EVANSTON, Ill. -- Stationed on a broad platform near the center of Welsh-Ryan arena’s purple crayon-scribbling of a basketball court, Chris Collins perked up, held back tears of overwhelming joy and illustrated the ambitious dimensions of his far-reaching plan.
He talked about turning Northwestern into a “top-notch basketball program”. He emphasized academics and their propriety within the school’s larger student-athlete mission. He described putting his own “imprint” on the program, crafting it, building it, elevating it – with an assist from father and Philadelphia Sixers head coach Doug Collins, who “whether or not he’s on my staff, he’s going to be a part of this” – into a program that can realistically look forward to something more than sporadic NIT appearances and low-to-mid-pack Big Ten finishes.
Collins aimed high, and the full realization of those goals will take years. But even in the short time since Northwestern made official the hiring of its new head coach, Collins has already left his mark on the program he hopes to make his own.
“You have to take all the knowledge and wisdom and everything you’ve learned,” Collins said. “Now it’s on me to create my own style and be my own coach.”
Last night, Collins convened Northwestern’s players and graduated seniors for a team meal. He talked about his vision, introduced his family and initiated the long process of getting to know the different components of his new team. There were no media present – just Collins, athletic director Jim Phillips, the Collins family and his team, gabbing over basketball, leadership and the “family atmosphere” he hopes to create at Northwestern.
“Immediately, with the first step that he’s had on campus in an official capacity, I understood that he absolutely exudes what we want,” Phillips said in the post-presser media scrum, after Chris gave an impassioned take on what reaching the highest level of college basketball as a head coach means to him, and father, Doug, entertained questions about the possibility of one day joining his son on the sidelines. “He’s off to the right start.”
His process is already underway. Collins is wasting no time. He fully believes Northwestern can win, and win big, next season. The first order of business for any college coach at this time of year is recruiting, and Collins addressed that subject in full – “We have to attack that vigorously and get out there,” he said – but it’s arguably just as important, for the short-term health of the program, the immediacy of NCAA Tournament demands, that Collins connect with the current players.
Last night’s dinner did exactly that. For a group that over the past year has seen three of its four best players either injured or suspended, its longtime head coach fired and a once-promising season degenerate into an unsalvageable 13-19 campaign, Collins offered reassurance. Before all the public relations buzz that accompanies official press conferences, the various columns about visionary excellence and academic values and Mike Krzyzewski's residual by-association magic touch, Collins took the most important step. He connected with his players.
“Yes we want to continue to recruit and we have to get out and be aggressive on the recruiting trails,” Phillips said. “But he [Collins] has an affection for the guys that are here. We’re going to do everything that we can to build off the guys that we have and build around them. And It’ll be a process of everyday moving the basketball program forward.”
Talking success and actually producing it are two different things entirely. There is no telling when, or if, Northwestern can compete immediately in what’s sure to be another rugged Big Ten conference. Think about all the hall of fame coaches, the blue-chip recruits, the perils of Midwestern road trips and the physical identity of the best league in the country.
Or, to spin it back to the Wildcats, the pressure of taking a reloaded roster, with a young and emerging core, and trying to take it where it’s never been before, The NCAA Tournament, in year one. What will the transition from Bill Carmody’s Princeton Offense entail, exactly? Can Collins work with the pieces allotted to him to, in just one year’s time, build a Tournament-level outfit? Even for a man with Collins’ basketball acumen, trying to inhere the program with his basketball knowledge in an immediately successful and win-conducive way, while fending off the rigors of an unfailingly treacherous hoops conference – it is a lot to ask. No doubt.
"It's up to me to put the pieces that I do have in the right position to be as successful as they can be," Collins said. "I believe in the talent in this program."
All of it will be new for Collins, but then again, most of that stuff is beyond his influence anyway, mere independent variables – the kind of stuff Collins, nor any other Big Ten coach, has any sort of comprehensive control on. The only thing Collins can shape is the team, the players, in front of him. His actions thus far, particularly the low-key gathering he oversaw last night, is prima facie proof that Collins will not merely bide his time in a mellow introductory grace period. He’s getting after it – both in a coachspeak basketball sense and as it pertains to the grander context of his longterm goals at Northwestern.
The foundation is being laid for immediate success.