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From Coach K to Coach Collins: A Q&A with Northwestern Men's Basketball's Director of Operations Chris Lauten

Lauten and Chris Collins go way back.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

There's so much that goes into a big-time Division I athletics program, and a lot of it, unsurprisingly, gets done behind the scenes. Scheduling travel to games, securing necessary practice and game hours at facilities, and generally making sure that the team is running smoothly are some of those duties that are seldom seen by the average fan.

In the Northwestern sports stratosphere, Chris Lauten does a lot of those things. Lauten is the Director of Operations for the men's basketball team, so those things, as well as directing summer camps and doing various other tasks for head coach Chris Collins, are his expertise.

This season will be an abnormally challenging one for Lauten, given that the team won't be able to play games or practice at Welsh-Ryan Arena due to renovations. We asked Lauten about not having Welsh-Ryan this season, his past experiences with Collins and Mike Krzyzewski, and more in a recent phone conversation.

Note: The questions and answers in the transcript below have been edited for clarity and brevity.

InsideNU: Logistics-wise, how will your practice and gameday routines be affected by the move to Allstate Arena this season?

Chris Lauten: We have been in [Blomquist Recreation Center] for the spring and summer, that is our primary home now. There are a select number of dates that we have in the fall to start to grow accustomed to all that is involved with Allstate — the commute, the facility locker rooms, things of that nature, having meals out there, showering, just going through that routine. We’ll do that a handful of times in late September. Practice officially starts on Friday, September 29th, so it will be between then and the start of the season. We’ve already been in touch with the folks at Allstate to identify some available dates, so we’re just in the process of matching those available dates to our schedule, which is something that this time of the year is sort of used for, that preparation for the preseason.

INU: Are there any things that you can’t do now that you don’t have Welsh-Ryan at your disposal?

CL: I wouldn’t say there’s anything we can’t do. In our previous setup, pretty much everything was either all under one roof or within a couple minute walk from parking to academic services, that’s over at Anderson, to sports performance and athletic training, you know, the weight room, the training room that we use and all of the equipment in those spaces. Plus you have the locker rooms and the two gyms over at Welsh-Ryan and the training table, we’ve got the N club also in that space. We’ve done a good job to make some strides to minimize the timing of being all over the place.

INU: On gamedays, how much earlier do you anticipate the team will have to leave compared to when they were playing at Welsh-Ryan?

CL: That’s still somewhat of a work in progress. Obviously there’s been a previous tenant there, so we’ve been picking of the brains of — whether it’s been me talking to my counterpart at DePaul or Coach Collins talking to the DePaul staff when he’s sees them on the road during recruiting, you get a sense of the types of processes, the protocols that they use. We’re going through and reviewing the ideas that are out there on the table.

For weekday games, we have to be in class like we would normally. It’s not like we can go out there and treat [games at Allstate] like a road games for the whole year. On days that we have weekday home games, it’ll probably look something like leaving around...our guys are in class until 12:50 anyways and our practice time starts after that, so it’ll be something like leaving campus around when we would normally have our practice window start and get there for a shootaround. Pregame meals are always four hours in advance to the tip times. That will be handled when the games are scheduled, and game times are not yet set, so I can’t say we’ll be doing this for that game and that for this game yet. We will bus from Evanston, there and back, and sort of treat that like going to the airport. Last year we played down at the United Center and bused down and stayed at a local downtown hotel so that we weren’t traveling on gameday, so things like that, we’ll pull ideas.

INU: What did the people at DePaul tell you about Allstate Arena?

CL: They strongly encouraged that we get out there in the preseason, talking about October, just to develop that familiarity with the space. We were over there two years ago and played at DePaul, so our staff –- and at least some of our players -– know what that space looks like.

INU: Shifting gears, you went to Duke and were a basketball manager there, what was that experience like?

