball at the highest level, being close to Chicago and the chance to be the start of something big. The first three are easy to pinpoint. The last one is more ambiguous.

The way Collins describes it is by using the example of his alma mater. He spoke at length about Krzyzewski and his affinity for his first recruiting class, the guys that set the culture and took a chance on coming to Duke. Collins wants to have the same opinions of his first group.

"[Our recruits] want to be a part of an emerging program, one that has a chance to take the next step, be a part of that first group that gets this thing going," Collins said. "I think that’s what’s exciting about the chance right now. I’m a young coach. I plan to be here for a long time. You get a chance to be a part of this first recruiting class as we get going with this new start, this new era of Northwestern basketball."

Collins’ first task was re-extending a hand to Vic Law, albeit with a new face to go with the offer.

On his first full day on the job, Collins went to open gym at St. Rita to visit Law. After he watched him play, Collins and the potential recruit had a conversation that lasted over an hour. Immediately, Law says he sensed a complete change of attitude about Northwestern and that he and Collins really seemed to "click."

"It was just his enthusiasm and optimism about Northwestern and just the belief that he can turn the program around [that changed Northwestern for me]," Law said. "It’s really not the university that you go to… but it’s the players in the jerseys that matter. [That is] Coach Collins’ vision for Northwestern and the direction he’s moving it in."

Not surprisingly, Law, who boasts a reported 3.8 GPA, expressed interest in the Stanford and Harvard basketball programs. Both teams are coached by former Duke standouts Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker, two of Krzyzewski’s first recruits. From the experience of meeting them and talking about their time at Duke, Law understood what it would mean to not only Northwestern for him to play there, but for himself and his maturation. Being part of that first group, Law said, would "further me along in becoming a man in my life."

Those are the type of players Collins wants: ones that are willing to buy in and believe in what he offers. With Law, especially, there’s no shortage of belief.

"I just believe in [Collins]. Throughout my whole experience of recruiting, I just felt that everything was leading back to Coach Collins and his message," Law said. "Northwestern University is just waiting to blow up. The town, the city of Evanston, has just been waiting for Northwestern to just explode on the scene and be able to get things rolling. [Collins] knows that he’s going to get this turned around. I believe that he will turn it around."

What, exactly, does "turning it around" mean? When will it occur?

To different people, the answers are different. Law expects immediate success in his first year on campus. For Collins, though, it’s more a process; a steady climb toward prominence.

"To me," Collins said, "everyone talks about the NCAA tournament. Like I’ve said, it’s not about the NCAA tournament. To me, that means you have one team that’s good. I think the next step for us is to become a program that year in and year out we’re respected nationally.

"Right now, we’re building that. We’re starting from the ground level. We’re laying that foundation. I think that’s how you can sustain it for a long time. It’s not going to be a quick fix. It’s not about doing everything we can to be one good team that gets to the tournament. It’s about developing a program where we can sustain it for a long time."

———

"That’s where the belief comes in. I weighed it a lot. Why would I come here?"

THE COMMITMENT

Chris Collins is inherently optimistic.

You can tell when he starts talking about basketball, about what he’s "building" in Evanston. His eyes get wide and he looks right through you, out into the future. He sees something bigger and better out there. And the thing is, he believes he can reach it. The challenge, though, is getting others to believe it too.

"It’s the same thing that I tell the guys we’re recruiting," Collins said. "‘Yeah, maybe [success] hasn’t happened, but I’m telling you that we’re going to get there. I need you to believe in me.’ It’s like anything: you need a couple guys to believe. Perception is everything.

"Everyone goes through what’s exciting, what’s not, and for us, I just really feel if we can get a group of guys that could come in as young players, along with the guys we already have in the program, and get the momentum going, get the ball rolling, turning, so that we can grow and continue to get better."

Law officially bought in as Collins’ first recruit, giving him a call on Independence day. According to Law, the conversation the two of them had went something like this:

Law called his future coach the morning of July 4th and asked him what he planned to do that day. Collins said he was planning to enjoy the holiday with his family: barbecuing, shooting off fireworks, nothing out of the ordinary. Collins then asked Law the same question.

"I’ll be celebrating," Law told Collins.

"Celebrating what?" Collins asked.

"Celebrating my commitment to Northwestern."

At first there was a brief moment of silence, then exuberance.

"It almost seemed like he dropped his phone because there was a lot of noise in the background then he picked it up and he just talked about his excitement and that he was excited for what lies ahead," Law said.

Following in Law’s footsteps this summer was fellow four-star recruit in guard Bryant McIntosh, Chicagoan Scott Lindsey and forward Gavin Skelly. Every one of them, Law said, believes in Collins and in the direction of program.

But before any of those players could commit — before a culture could even begin to be built — Collins needed to make sure he could commit to Northwestern.

At first, Collins admits he hesitated to take the job. He had to convince himself that this is where he belonged.

"That’s where the belief comes in," he said. "I weighed it a lot. Why would I come here?"

Really, why would he? He was leaving a steady job. As Duke’s associate head coach, he was being groomed to eventually take over for the 66-year-old Krzyzewski at one of the most premiere programs in the country.

It’s an adjustment for Collins, walking into a gym with the purple "N" and not the blue "D" on his chest. He’s not looking at the same guys. The attention’s not the same. As Collins put it, "When you’re at a place like Duke, you’re going to get your phone call returned."

"It’s like anything — I talked about it when I took this job — it’s about finding the right fit. This might not have been the right fit for a lot of guys as coaches. It was the right fit for me," Collins said. "To me it’s exciting. I get a chance to get on something at the ground level, help build it, being the head of that, being the leader and put my handprints all over it."

When Collins now makes visits to a recruit’s home, sits in the living room and sells Northwestern to the entire family, that’s when he knows it's different. When that recruit’s mother asks why she should send her baby boy to Evanston, Collins can’t defer to anyone else. It’s all on him.

"That’s where it’s different now. They want to hear from me. They want to hear about our vision. I’m the voice that matters most."

So, coach, why should anyone want to go to Northwestern?

He thinks all the way back to the day he was hired, which now seems like ages ago. Why would I come here?, he asks himself again. He knows, now, how his mark will be made.

"Because I believe that we can get it done."