Chris Collins was exhausted. He was emotionally drained. As the new face of Northwestern basketball trudged off to his team’s locker room on March 14, 2014 in Indianapolis, his demeanor told the story of a long, complex journey that had just come to an end.
That journey was his first season in Evanston, a journey which Collins uses two words to describe. One of them is "grind." The other is "whirlwind."
"I went right from coaching in an Elite Eight game one day at Duke," Collins says, "to the next day being introduced here, and you just jump in with two feet and you’re in survival mode. So right after that game was the first time I allowed myself to…"
Collins takes a deep breath.
That breath completes his sentence better than words could. In the moment, he is in a relaxed and anticipatory mood, a far cry from the pressure and fatigue of seven months ago. He estimates it took him at least a week or two to detach himself from that stress, and begin to recharge, to rekindle his hunger.
Now he’s done that, and he’s ready to go – indeed, he has been since April. "And we’ve been working ever since," he says.
Collins grew in year one. "I’m a much better coach today than I was a year ago," he says on a mid-October afternoon. But Collins’ personal growth is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. In fact, his success depends mostly on how he develops and works with others. He has a program to build.
Crucially, he also has a vision for how to build it.
A year and a half into his tenure at Northwestern, that vision is starting to take shape. And a few principles define it.
Balance and Perspective
Welsh-Ryan Arena is an intimate little place. It’s also often not full of boisterous fans. Thus, on multiple occasions last season – and even during last Friday’s blowout exhibition win over McKendree – Chris Collins’ intense yells carried audibly to the upper reaches of the cozy old gym. So Northwestern fans know all about how fiery Collins can be.
He actually might be even more so than you think. Kale Abrahamson referred to him last spring as "a killer deep down," a "beast," and told a story of a three-and-a-half hour expletive-laced team meeting a few days after an intrasquad scrimmage.
Above all though, Collins is just a competitor. That’s the source of any courtside outburst. "I put pressure on myself," he says. "I pride myself on being a winner. I’m a competitive guy. I try to win every game I play."
Collins, however, was brought in on a long term plan. One loss or failure of execution won’t derail that plan. And Collins admits that at times, his competitiveness can inhibit his patience, and his long term vision.
"That’s human nature," he says. "When you’re in a battle, you want to win that battle, you’re not thinking about a battle you’re going to have in three years."
But Collins says that he is able to maintain what he believes to be a good perspective, and that his staff helps him do so. "There’s times when, even myself, I need to be reminded where we’re at and where we’re trying to head."
He also makes sure to continually drive home his day-by-day approach. This, he says, is how the long term goals will eventually be accomplished. The much-talked about future is merely a product of what is done in the present.
"It’s not long term," he says of his approach. "It’s short term. We solely are talking about the present. Now, when you’re developing guys, you want to look at the future and what that may hold. But the only thing on my mind right now is today."
Collins’ focus on today is also the thing that, above all else, he has tried to implant in the minds of the five members of his initial freshman class.
"The biggest adjustment from high school to college is the intensity day to day," he explains. "They know it’s going to be tough in games. But it’s every day in practice, when you’re lifting weights, everything is just at an intensity that they’ve never seen in high school. So adjusting to that day-to-day intensity, getting the habits we want, getting our terminology down… that’s always a big thing."
But despite all Collins’ talk about daily progress, the big picture does still loom. One of his biggest challenges has been finding a way to balance the two, and it’s something that weighs on him heavily when figuring out how to psychologically handle his younger players.
A big part of that is managing expectations. On one hand, he says, "If you don’t have aspirations to be in the postseason, then you shouldn’t be playing. I don’t want to put too much on them too early, but yet, we need a lot of them to be good if we want to eventually be the team we want to be. So we’re pushing them, we’re demanding of them."
While those demands are being made though, there’s a lingering danger that expectations can be too high; that early struggles can shatter confidence and impede long term growth.
"I don’t want them to live with the expectations that they have to be saviors, especially right away as freshmen," Collins says. "Because that’s just unrealistic. And look, a lot of this is going to be new, you’ve got to keep their confidence up. There’s going to be times when they look great, and there’s going to be times when they look like freshmen. That’s where it’s up to me and my staff to keep them on the right path."
Collins’ two biggest recruits, Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh, say Collins did in fact sell them on a long term plan. "It was nothing immediate," McIntosh says. And additionally, when asked about any pressure to have success right away, both Law and McIntosh use the exact same four words:
"I don’t feel pressure."
But then they both explicate the attitude that is key to everything that Collins is doing at Northwestern.
"He [Collins] gave me a long term goal," Law says, "but I have goals myself. I want to win this year. I want to win right away."
McIntosh adds, "that’s what I came here to do. I wanted to win. And all of us have that same goal. We’ll do whatever it takes to win."
So yes, when Jim Phillips hired Chris Collins to be the 24th men’s basketball coach in Northwestern history, he did so without the expectation of immediate success. But what Collins has done is recruited players who have a win-now mentality – players who are self-driven. And in doing so, he’s effectively fused together the long term and the short term to create one coherent view for the program moving forward. And this, more than anything, exemplifies how Collins’ vision is taking shape.
Urgency and Duty
It’s not all about the freshmen. Chris Collins will be the first to tell you that. It’s they who are being hyped up, but it’s the veterans that remain the pillars of the program.
