Collins has Northwestern believing
It always begins with the cold. New alumni trickling off the Purple Line "L," young parents carrying toddlers, white-haired die-hards docking old Cadillac boats in reserved parking: No matter who you are or how you get there, the first sensation of attending a Northwestern men's basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena is that bone-shattering North Shore Chicago cold.
This is true of most places during basketball season; they play the game inside for a reason. But nowhere in major college basketball does the futility and depression of winter seep so thoroughly into the gym itself.
That's the next part of the Welsh-Ryan experience, and it hits just as hard. Thing is, Wildcats fans know -- not gut-feeling know, but know know, because after all it is a provable historical fact -- that not only will the Wildcats lose, but they'll do so in a gym half-full with gleeful opposing fans.
The buzzer will sound. Gallows jokes will hit their well-rehearsed marks. Shoulders will shrug and then slump. And then the purple shirts and purple cardigans will empty out into the dark, raw cold, because it's cold in Chicago in January for the same reason Northwestern never goes to the NCAA tournament: That's just how things are.
Eighty years of losing can do that to a place. Honestly, who would want to coach there?
The answer, almost unbelievably, was the right-hand man to the winningest college basketball coach of all-time.
In March, when Northwestern fired 12-year veteran Bill Carmody, it turned its attentions to Chris Collins, then Duke's associate head coach. With minimal drama and almost nil in the way of rumors to the contrary, Collins accepted the job on March 27.
In a matter of two weeks, Collins went from developing pedigreed future pros at the marquee basketball program of the past 30 years -- and spending summers running LeBron James & Co. through USA Basketball practices, no big deal -- to taking responsibility for a program that (true story) experienced its first 20-win season in 2009.
The pertinent, obvious question: Why?
"It was a great fit for me," Collins said. "Maybe not for everybody."
Collins' decision to leave the gilded trappings of Mike Krzyzewski's basketball palace for the low-lying outlands of Welsh-Ryan seems strange at a glance. But Collins was long-rumored to be a potential Carmody replacement for good reason.
The suburban Chicago native (and son of NBA coach Doug Collins) maintained close ties with the area throughout his coaching career at Duke, most obviously for purposes of recruiting. Collins was the key figure in convincing Jon Scheyer, a fellow Glenbrook North standout, to sign with Duke in 2006, despite then-Illinois coach Bruce Weber's recent success and own close ties (Weber's brother, David Weber, is the coach at Glenbrook North) to the program. Evanston, Ill. -- where Northwestern is located -- is a 10-minute drive from Collins' hometown of Northbrook and is of a piece with the North Shore suburbs that surround it. Unless you're from there, you can't tell where one town ends and the other begins.
Seeing the opportunity to build a program from the bottom up and hearing supportive words from the NU brass, Collins was quickly convinced: The time is now.
And the place, believe it or not, was Northwestern -- a school that has never (repeat: never) played in the NCAA tournament.
"I always wanted to have my own program and be my own coach," Collins said. "There were just so many positives about where I was at Duke, I was only going to take a job if it was something I believed in -- if it was something I was really excited to do.
"Meeting with the administration, everybody here is on the same page about really wanting this to be successful. Add in that it's 10 minutes from where I grew up, and all the friends and relationships I still have here -- it's my home. And so the opportunity was very exciting."
"Exciting" is not a frequently used word when it comes to Northwestern basketball, but thus far the reception has mirrored Collins' enthusiasm. Within days of his hiring, Collins was on campus drumming up support among students. He shot a puck at intermission of a Blackhawks game, sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field and received high praise plaudits from Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer, former Duke stars and current Chicago Bulls teammates.
Previously weary (and often hilarious) online fan communities like Sippin' on Purple and Lake The Posts have taken downright gleeful turns, strange emotions previously reserved for Northwestern's recent Pat Fitzgerald-led football turnaround. (A sample subheading from Sippin' on Purple's Rodger Sherman: "First it was hockey. Thursday, it was baseball. WHY ISN'T CHRIS COLLINS PAYING ATTENTION TO NORTHWESTERN BASKETBALL?!?!?!?!?!?!? Oh yeah, he's cool and making people excited about it.")
"You can already feel sort of a buzz around campus," Northwestern senior Drew Crawford said. "It's not just our team. People are definitely embracing Coach Collins."
Of course, excitement accompanies new hires almost as frequently as press conference buzzwords like "culture" and "foundation," and Northwestern fans would probably be excited no matter who was hired, provided he didn't specialize in Carmody's antiquated Princeton offense. Far fewer coaches actually follow through on the initial splash.
