Northwestern is headed to its first NCAA tournament in program history. Under head coach Chris Collins, Northwestern has turned from historic underachievers to history makers in just four seasons. This is the story of how he got the program to where it is today through improving himself, stockpiling talent and changing a culture. Part II of this three-part series discusses the Northwestern fanbase and the atmosphere in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
He envisioned it because he had seen it before.
Chris Collins saw it on March 17, 1992.
As daylight turned to dusk on that mid-March day, Welsh-Ryan Arena filled up, and filled up fast.
Fans packed the arena and its surrounding streets in anticipation, some looking to trade Bulls tickets just for a chance to get in. These were 1992 Bulls tickets — the dynasty-to-be was in middle of their second-straight championship season with a guy named Michael Jordan leading the way — and people were still willing to give them up to secure a seat at a high school basketball game.
But this wasn’t just any high school game, it was the high school game — a Super-Sectional matchup in the Illinois State Tournament between Glenbrook North and Stevenson, the two best teams in Northern Illinois.
Collins, a Duke signee and the Illinois Mr. Basketball winner that year, headlined a Glenbrook North squad coached by current Northwestern assistant Brian James.
The game — played in front of a standing-room only capacity crowd of 8,117 — lived up to every bit of its must-see billing.
It took three grueling overtime periods to separate the two teams, including a three-minute stretch in the second overtime in which Stevenson held the ball the entire time before failing to score. Two late free throws pushed the Patriots past Collins’s Spartans, despite 40 points from the senior.
More than the game itself, the atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan that night stuck with Collins and James.
“It was so loud, and it was an amazing environment,” Collins said. “[Welsh-Ryan’s] unique in the size where everybody’s right on the court.”
“It was one of the most unbelievable nights of my life, even though we lost,” James recalls. “It was so loud. It was kind of like a collision course that everybody wanted to see, and did see.”
A little over 21 years later, Collins walked onto the floor at Welsh-Ryan again, this time with his family at his side. The Northbrook, Illinois native had become the 24th head coach of Northwestern men’s basketball earlier that day.
The gym was dark. Collins looked up to a ceiling bereft of the banners that adorned his previous basketball home — Cameron Indoor Stadium — nearly 629 miles away. He gazed at bleachers once packed with fans desperate to see him play. He saw the past.
And he saw the future.
“I walked in and I remembered this place being loud and sold out and crazy,” Collins said. “I said, ‘You know what, that’s what we need to get to here.’”
To this very day, James says he and Collins still talk about that 1992 game, both with each other and with the Northwestern players. On that night, Welsh-Ryan was the basketball sanctuary they came together over two decades later to build in Evanston.
“Oh yeah, [we talk about it] all the time,” James said. “To dream big.”
Until very recently, being a Northwestern basketball fan was a unique experience. And a lot of the time, it was excruciating. Since the NCAA Tournament began in the spring of 1939, Northwestern had made just seven postseason appearances, all of which were trips to the National Invitational Tournament. Not one time had Northwestern ever played in the NCAA Tournament; no other power conference school can say that.
For Northwestern’s long-tortured fanbase, the extended losing streaks and close losses of the early years of the Collins era weren’t new; these recent moments of failure just added to a laundry list that spanned nearly 80 years. Selection Sundays have come and gone, but the NCAA Tournament has virtually always been more of a distant fantasy than a plausible reality.
ESPN’s Mike Greenberg had been waiting for the Selection Sunday since he started school at Northwestern in 1985.
“I can’t even put it into words, you know? Every single year like everybody else, I work in the sports business of course so I’m particularly attuned to it, but I think the whole country that are sports fans for those weeks get totally caught up in the Tournament. You watch Selection Sunday and you see the camera shots of the students when they find out where they’re going and everybody cheers, and that has literally never been us,” Greenberg told me back in February.
With no true history to lean on, anybody involved with or supporting the Northwestern program had nowhere to look but the future. That’s where the hope was. In the hearts of Northwestern fans — no matter how jaded or worn-out they may be after years of let-downs and heartbreak — there is still an elation, a childhood enthusiasm, an unparalleled joy longing to break free.
“When that day comes that it is us, when they’re unveiling the bracket on CBS and the name Northwestern pops up, I can’t even tell you how that’s gonna feel because it’s never happened,” Greenberg said. “I would imagine I will be unimaginably nervous, but I look forward to it, that’s all I can say. I look forward to that feeling. That’s the feeling that makes sports great.”
The national anthem ended, and a hush fell over the crowd.
A few calm seconds passed. Then, the PA announcer came on to let the Welsh-Ryan Arena know that CBS was about to go on the air.
On the court, Jim Nantz was talking, but the words weren’t really getting through. His iconic voice was muddled in a roar. A roar that did its best to tell every TV set in America one thing: We have arrived.
This moment was a breathtaking punctuation but also a thrilling entrance. This game, the season finale against Purdue, was an entity of its own — nothing in the recent history of Northwestern basketball could compare to it.
It was a sign of something bigger. It signified a growing movement on the North Shore. It was an unmistakable summation of a regular season that was anything but regular. There was an energy, an interest, an excitement — a vibe — that was different.
This re-energized, reinvested fanbase was a direct result of on-court performance. Chris Collins knew that’s what it would take to fill Welsh-Ryan. And that’s exactly what happened.
After years of home supporters generally losing interest while mired in losing season after losing season, student sections were full and games sold out weeks in advance. After seeing just two February and March sellouts in Collins’ first three years combined, Welsh-Ryan saw four this season.
At the Purdue game, students who showed up too late were turned away at the door. Many fans had to stand just to see the game, and there was a tangible electricity in the air. Thunderous ovations followed every basket by the home team.
The increased enthusiasm that had been present all season led to that moment of pandemonium, the pinnacle atmosphere of the season and Collins’s tenure at Northwestern.
“There’s no way there’s ever been a crowd in here like that today,” Collins said after the game. “It was a special day. I mean just, that crowd, it’s everything I dreamed of here.”
Nearly four years after he looked up at the Welsh-Ryan bleachers in a dark gym and envisioned a packed and rocking arena, his vision had become a deafening reality.
That day, the team said goodbye to its home as it is currently known, but it felt like it said goodbye to more. It felt like a farewell to the old Northwestern. With an improved product on the court and a new arena and practice facilities on the way, it feels like the program has turned a corner.
“There’s nothing in sports, or even life, that’s more difficult than changing an unsuccessful culture,” Greenberg said. “And we’re doing it right in front of everybody’s eyes.”