Relationships are important. A father-son relationship is perhaps the strongest one of all. And for Doug and Chris Collins, that’s as true as ever.
That much was evident Tuesday as the two sat down for a conversation moderated by the Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine at the McCormick Tribune Center at Northwestern. Topics varied, from Chris growing up around NBA teams, to Doug’s infinite stories from his career, to Chris’ decision to take the job at Northwestern.
The one common theme was that through it all, the two have had a special bond. And throughout Chris’ life, that bond has influenced him in many ways.
Doug’s influence on Chris becoming a coach
You might’ve heard the tales before. Of the nights spent on the couch, watching hours of basketball. Of the connection the two formed through the game.
According to Chris, the Doug Collins you hear on TV is the one he used to hear every night. Doug would ask his son questions – “What did you see on that play? How’d that player get open?” – and Chris estimates that he learned a great deal about the game from those nights.
“I wanted Chris to be able to be around [basketball],” Doug says. “And if he loved it, I wanted him to do it.”
And he sure was around it. And, like his dad, he sure does love it. And now he’s doing it at Northwestern.
But like his father, Chris also had playing aspirations. He always wanted to find his way to the NBA as a player. And in fact, he came within one day of making an NBA roster. But he quickly found that developmental leagues were in flux, and that Europe didn’t suit him. That’s when the idea of coaching arose.
“I always told him,” Doug says, “make sure you get the playing out of your system. Don’t ever look back with any regrets. And when you’re ready to move on, only you will know that.”
And after wholeheartedly giving the NBA a shot, that time came. “I felt like I maxed out who I was [as a player],” Chris says. “I thought I could’ve been one of those journeymen-type guys, but I felt like I maxed out who I could be, and I was excited about becoming a coach.
“I just turned 40, but I have 18 years of coaching experience, because I didn’t hang around and play, I got right into it. So I’m still young, but I have a ton of experience, and I think it’s helped me in my coaching career.”
And as he’s ascended the ranks – from WNBA assistant, to Seton Hall, to Duke, to his first head coaching job here at Northwestern – he’s heeded another piece of his father’s advice.
“Be around people smarter than you are. Learn every day.”
The decision to take the Northwestern job
“I was a deterrent,” Doug says. “I wasn’t sure about Northwestern. Because all I’d seen was tremendous failure. I was thinking, ‘are they committed? With the money, and the resources? Do they really want to have a big time program?’ When he started talking about Northwestern, I just sort of shut down and went, ‘whatever.’ I didn’t say much.
“But I just listened, and I could feel the passion he had about coming here. And when I met [Athletic Director] Dr. [Jim] Phillips and [University President] Dr. [Morton] Schapiro, I knew he was in the right spot, because they loved Chris and they believed in him.”
Chris cites similar reasoning, and takes the story from there.
“Once I spent time with Jim Phillips and Morty,” Chris said, “and felt their competitiveness, felt their energy, felt their passion, there was an instant connection. Sometimes with your decisions, you have to just trust your instincts, and you’ve got to take a leap of faith. I left a great situation, but at some point you have to go for it. And I just felt like this was the perfect opportunity, at the right time, for me to build a program and have success.”
Doug says concerns lingered for him. The main one regarded failure, and how his son would cope with it. “You’ve got to be so tough,” Doug said. “You’ve got to be resilient, and you’ve got to be able to deal with losing. Chris had never lost. And I was worried about that.”
But Chris explains that that was actually part of the appeal of the job. “Maybe I’m kind of different,” he said, “but I kind of like the fact that it had never been done.” And when thinking back on his first year in charge, he pinpoints the reason why.
Chris’s first year in Evanston
“There was no more fun journey than trying to find a way to win.”
The idea of a journey is a pretty good way to sum up year one. At times, the Wildcats enjoyed unprecedented success. A win at Wisconsin and three straight victories on the road for the first time since 1960 were the foremost examples. At times, they also became frustrated by failure. And Chris even talked about being a bit overwhelmed when he first took the reigns of the program. “There’s more things to do than there are hours in the day.”
But in the end, Chris says he was pleased with his first year in charge. “It took us a while to figure out who we were as a team. And part of that was, I wanted to give all these guys an opportunity, especially the veterans that were back that had played a lot of games, and won games, and were right on the cusp of getting to the tournament. It took us a while to figure out our style, and how we could be successful.
“As players, it’s not easy to go through a coaching change. I almost felt like I had all freshmen. It’s all new terminology, a new way of doing things.”
But Chris feels the journey has left the program on solid ground heading into year two. He skimmed through the season, assessing its dynamics, but when he came to the win over Iowa in the Big Ten tournament, he was struck by emotion. It sounded like he was nearly tearing up.
“The way we finished the year,” he said, “it shows that there’s a lot of good on the way.”
Doug says he sees the progression too. Through the years, his relationship with his son hasn’t deteriorated one bit. Doug said he tries to stay away from talking Xs and Os with his son; but he frequents Welsh-Ryan arena, and his presence in his son’s life is unquestioned.
And like any other father, he’s proud. “[Chris] grew about 10 years this year,” Doug said, “and it’s pretty neat to watch.”
And if there was any need for confirmation that Chris has found a good fit, according to Doug, it came from the other man who Chris has consistently referred to as a father-figure: Mike Krzyzewski. When Coach K came to visit Chris and attended a 51-35 win over Western Michigan at Welsh-Ryan, Doug says he was told the following by the legendary Duke coach.
“Chris is in the right place. I feel good. If I were 40, I would do this. I would want to build something special too.”