When the Chicago Tribune broke that Northwestern and head basketball coach Chris Collins had agreed to a contract extension and raise Tuesday, reaction was littered all across the spectrum. There was the usual crowd that saw the move as yet another unnecessary and uninformed overreach by an athletic department desperate for some sustained success in its major sports programs. And, as is often the case, there were those who wholeheartedly applauded the program for re-committing to a coach that has yet to really produce anything. Most people, it seemed, fell in the middle. That is to say, they didn't quite understand why the contract restructuring was necessary, but they didn't mind the sentiment it portrayed.
Through two seasons, we really don't know much about Chris Collins and his ability to be the face of a college basketball program, which makes figuring out this extension all the more difficult. To me, it makes most sense to break the analysis of the move and its merits into three parts: from a financial/salary competitiveness standpoint, from a recruiting/program building standpoint and from an on-court success standpoint.
Indications point to this being the main reason for the extension. From the Trib:
"It's not ‘coach Cal' money," he said in reference to Kentucky coach John Calipari's $7 million-plus annual salary. "But it's in the ballpark of what guys in our league are making. I want to be at Northwestern and love what we're doing. I just wanted to be treated fairly."
A few weeks back our staff discussed the prospect of Collins leaving and this issue came up in our thread. Northwestern has to keep Collins' salary competitive and the extension appears to do that. The Tribune's Teddy Greenstein hypothesized that Collins probably got a raise from the reported $1.4 million he originally signed for to close to the reported $1.7 million per year extension Illinois head coach John Groce signed for in 2014.
Big Ten Coach Salaries
|School||Coach||Reported Salary/Year (mil)|
|Michigan State||Tom Izzo||3.47|
|Ohio State||Thad Matta||3.27|
|Penn State||Pat Chambers||0.9|
The suspected bump would move Collins from tenth-highest paid coach in the Big Ten to somewhere around the middle of the pack, based on various reports of coaches' salaries.
Thus, Northwestern and Collins both see the young coach's value in the same ballpark as that of Iowa's Fran McCaffery, Illinois' John Groce and Nebraska's Tim Miles. On the surface, Collins' accomplishments don't seem to match those of the previous three coaches. But, as an asset, Collins is undoubtedly viewed as a more intriguing prospect nationally than the 56-year-old McCaffery, a coach who has held back some really talented teams in Groce, and Miles who, save his second season where Nebraska made an improbable run to the NCAA Tournament, has a worse record in Lincoln than Collins does in Evanston.
Jim Phillips wants Chris Collins in Evanston; and after looking around at some of his contemporaries, Collins played his hand right. Phillips had to give Collins this raise and he made the right call in doing so.
From his earliest days at Northwestern, Collins focused on "building the program." It's a cliché, sure. But that doesn't mean it isn't real. Northwestern hired Collins to change the culture of Northwestern basketball by infusing a new, different style of player and scheme. And one of the few things we can actually be fairly certain about is Collins' ability to attract recruits to Northwestern, especially those from local, Chicago-area high schools. And Phillips seems to agree, according to the Trib:
Phillips said Collins’ body of work of the past two years has been "absolutely fantastic in all aspects of building a program. It starts with recruiting, and he and his staff are doing a phenomenal job."
Collins' 53rd-ranked recruiting class -- his first -- was the highest-ranked Northwestern recruiting class since 247 Sports started tracking Northwestern recruits in 2003. That class, along with the 2015 class and the single commit so far for the class of 2016, features four players that played their high school ball in the Chicago-area, a basketball-rich city that Northwestern hadn't consistently been able to utilize.
Collins has quickly become the new face of Northwestern basketball, representing the program at national charity events and even in Under Armour-arranged golf outings with Jordan Spieth and Steve Spurrier. He has raised the profile of the program already, which surely has pleased both boosters and Phillips.
Proving his worth in the ancillary aspects of coaching is one thing, but they still fall behind on-court success as the primary determination of worth as a coach. It's clear Collins has altered the style in which Northwestern plays both offense and defense, but the degree to which that change has resulted in success is definitely in question. A 29-36 record through two seasons with young teams isn't that bad. There are signs of improvement, but nothing that warrants a declaration that Collins is a coach worthy of making north of $1.5 per year. It is this aspect of Collins' tenure that makes the extension, at least at this point, somewhat questionable.
Collins was brought in to, above all else, bring Northwestern its first NCAA Tournament birth. While far from the field in his first two years, columns like Greenstein's "Signs point to Northwestern's NCAA breakthrough in 2015-16" have perpetuated hope surrounding the program's foremost goals. Yet, from my view, Northwestern still seems to be a longshot to make the NCAA Tournament this season. But there are signs of improvement from 2013-14 to 2014-15 that Phillips could look at to rationalize the extension.
The individual development of veterans such as Alex Olah and Tre Demps has been encouraging as well as the immense promise Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law (in spots) and Scottie Lindsey (in spots) showed in their freshman years.
Still, though, there's no doubt Phillips is betting on the future with this extension because Collins' ability to coach his team to consistent success is still very much in doubt.