In a matter of months, however, Collins has already managed to follow through in a major way. In July, the No. 70-ranked recruit in the class of 2014, Chicago native Vic Law, committed to the program. He represents NU's first top-75 recruit since Evan Eschmeyer in 1993 -- the summer after Collins' freshman year at Duke. Law and his family had been interested in Northwestern for a while, but as Law's father told SI.com in July, they were taken aback by the former staff's take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
"When we went up there to visit [sophomore year]," Law Sr. told SI.com, "Carmody came across as arrogant -- like that the university would sell itself, and either you want to come here or you don't. And I'm saying to myself, 'You haven't won anything!' You had a sour taste in your mouth when you left, and to be honest with you, had Carmody still been there, we never would have considered Northwestern. Not ever. That's how bad it was for us."
Save stylistic inflexibility, the inability to land even modest recruits was perhaps the biggest gripe fans had about the former regime. Carmody inched Northwestern closer and closer to respectability in his tenure, first by winning 20 games in a season for the first time in school history, then by getting the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament conversation for a handful of consecutive years. But the lack of high-end talent always seemed to hold the Cats back. Their admirably overachieving players were too flawed to ever truly break through.
Collins admitted he isn't expecting to compete with his former school for the nation's best players. But he's also unwilling to accept the idea that Northwestern has nothing to offer the wealth of city- and suburb-born talent that floods into college basketball every fall.
"It's like anything else," Collins said. "Unless you give full effort, unless you try, you're not going to get those caliber of guys."
This apparent recruiting rebirth is all well and good, but the new head coach admitted it is just the start of what will surely be a challenging long-term effort. There are no immediate plans to upgrade Northwestern's facilities on the basketball side, for example, though Collins was reassured that the same impetus that spawned plans for a glitzy new lakefront football facility will eventually spill over onto the basketball side. The school doesn't seem likely to drastically lower its academic standards for athletes anytime soon. And one big recruiting summer, or one breakthrough season -- even whole years stacked end on end -- can't wipe away the staggering depth of Northwestern's century-long hoops struggles.
That growth will "eventually take care of itself," Collins said, but in the meantime there is the matter of wins and losses. Most pressing is a 2013-14 season in which Collins will attempt a complete reorientation of a group of players who were recruited by Carmody to play the grinding Princeton offense and a quirky 1-3-1 zone defense. Under Collins, they'll play a more conventional style.
The coach is planning to lean heavily on Crawford, a talented, multifaceted wing who averaged 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per season as a junior (while shooting 41 percent on 3s and finishing with a tidy 111.0 offensive rating). Fellow athletic wing JerShon Cobb, who displayed promise as a sophomore in 2011-12 before receiving a yearlong academic suspension, has also impressed, as has sophomore forward Alex Olah, a relatively unknown 7-foot center thrown into the fire as a freshman last season. The combination of these parts may not be an NCAA tournament team, but it isn't miles off. At the very least, it's one that Collins, who learned from Mike Krzyzewski the importance of adapting one's coaching style to the talent, can work with.
Crawford, who played three years and 10 games under Carmody until an injury robbed him of most of his 2012-13 season, said the summer workout focus has been surprisingly fundamental. As in, the Wildcats are actually working on fundamentals.
"It's a lot of new principles for us -- help side defense, helping your teammates out," Crawford said. "On offense it's just a different style. More ball screens, spacing the floor. We even put in a bit of transition game, too.
"I enjoyed playing the Princeton offense. It's a really unique way of playing basketball. But Coach Collins has brought us back to the fundamentals, and it's brought me back to playing basketball the way I did before I was in college. It's definitely an exciting time."
There's that word again. More than any offensive system or quick recruiting success, that might be the greatest departure from the Wildcats' past: People seem genuinely excited about Northwestern basketball again.
Collins' dream to turn Welsh-Ryan into Cameron Indoor Stadium won't happen overnight. It may never happen. Collins' vision of NU basketball into a "hot ticket" may seem silly to anyone who has suffered the Welsh-Ryan Experience in recent years.
But after decades of irrelevance sprinkled with only occasional -- and brutally rebuffed -- flinches of belief, Wildcats fans can be forgiven for dropping their ritual defenses.
"It's not going to happen overnight," Collins said. "That will be the toughest thing for me. I want to win now. But I also know in the big scheme of things that this is going to take time and work and energy. I'm not afraid to put any of that in.
"But if we turn that corner? If we have sustained excellence? If we get to that place where this is a great environment? This area would love to rally around a college basketball team."
In other words: Maybe it's time to come in from the cold.