CL: It was a defining experience for me. I grew up in Florida and played high school hoops, I was a decent high school basketball player and the captain of my team, and a hoops junkie. The combination of academics and athletics and the location [of Duke], it was, for me, a perfect fit. I had an opportunity my freshman year, I went through an interview process to get involved with the program, and from ’03 to ’08 I worked for Coach K and Coach Collins, Coach [Steve Wojciechowski] and Coach [Johnny] Dawkins, and Mike Schrage who was the Director of Operations at the time; he’s now an assistant coach at Ohio State. For me that was where I got my feet wet, where I cut my teeth. Everything that is applied to who I am as a working professional. It developed my work ethic, my value set, my experiences with high-level basketball -– I was not a player obviously, but I was involved at the highest levels for five seasons.

We won a couple of ACC Championships, I was part of a team that went to a Final Four, I was also part of a couple of teams that, by Duke’s standards, really struggled, so I was able to see a lot during my five years. That gave me an incredible wealth of experiences by the time I was 23. Being around a person like Coach K on a day-to-day basis and learning through osmosis — his leadership qualities, his leadership philosophies, picking things up, being around basketball minds like Coach Collins, Coach Wojo and Coach Dawkins and how they articulated the game, how they taught the game — I was a sponge. Like I said, I was a hoops junkie and there was no better crash course than getting my undergraduate degree in basketball from that group of coaches.

INU: How does Coach Collins the assistant compare to Coach Collins the head coach?

CL: Well, I would say the biggest difference is that there’s not as much noon ball being played by Coach Collins. That is kind of how, as a sophomore, I was able to differentiate. When I was a sophomore, we had 16 undergraduate managers, which was, for the coaches alone to remember our names, a task. But for me, starting my sophomore year as someone who played high school hoops, Coach Wojo and Coach Collins played full-court, two-on-two every day for the five years I was there, and probably — he was an assistant there for 13 years — for 13 years. I would argue that every day he was an assistant, he and Wojo would play two-on-two, full-court to 100 points.

For three or four of my five years, I was the Washington Generals to their Harlem Globetrotters; I was the punching bag; I was the designated manager that was thrown to the lions that were Wojo and Collins. They would take it to us, that was their pre-practice regiment. For me, it was the best, I got to see a side of them outside the practice setting, I got to know those guys really well. Coach Collins, with everything that is involved with running a program, he’s not playing two-on-two to 100 as much.

INU: Noon ball?

CL: Yeah, it was at noon, and we would usually practice from 1:30-4:30.

INU: What was it like playing against Collins?

CL: If you see him sometime, ask him. There are some good stories, that I credit being part of the reason why I ended up getting the job I currently have. He won a lot, I’ll put it that way. He had a reputation, and this was the fun part: he is a fiery competitor. And so is Wojo, and I loved that about those guys probably more than anything else in my experience, seeing those guys in that element. I ended up being on the receiving end of a lot of that fire. Coach Collins is an elite talker, I would say, on the court.

INU: What was the process of you getting to Northwestern like?

CL: I left Duke in 2008, that’s when I graduated. From there, I moved over to league operations at the NBA’s league office in New York City. For five seasons I helped manage the NBA D-League, which is now referred to as the NBA G-League. Coach Collins has always been — and will always be — someone that I stay in touch with regarding my career. That was the case even when I was right out of college, and given who he is, his background, who his father is and his connections to the NBA...I was from Orlando, Florida, only a pro team there, so we kind of had a special connection over professional basketball. He was helpful with me in terms of talking through this role at the NBA, and I stayed in touch with him while I was there.

After four or five seasons doing what I was doing, I was starting to put my antennas up, what else is out there? Maybe is there a team level job on the pro side? I was starting to look at some opportunities in that space, and then the stars aligned, and his situation unfolded, and in the spring of 2013, I got a call from him. At my desk in New York City, I was keeping track of the rumors that were going around with regards to him, and when it came out that he was the person the administration [at Northwestern] had in mind, at some point it was my intent to reach out and ask what his thoughts were, but before that I got a phone call from him. He was curious if I was interested in coming to Chicago, coming to Evanston to be part of the staff off the bat and fill this operations role, which has been my background, and it was a no-brainer. He didn’t have to sell me hard.

INU: What are some of your favorite Coach K stories from Duke?

