With Northwestern opening the season with its first game against UMass Lowell on Friday night, the college hoops season is upon us. After back-to-back 15-17 seasons, the "new car smell" that head coach Chris Collins has carried with him over the past couple seasons has now worn off. And he'll be the first one to tell you that.
Inside NU sat down with Collins about a week before the start of the season for a wide-ranging Q&A. In part one, we discussed Northwestern's revamped roster, how the college game might be different this year due to rule changes, and the non-conference schedule.
Here, in part two, Collins speaks on the contract extension he signed in the offseason, what he's learned through three years of being a head coach and the impact of new facilities on Northwestern's brand.
Inside NU: You talked briefly about the losing streak last year, the 10-game losing streak last year and there was also the seven-game losing streak the year before. As a coach, what have you learned psychologically about how to handle those losing streaks?
Chris Collins: It's tough. The one last year was a lot tougher just because the manner in which we lost those games. I thought, in those 10, we had about six of those that I thought we could have won and about four that we should have won, not could have won, against really good teams. Like, we should have won the Maryland game. We should have won at Michigan State. I mean, I'm still, the foul they called on Vic [Law], I'm still trying to find where it was. The goaltend against Ohio State where that cuts it to one and they don't call it, and [DeAngelo] Russell hits a three. Now, instead of a one-point game, it's six and it's over. The way we lost, because it wasn't easy going into that locker room with guys that were just giving everything they had. I mean they were locked in to preparation, they were playing their hearts out. Then for five weeks you go into a locker room where guys are crying and that ain't easy.
The thing I was really proud of was, we had that one game, which was Michigan State at home, which I thought the losing kind of took its toll. They just came in here and destroyed us, from the tip. That's when I knew our season was at a breaking point. That was the first time when I saw our team kind of look defeated, like ‘We can't do this.' That's when we made all those changes like going to the zone. Not that I thought it was so great, I just knew we had to change everything because I was losing them. Fortunately, we won that Iowa game and that just changed everything. We went on that winning streak. And we finished the year with really positive momentum, winning five of the last seven. So the guys felt good, versus being beaten down.
There's no question the one in year one was tough because I thought we were playing really well and then JerShon [Cobb] hurts his knee. We had won five out of seven, gotten ourselves to 5-5. We had that Nebraska game at home when [Terran] Petteway throws in a couple threes and beats us. Then JerShon got hurt at Ohio State. Then, we just didn't have the depth. We had kind of found something. He was playing point. The margin for error was so slim that when he went down, it was tough.
But last year was really hard. I had never really been through anything like that in terms of the way we lost. For me, I had to stay strong for the guys. It was killing me, as a competitor. I couldn't let the guys see. We had to come in everyday. To their credit, the biggest compliment I could say is: we would always have people, I have a lot of friends, coaches, pro people coming through town. They'll pop into practice and it was funny, everybody would come to the practice they would say, ‘Man, watching this team you would never,' and they meant it as a compliment, ‘you would never know you lost seven in a row or eight in a row.' The energy remained good. The vibe remained good. That's why that last month, I thought, was critical for us to finish strong. The wins we had, to beat Indiana, to beat Iowa, both tournament teams. The Michigan game at the end was a great game. The guys went into the offseason feeling good about themselves.
This offseason, with the momentum that you've been talking about, Tre told me that he's never seen a group that wants to put in extra work as much as this group does. He was telling me that when he first got here, it was only him in the gym. Now Bryant's joining him and they're bringing Jordan. There's a bunch of guys going. Is that something you told them to do or is that something they've done on their own?
I've always said, you know things are coming along with you start seeing those things. To me, the hardest part when you're trying to build something is that behind the scenes, you're seeing a lot of victories with the way everything's moving. But the last step is always the final step, which is wins and losses on the court, which is all you guys see. Like, there's a lot of things to me that I see moving in the right direction. But the bottom line is, we're still a 15-win team. That's the hardest step, but it's the last step. But in terms of how our guys are training, how they talk to each other, the leadership, like the culture of the program, all those things are in such a good place. And that's what you mean. Like, when I first got here, it was only Tre. My goal was to create a program where I wanted guys who wanted to be at Northwestern to want it all: to want the great education, to want the networking, to want everything Northwestern offers, but also to be a great basketball player and to want to be a pro basketball player, and that's okay too.
Yep. That's what Tre was saying. He said, "These guys want to be pros."
And it's okay to want it all. That was my goal coming here. Obviously, I went to a similar school. I went to Duke. I loved what Duke had to offer me off the floor, but I wanted to be a player. That was the goal. To have guys that really want to be players and to see them in the gym at night and in here early in the morning when I come in and there's two or three getting shots or they're in the weight room. Like there's an investment that's being made that maybe wasn't as prevalent in year one that I love. That's when you know that the players are the ones. That's all voluntary stuff. That's all those guys saying, ‘Let's go get some shots up.' Tre was kind of the ring leader, and I was hoping that people would follow his lead. Now you'll see, like you said, three or four together. That's when you know things are in a good place.
In terms of your emotional attachment to Northwestern, when we talked a couple years ago before your first year, you mentioned that when you were growing up in the Chicago area, Northwestern, in terms of basketball, was almost irrelevant to you.
You didn't feel any type of connection to them?
At the beginning of this third year, do you think you've developed that emotional attachment to the school?