"They’re going to be huge," Collins says of his upperclassmen. "We’re excited about our young guys; they’re talented, they’re hungry, they’re excited about being here. But the most important guys in our program are our older guys. They’re the ones that are going to show the way."
Collins means what he says. Last year, he often talked about Drew Crawford, who could’ve transferred ahead of his final season but decided to stay at Northwestern, as his most important recruit. That’s because he understands the role that the players he inherited will play in this construction project. They are the foundation.
He even explicitly conveys to his older players the significance of their role in what he’s building.
"These guys have an amazing opportunity to be on the ground floor," Collins says. "I want them to feel the pride knowing that when they come back 20 years from now, and they look back to where we’ve gone, that they’re going to say, ‘man, I helped start this whole thing.’"
"He always brings up being that bridge to the new era of Northwestern basketball," says Tre Demps, now a junior. "My time here is dwindling away; it’s getting shorter and shorter. Just building the culture and building that foundation, being a pioneer for the program, it’s a special opportunity. Not a lot of people can say they’ve done that."
First and foremost for Collins was always getting players like Crawford and Demps to buy in. They, in turn, then stimulate the very sense of urgency that has been so vital to what Collins has been preaching.
"I’ve had the seniors talk to those young guys about how fast it’s gone," Collins says. "Sometimes when you’re a young player, you just come in and you think you’re just starting; you’re there four years, it’s going to be this long journey, and you’re going to have all these opportunities. What those guys don’t realize is, it goes by in a flash.
"We need to have the finality and the sense of urgency like the seniors have. That’s when you can get really good, because the seniors play as if there is no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one."
That’s where culture comes in. It’s one of Collins’ buzz words for a reason. Engendering a tight-knit and inclusive locker room culture is essential to many things, not the least of which is urgency. Collins understands the importance of making his program a brotherhood; a family.
Under the previous regime, according to Abrahamson, the family was a little more fractured. As he told me back in June:
"I was surprised how much seniority played a role in trust from the coaching staff and from your teammates. I expected it to be more of a level playing field. When I walked in, it seemed like us young guys were really not on the same playing field as the older guys… nobody really trusted us new guys, and I don’t think we trusted the older guys based on the way we were being treated."
Under Collins, that seems to have changed. The second year head coach says his veterans have immediately formed relationships with the newcomers -- they work fluidly on the court, but also eat meals and hang out together off of it -- and the freshmen emphasize that as a result, the transition has been smooth.
"The upperclassmen did a great job of involving us right away, and allowing us to feel part of the team," McIntosh says.
It’s this connection that allows the sense of urgency to blossom. If that connection is absent, the freshmen feel no sense of allegiance or responsibility. If it’s present though, it’s not just added motivation to fight tooth and nail; dedicating themselves for the sake of the seniors becomes a duty.
Tre Demps puts that duty into words. "I’ve been with guys like Sobo [Dave Sobolewski] and JerShon [Cobb], and I know that this is their last year. And with those kind of being my brothers, the guys I grew up with, I really want to play hard and see them go out the right way."
It’s on the back of this consistent sense of urgency that Collins’ vision and belief ride.
Confidence and Self-Belief
Chris Collins is again exhausted. On a Thursday morning at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, Ill., he’s been talking intermittently for a good three hours, and despite his unwavering eloquence, he seems to be wearing down.
Various reporters want to know all kinds of things, many of them common knowledge and some frankly not very interesting. And to make it worse, Collins has had to give many different variations of the same answer to the same questions – such is the nature of Big Ten Media day.
With our time running thin though, I press Collins, perhaps even unfairly, about pressure – not that which is heaped on his players, but whether or not he feels any on himself from Phillips or others to win this year.
"I don’t feel any external pressure," he says. "I really don’t. I mean, I had a parent who was a professional athlete, a professional coach, and there’s been expectations on me since I was eight years old, in whatever I do. I played at Duke. We were expected to win every game. If we didn’t, it was national news for a week. It was everyone else’s Super Bowl. It was court stormings. So I’m pretty thick-skinned."
Collins tends to shy away from talking about the future in any definitive terms. And that’s precisely what he does here. He clearly believes in what he’s doing, but he never wants to talk about when he needs to start winning, or how much he needs to win. Or how much he will win. A time might come when he has to, but that time is not now. Doing so would create unnecessary fuss, and perhaps unreasonable expectations.
But moments later, as his availability at Media Day is about to draw to a close, something clicks, and Collins gives arguably his most assertive quote since coming to Northwestern.
In an instant, his belief in his own abilities goes from guarded to clear for all to see. His self-confidence shoots through the roof, and, staring straight at me so as to accentuate his earnestness, he makes a proclamation emblematic of the confidence emanating from his program heading into year two. His tone, assured and emphatic, is like nothing I’ve ever heard from him before.
"Look," he begins, eyes wide with sincerity, "in all of our minds, we’re going to get it done. There is no 'if.' We’re going to get it done. Now, when that’s going to happen, I’m not going to say it’s this year, or next year – we’re making steps – but we’re going to get there. And what I mean by getting there is not just going to the tournament. That’s going to be a great accomplishment, but I mean being a nationally relevant program, where we’re competitive year in and year out.
"That’s going to happen."