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 III of this three-part series discusses Collins’s journey at Northwestern.
The newest coach of Northwestern basketball was getting emotional.
He had just taken the biggest leap of his professional career, and he was coming home to do it. For the previous 13 years, he had been part of one of the most successful teams in all of sports. But things were different now. It was his team. He would be the one leaving a mark on a program. He would be given credit for success. He would take blame for failure.
He knew all of that.
“It’s not about getting to one NCAA Tournament,” a 38-year old Collins said as he fought back tears during his introductory press conference. “It’s about doing more than that, and hopefully one day building a championship program here at Northwestern.”
In that way, Collins was alone. Nobody else was the face of the program, which was new for him. In other ways, Collins wasn’t by himself. He had a wealth of knowledge that he got from Coach Krzyzewski at Duke. More importantly, he had his dad, Doug. Not just as a mentor and a resource, but as a constant cheerleader and supporter. With his parents, wife and kids in attendance, Collins left everyone in the room with a parting message.
“When this situation came about, I felt it in my heart. I felt this was a place that I was needed, it was a place that I could embrace, it was a place that I could believe in. To be able to raise my kids in Chicago, where I grew up, I mean, it’s a slam dunk.”
The buzzer sounded in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Chris Collins and Brian James glanced at each other, and their eyes locked. Both were thinking the same thing. Reality set in. So did doubt.
The two men had talked about coaching together for over 10 years before this moment, but this was not what they pictured — failure would surely be part of the process, but not like this, the two thought. Heading into halftime trailing 40-14 to Wisconsin in their first Big Ten game together was not part of the plan.
“We both looked at each other and said, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ We were literally in shock,” James said. “We went back and we had to just try to convince our team not to lay down and to play hard. We had a lot of work to do.”
The Wildcats fought in the second half, but the outcome of the game was never in question: The Badgers cruised to a 76-49 victory. Northwestern fell to 7-7 on the season, and the toughest part of its schedule was just beginning.
It had been a while since Collins had experienced a season like this one was shaping up to be. Duke lost more than seven games in a season just once while Collins was an assistant coach in Durham. Northwestern would go on to finish 14-19 that season, and Collins knew it could’ve even been worse.
“Maybe the biggest thing that happened to me my first year was Drew Crawford deciding to stay and not be a grad transfer,” Collins said. “I don’t know if we would’ve won any games the whole year if we didn’t have Drew.”
Crawford — who averaged 15.7 points per game and has turned into a successful player abroad — gave the coaching staff cause for optimism. If Northwestern could slow the tempo and limit the number of possessions in each game, it could rely on Crawford to win games late. This formula may have kept scorelines tighter on the whole, but it proved unsuccessful — scheme couldn’t cover up the team’s glaring talent deficiency.
“We thought we could win right away, and we soon found out that there are other great coaches in this league so that wasn’t the case,” James said.
The losses kept coming, including a seven-game losing streak during conference play. Collins had to learn how to lose while he learned how to be a head coach. The hardest part, Collins recalls, was seeing behind-the-scenes progress unmatched by the results on the floor.
“The first things that start to change are the ways the guys work, how they invest in nutrition and strength and condition and extra film work,” Collins said. “We were seeing those things happen, but then maybe not getting the final result with the wins and losses. The last thing that usually turns the corner when you’re changing a culture is the results on the floor.”
Something was different.
The players knew it. The coaches knew it. The fans and the media, well, they didn’t.
There was new bounce in the team’s collective step. Smiles were a little wider. There was an energy — still as locked in as ever.
“There was just a difference in the way the guys were carrying themselves,” Collins said. “They believed they were a good team, they believed we were going to have a great year.”
The previous season had given some reason for optimism — it was the first 20-win season in school history — but part of that win total was because the team’s non-conference schedule ranked in the bottom third in the country in 2015-2016. The team had also just lost its leading scorer and rebounder.
Nonetheless, there was a belief.
“I sensed it right as spring workouts began. We just had a confidence about us that we were good. How we had Vic back, and then Scott really was growing,” Bryant McIntosh said. “We were just just wanting to be better and to do better, and to do that you’ve gotta be a little bit confident and a little bit cocky, and we had that from the get-go.”
That confidence came from the top down. Collins’s message was tireless. It was becoming urgent. But when you say something enough times, you make yourself believe that it’s true.
“I wanna earn respect, I wanna earn everything,” Collins says in the preseason address to the team that commonly appears in the team’s promotional videos. “And I want it with this group. Because you guys have worked, and it’s time.”
The respect came against a fitting foe: Wisconsin.
Three years and a month after the Badgers sent a stunning jolt to Collins and Brian James, Collins’s team sent that jolt to the rest of Big Ten.
Coming off of easily the team’s worst loss of the season — a home loss to Illinois — Northwestern traveled to Madison. Leading scorer Scottie Lindsey was still out, and a ranked Maryland team loomed days later. Wins were getting harder to come by, and the Wildcats needed them at all costs. The thought was creeping in — could Northwestern actually Northwestern away an 18-4 start? Would Lindsey’s injury derail the dream?
With Northwestern leading by nine points entering the second half, Wisconsin scored the first 10 points of the second half to reclaim the lead. That would've been it for Collins’ past Northwestern teams. Not this one. Behind 25 points, seven assists and seven rebounds from Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern got it done. Northwestern 66, Wisconsin 59.
Asked after the game whether or not he thought Sanjay Lumpkin’s dunk on the game’s final play was the right play, Collins said no. But he understood why Lumpkin did it. It was the same reason Collins was jumping for joy on the sideline as the play unfolded.
“At the end of the day, we were all just excited because we knew we accomplished something good,” Collins said.
“Good” might have been the biggest understatement in Northwestern basketball history.
Northwestern’s basketball coach was getting emotional.
He looked into the eyes of those who desperately wanted him to succeed, and he reflected. He reflected on how far everything had come. He reflected on how far he had come.
He stood in front of a crowd with a microphone in his hand, with his family by his side. Tears as heavy as a 26-point halftime deficit wanted to flow.
“Four years ago, we took a chance because it was something we believed could be really special," he said.
It was moment of pure reflection for him, a moment to think. This moment was different from anything Collins had ever experienced, but, in some ways, the same. He likes to reflect.
Walking out on the floor for the Purdue game was one of these moments of reflection.
“I just thought back to when we first started and what it looked like and how we had to work and grind and go through tough times and get our brains beat in and learn how to figure it out and just fight,” Collins said after beating Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament. “I like to do that, because we have worked incredibly hard.”
So much had happened since his introductory press conference at Northwestern. He had signed 12 recruits. He had coached 131 games. He had seen heartbreak. He had seen elation.
His message, though, was the same as that first press conference.
“This is not the endgame,” Collins said to the Welsh-Ryan crowd after his team had been announced as the first NCAA Tournament participant in program history. “This is the beginning of Northwestern basketball."
It was time.