I definitely have. I loved where I was before here. I loved my job. I loved being with Coach K. I loved being there. My family and I loved living there. I mean, I love Duke. That's where I went. To me, it was more than a job. That was my program. I played there, coached there. I always said I wanted to be a head coach. But I wanted to be able to have a chance to go somewhere I felt had the potential for me to love it like I love Duke. Like, everything about it, not just the fact that I had a basketball program, but to love the people. And I do. And you have to develop that.
The relationship I have with President [Morton] Schapiro, with Jim Phillips, with the other coaches, the camaraderie. I felt that. I knew I made a good decision day one when I'm at my press conference and all the other coaches from the other sports were at the press conference and coming up. I felt that from day one. It reminded me so much of the environment that I came from. That's what I was looking for. Obviously I'm still early into my tenure. But I haven't changed. I came in here to be here for the long-term and to build a program that everybody could be proud of and to love this school and to love this area, which I already did because I grew up here. For me, all those things have been great.
The hardest part has just been the building process. You want, in an instant gratification world, you want everything right away. Sometimes, fortunately I have good mentors around me who keep me grounded. If you see I have a picture on my desk, all guys who are in the hall of fame and next to their names are the records they had their first year coaching. I mean, Coach K was under .500 three years in a row before they turned the corner. You look at all these coaches and 99 percent of them have had to go through similar processes in order to build. We're no different and that's kind of been the part for me because I'm super competitive and I've always had a belief in myself that no matter what I can do it and that's part of my strengths. But it's you also have to understand that things take time to develop. I feel like these two years have been great for growing for me, for us, and I feel like we're poised to make another jump. Now, I don't know what that means because our league is great, but I know we're a lot better. I see it. I feel it. I see it in the way we're practicing. Now, what's that going to mean in wins and losses? I don't know because we're going to have to go out there and do it and that's kind of where we're at now.
I doubt you'll get into the specific terms of the contract extension you signed in the spring, but I'm assuming it was your side that went to Phillips and kind of asked for that. What did you try to push that contract extension? And what about the two 15-17 seasons showed that you deserved that extension?
Well actually it was not me.
Can you speak at all to why Phillips may have come to you with that?
You'd have to ask them. I mean, I love it here and I want to be here. So when they came to me about being here longer, I said, ‘Let's do that' because I'm committed to being here. That's something that the administration wanted to extend our agreement and keep the process in place. I mean, those aren't things for me to answer. If my boss wants me to stay longer, then I'm all for it.
Out of curiosity, have you or your agent been contacted by any of the other Power Five jobs that have opened over the past couple years?
Yeah, but I'd rather not talk about that. But yeah.
Facilities upgrades, is that something you a) think is necessary and b) kind of along those lines, do you think facilities are kind of over-blown in terms of how much they're valued?
More on the lakefront facility
More on the lakefront facility
I think probably yes to all those. I think we need to continue to push forward. I think they're important. But do I think they're over-blown? Yes. But I think they're important. There's no question about it. There's a commitment now, at the highest level of college. It's part of what we say, ‘The best student-athlete experience.' Part of that is providing a great place for them to train to be fed, to be taken care of, the sports medicine, all those things. I think Jim is on board with all those things with all the programs. Certainly with the big project on the lakefront that's the big step for a lot of programs.
What we've tried to do, is we've tried to upgrade what we do have. I thought the (video) boards last year and some of the things we did in Welsh-Ryan. Now, was it a major overhaul? No. But I thought it greatly enhanced the game experience, having the boards. From what I've heard, you know I'm not watching the videos in timeouts, but there were people that came to me and said, ‘Man, that made a big difference. The court, it's brighter in there, it's not as dark.' For me I'd always like to have a small arena to play in. Now, let's try to make it as nice as we can. But we're a small private school, we're not going to fill a 15,000-seat arena. For us, let's have 8,500, 9,000. It's about the people. I say this all the time, if you go into Cameron Indoor Stadium at noon on a Tuesday, it looks just like Welsh-Ryan.
Yeah, I was surprised. I was there for the first time when I was down at the Duke-Northwestern football game.
Now, it's got character and mystique and the banners and all. But when you when you get it on game night, there's nothing better. That's what we want and hopefully as we get better [it will happen]. But we know that's on us. We've got to win. You want people to come and you want people to support you but people want to support a winning product. It goes hand-in-hand. We've re-done the fieldhouse this summer. It's a smaller project but it makes a difference. We got with Under Armour creative and we got new signage, we have a new floor, we've done some things in the locker room. One thing I think we need to do is that when football moves, let's evaluate now how we can make this area better.
So are you now going to takeover the offices that football left?
That's all up for debate. But what I think it does do is that it opens up some land because you have Nicolet here and they're leaving. So, what do we do with that? To me, that's got to be some improvement for basketball. I think everybody is on board with that. There's a progression plan. At the end of the day, do I think kids go to schools for the facilities? Absolutely not. I think they go where they feel where they're going to be best positioned to be the best player. And, I think kids are seeing now, there's always an allure to go to one of the blue bloods but I think now with every game being on national TV in every major conference, I think kids are seeing now it's more about fit, more about going somewhere where I can play and have a role and have a chance to be a great player than ever before. That being said, we're not going to stand pat. We're going to keep pushing forward because I think we owe it to our guys to give them the nicest that we can do. And I think the administration's on board with that.