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Northwestern's Chris Collins faces past, future following third season

The Wildcat head coach challenged for "respect" following Northwestern's 72-70 OT loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament.

Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- Chris Collins knows its the end. He sits in the press conference, tears fill his eyes, and those eyes become more and more red. At first, stained red with anger. Now, filled with the recognition of an end.

It's Chris Collins' third end as Northwestern's head coach. Each one gets harder and harder. This one, though, was clearly the toughest. It came at the hands of Michigan (21-11) following a 72-70 overtime loss Thursday afternoon in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Seniors Alex Olah and Tre Demps have left their spots at the press conference table, and Collins is alone. A question is asked and he looks down. He's had to answer this same question time after time over the last few weeks in the lead up to the impending end to his two seniors' careers at Northwestern. He breaths. Collects himself. His fingers tap the table and he looks up.

"For what those guys have done for me the past three years, I could never repay them," he says. "They have given me everything. I feel I have given them everything."

As he speaks, his fingers tap and legs bounce. His head nods and turns side-to-side. Collins is always in motion, fidgeting, rocking, something. Sometimes it's subtle, like a lean. Sometimes it's more pronounced, like when he ripped his suit jacket off in frustration just moments after Wildcat center Alex Olah hit a game-tying desperation shot to send the contest into overtime. He hates to be idle and at a standstill. It's almost as if he'd prefer chaotic movement to peaceful stability. He's become used to the commotion.

It started three springs ago.

"[I] remember what it was like when we had our first team meeting, you know, and you got a new coach, a young coach. It's a little bit in disarray," he says, barely audible with his cracked, broken voice. "And I had a core group of guys, man, that — I had a core group of guys that just believed in me and my staff coming in. All we wanted to try to do was be a continuation."

Collins was brought in to jumpstart a Northwestern program that had begun to stall and stabilize and set it back in motion. To continue, as he says, what former head coach Bill Carmody had built. Now, three seasons removed from a 13-year era that saw some of the most successful seasons in the program's history, Collins sits, struggling with the same challenges that Carmody battled. The biggest struggle — bringing the school its first NCAA Tournament appearance — has become more illuminated than ever.

Wednesday night, Carmody led his 14-19 Holy Cross team through an upset-filled Patriot League Tourney into the Big Dance in his first season with the Crusaders. It's also his first season coaching since he was fired in Evanston. Unprompted, Collins congratulated the former Northwestern head man following his team's loss.

Though probably unfair, it is hard to ignore Carmody's accomplishment in light of this Northwestern season, one in which the program reached the 20-win mark in the regular season for the first time in history. But what's important to Collins now is making sure that this season isn't a plateau or, even worse, a peak on what he calls his team's quest "to climb the mountain."

Collins often references the mountain motif, symbolizing the uphill battle facing his program. Collins used to view those battles — the lack of "his" players on the roster, fewer scholarship players than other teams, injuries, transfers, etc. — as crutches. Now, though, he wears them as symbols of pride, fighting for his team's respect. The "mountain" symbolizes a lot of things for Northwestern, but following the Wildcats' loss to Michigan, it symbolized an attitude, a mentality.

It's no secret that Northwestern's loss probably pushed it out of the NIT and allowed Michigan to sit a bit prettier on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Collins expressed as much during an angry tirade that centered around a non-call on a potential travel on Michigan's Duncan Robinson as regulation wound to a close. Collins turned away from the bench and shouted, "I guess we're trying to get another team in the Tournament."

At he's postgame press conference, he doubles down. "We don't have that brand name on our chest, but you know what? We play good basketball. We're a good team now. I hope people take notice of that. We're a good basketball team and a good program. And we're going to keep getting better and hopefully one day we will be viewed as such."

Collins will coach for the first time next season without Demps and Olah on the roster. Both were recruited by a past regime. Both, Collins says, have bought in wholeheartedly to what his staff sold them. They sold them on being the start of a new type of Northwestern program, one that reaches new heights and accomplishes greater goals. In three years, Collins was not yet able to deliver on those promises, nor did he really expect to. The lack of "respect" that Collins bemoans was also present when Carmody led the program, for example. Yet, as he sits at the press conference table, his vision looks forward while his memories race back. Two equal and opposite forces that, for a moment, put the head coach at a standstill. He's caught, for the first time in his Northwestern career, between the past and future. He is no longer in motion.

"[Demps and Olah] should be really proud of what they have done for our program," he says. "As we move forward, when we do accomplish the things that we want to accomplish, I hope they feel great pride, because they will be a big part of it, a big reason why."

Collins then gets up and shuffles quickly down a set of stairs, regaining his comfort in motion. A black curtain closes behind him as he passes through, officially marking another end and another chance to start again.