CL: Man, there are so many. There’s not a specific story that comes to mind, but just the environment after a loss, and working through that. I think that was a transition here at Northwestern. When I was at Duke, it was not a pleasant environment [after a loss], that’s what made Coach K so unique. He has an incredible aversion to losing. Part of that is he will not allow players to feel comfortable in a losing environment. Coach Collins has taken pages out of that book. In our second year [at Northwestern], when we lost 10-straight games, that was a test, but, looking back, that’s part of the narrative that has helped us build a toughness, a resiliency, a competitive spirit and edge that is now part of our DNA as a program.

INU: Earlier you mentioned Schrage, who is now an assistant coach at Ohio State after being the director of operations at Duke. Is coaching something that you would be interested in doing in the future?

CL: I would say that is the route that is most common. For me personally, I’m still trying to figure that out. There is so much that goes into the coaching profession, the recruiting probably being the paramount, but there are things I love so much about the college game, you know being around our athletes and developing a program, so I’m open to it. The administrative side, though, is where I’ve been spending a lot of time and developing my skillset, so that’s intriguing as well. I’ve had some experiences on the professional side, so all those avenues appeal to me.

INU: Where were you when Dererk Pardon hit the shot after The Pass against Michigan, and what was that night like for you?

CL: I’ve got two claims from that. So Coach Collins was jumping around, like I have not seen him, and my claim — and the video doesn’t show this — is he was running around like Jimmy V, no one was embracing him, and I sprinted over to him. I didn’t tackle him, but I gave him a very strong hug, so I do think I was the first person to hug Coach Collins after the shot was made, and then our entire staff, within seconds, was all embraced, and that is on the film.

There’s obviously The Pass, and The Shot, but within our program there’s a third moment and that was The Hug. So, after our staff broke, I heard from the crowd someone yelling the name, “Chris!” and I saw Kim Collins, Coach’s wife, sprinting down. My name is obviously Chris, and in the moment of confusion and hysteria I thought she was talking about me, so I sprinted over and embraced her with a big ‘ol bear hug, and it was not the right Chris that she was yelling the name for. There’s a funny exchange where the three of us are in like this awkward triangle hug, and I try to remove myself from the pack. I caught some flak from my group on that.

INU: Obviously, there’s this incredible, magical run to the Tournament, what will you remember most from that run?

CL: The thing that I loved most is that it happened for the two seniors who it happened for. It meant a lot to me. That was our first class, the freshmen when we first got there. Building a program man, it’s so hard. Those guys had to go through so much, and I genuinely love Sanjay Lumpkin and Nate Taphorn. Those are my most favorite people I’ve ever been around. For those two guys to experience that moment, and as seniors, for Sanjay the captain and for Tap, a sort of up-and-down career but to go out with The Pass and the NCAA experience, I mean what an incredible bookend to a career. They gave us so much, and they laid an incredible foundation.

There are two moments that stick out to me. The first is more of a story and the second is more a scene. So we’re in this crazy end to the game against Vanderbilt, and I’m in charge of keeping track of fouls, timeouts, possession arrow and things like that. I sit in the first seat on the bench next to coach James, and the end of the game is happening and [Matthew] Fisher-Davis commits this foul and Coach Collins turns to me and I’m looking at the sheet I use to track this information and in that moment, I’m looking down and I’m like, ‘I screwed up. This can’t be right. Why would he be fouling right now?’ So Coach is asking me, thinking ‘Do I have to draw up a play, sideline out-of-bounds?’ I’m like ‘Coach, we’re going to the free throw line.’ In that moment, for a second, my stomach dropped. Fortunately we sent Bryant McIntosh to the free throw line.

The second thing, we were in the locker room and not on Cloud Nine, but Cloud 900, and it gets real serious –- when Coach is addressing the team, no one is talking, it’s quiet, all eyes and ears locked in on the head coach -– and from the back of the room I’m starting to hear movement and activity and then this this ball of fire, out of nowhere just starts yelling like a fanboy, and my instincts go into operations mode, like ‘we’ve gotta quiet him down,’ and obviously it was Coach Fitz going nuts. The film shows I then snap out of that mode and totally jump into the moment jumping, yelling, fist-pumping. That was cool. It was awesome having [Fitz] there and sharing that moment.