Not long after Chris Collins was hired to be Northwestern’s next men’s basketball coach, and former assistant Tavaras Hardy announced he would remain with the Wildcats, the NU hoops basketball staff appeared like it might be assembled in something close to record time. Hardy was staying on, Brian James’ eventual addition looked more like a formality than an ongoing process and only one spot – which former Missouri State assistant Patrick Baldwin quickly filled – remained.
Building a coaching staff is one of the most important, and often the most laboriously unwieldy, parts of any new coach’s first few months. Collins had acted swiftly, and his work was nearing its end. All that we needed to be sure, and there was little ever doubt about this move in the first place, was an official announcement for James. That happened approximately one week ago, but not before Collins watched Tavaras Hardy, the one assistant who stayed on through the Carmody-Collins transition, take his belongings and jump aboard John Thompson III’s Chicago-recruiting-inspired ship in Washington D.C. Georgetown wanted Hardy, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to help extend the Hoyas’ recruiting reach into the Windy City. He couldn’t resist the opportunity. It was an understandable if unexpected move.
The pressure turned to Collins. He needed to find a replacement for Hardy, and he needed to do it fast. On Tuesday, that process came to a tidy close when former Loyola assistant Armon Gates was officially announced as the next member of Collins’ staff.
"I'm excited to work under a head coach with the pedigree that Coach Collins has and I'm grateful to him for this wonderful opportunity," Gates said in an official statement. "It's great to be able to remain in Chicago as we strive to build our recruiting footprint in the area. We look forward to keeping Big Ten-level players here to receive a great education. Obviously, Northwestern is a prestigious university and I look forward to being a part of this family and helping our staff make a difference."
There is some circular weirdness to Gates’ hiring. Gates actually filled the coaching hole left by Baldwin’s move from Loyola, where he coached seven years, to Missouri State. Gates’ nomadic early assistant coaching pedigree also lead him to TCU, where he was an assistant during Cerina’s best season with the Horned Frogs in 2010-11. Gates worked primarily with guards at TCU, and will probably operate in a similar capacity with the Wildcats, but he will begin his run at NU having a vague understanding for how one of NU’s players – a player who, thanks in part to persistent ankle issues, never quite got his feet under him last season – functions best.
The most important thing to note here isn’t anything about the assistants specifically -- each brings different desirable qualities, internally and recruiting-related, that will help push the next era of Northwestern hoops in a positive direction -- or Cerina’s potential familiarity with a former assistant. It’s that Collins stayed cool, never flinched, judiciously weighed his options and never hesitated before moving to stabilize the temporary tumult caused by Hardy’s rash departure. Finalizing your staff is a crucial symbolic first step for any new head coach. It also does wonders for recruiting – a process Collins, Gates, Baldwin and James can now shift their focus to over the next few months, right up until the start of their first season managing the sidelines together.