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Johnnie Vassar lawsuit sheds light on Chris Collins’s “culture change” at Northwestern

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Collins and Athletic Director Jim Phillips wanted to transform Northwestern basketball. They have, but probably not for the better.

NCAA Basketball: Elon at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

There were grumblings.

If you were around the Northwestern men’s basketball program over the past few seasons, you heard them. Some became louder or more public than others. But mostly, they remained unsubstantiated murmurs.

Until Monday.

Lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar against Northwestern and the NCAA. The complaint details Northwestern’s alleged efforts to force Vassar to transfer from the school and relinquish his athletic scholarship.

The document lays out a number of alleged grievances relating to Northwestern’s handling of Vassar and the NCAA’s rules about student-athlete transfers that, if true, would lead to sweeping changes to the University’s athletics department.

But the fact of the matter is that right now, the allegations made in the lawsuit cannot be proven true or false. No matter how damning they may seem, nothing is certain about the veracity of the allegations.

But, what is undeniable is what has happened within the men’s basketball program in the years since Athletic Director Jim Phillips hired Chris Collins following the 2012-13 season.

Since he stepped foot on campus, Collins spoke inspirationally about changing the culture at Northwestern. He wanted to build a program based on winning, not on a brand known most infamously for failing to reach an NCAA Tournament, a distinction the program still holds after just over three full seasons with Collins at the helm.

He embraced the idea of combining an elite education with an elite basketball experiences, he said. All that he needed was for the basketball to catch up with the academics. He openly admitted it was his goal to reach not just one NCAA Tournament, but to build “sustained success.”

Collins said he wanted pros. He wanted players in his program that wanted to play basketball after college.

For many, it was a welcome injection of life into a stagnated program. Collins wanted to win and he operated his program that way. But, over the years, that idealistic start has led to some potentially dark consequences.

Everything changed, for good and bad.

“[Collins] is a son of a gun,” former Northwestern forward Kale Abrahamson told Inside NU after he decided to transfer following the 2013-14 season. “I think he’s going to get this team wherever… I mean, he will die before Northwestern is not successful. It’s only a matter of time. He’ll do whatever it takes. If he has to get players from SPAC [Northwestern’s on-campus gym] to win, he’ll do it – he said that many times to us. And he’s not kidding.

“He and pretty much every successful coach has this persona of, ‘I’m really charismatic, I’m really cool.’ And they are cool, but behind those doors, it’s a killer. And he’s going to do it. I’m excited. I think he’s going to take this place to the next level.”

It didn’t take long at all for Collins to change the culture of the program. And one of the ways he did it was by radically overhauling the roster he inherited.

It started with Mike Turner leaving the program in December of 2013. That was followed by Chier Ajou’s departure a few weeks later. Then, Abrahamson and walk-on Aaron Liberman left the team. Liberman has since signed a non-disclosure agreement, preventing him from talking about his departure from Northwestern. It was after the following season that Vassar announced he would transfer, which came just months after freshman walk-on Nick Segura left the team.

Aside from Vassar and Segura, all those players came to Northwestern under Carmody. Transferring due to a new coach isn’t at all out of the ordinary in major college hoops. But that pattern became more interesting with Vassar’s departure.

Vassar was a member of Collins’ first recruiting class. He was the fifth and final recruit in the class that also included Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, Gavin Skelly and Scottie Lindsey. He, at least theoretically, was supposed to be part of the foundation upon which Collins would build his vision of Northwestern basketball.

Ironically, it became Vassar, more than any other player, who has come to epitomize this new era for Northwestern’s basketball program.

Collins’ tenure has become an era defined more by question marks and grumblings than wins.

These departures, Collins would probably argue, were all basketball-based decisions. Collins wanted more than anything to improve his roster at once, evidenced by his tendency to take short-term grad transfers, such as Jeremiah Kreisberg and Joey van Zegeren, for example.

And the situation between Collins, Northwestern and Vassar, in essence, is no different. It’s about basketball.

Are there underlying systems within society and college athletics that made what allegedly happened to Vassar possible (or even encouraged)? Absolutely.

But, when looking at Collins, Jim Phillips and the entire athletic department, it’s clear this situation was about how Northwestern could get better at basketball as quickly as possible.

That’s what Phillips got when he hired Collins. It’s why he wanted to hire him away from Duke.

But it’s what made Collins so attractive for Northwestern that has also made him, at least in light of the Vassar lawsuit, so dangerous. And Phillips, both implicitly and explicitly, played a major role in helping Collins shape the program.

Regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit, be it totally debunked, verified or settled, changes will have to be made within Northwestern’s athletics department. Northwestern could very well win this lawsuit, and according to the school’s spokesperson Al Cubbage, the University thinks Vassar’s claim has no “legal merit.”

But the damage is largely done. Some of Collins’s and Phillips’s tactics may be legal, but allowing policies to endure that would even have the potential of doing what Vassar claimed they did to him is reprehensible.

It would be one thing if Vassar were just a single example of a player leaving Northwestern. But it seems more likely that Vassar represents the status quo for what has transpired during Collins’ tenure in Evanston. Vassar’s claims have come at the end of a long line of questions surrounding Collins, Phillips and this men’s basketball program.

The only question left now: Where will it end?